They may be missing Virgil van Dijk but there are several reasons why Holland can emulate the triumphant European Championship winners of 1988
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An international tournament just doesn’t feel right without the Netherlands. From the bright orange kits to the equally vibrant fans and the traditionally expansive football.
It is a sensation that we’ve had to experience for the last two major competitions though, where the Oranje were the notable absentees as they failed to reach either Euro 2016 or the 2018 World Cup.
Both were enormous shocks and the ultimate indicators of an enormous slump for the land of Total Football and provider of many a famous international moment – think Marco Van Basten’s volley against the Soviet Union (below), Dennis Bergkamp’s poetic touch and emphatic finish against Argentina or Robin Van Persie’s gravity-defying diving header against Spain to name but a few.
After finishing as runners up to Spain at the 2010 World Cup and reaching the semi-finals in South Africa four years later, the Netherlands found itself on a downward slide that they could not halt. International stalwarts had moved on and a new generation of players were not ready. Coaches came and went, unable to spark a revival. During this period they dropped to their lowest ever FIFA ranking of 36.
Yet since then the spiral has been arrested and the Dutch are on the up again, qualifying for Euro 2020, in which they surprisingly finished their group just two points behind Germany, and reaching the final of the inaugural UEFA Nations League. And, despite the blow of losing Ronald Koeman as Manager to Barcelona and captain Virgil Van Dijk to injury, the outlook is still looking far better going into the re-scheduled tournament this summer.
When you hear pundits and journalists weighing up the favourites for Euro 2020, the Netherlands are not part of the conversation. Here are the main reasons why they should be…
A goalscoring talisman
It doesn’t matter how much planning you go through, how deep your squad is or how lucky you are with injuries, a side generally will not go far in a tournament without an in-form goalscorer. A talisman who can produce a moment of magic or be on hand to scramble home a scrappy winner. Look at Harry Kane for England in 2018, Antoine Griezmann for France in 2016 or Thomas Muller for Germany in 2014.
The Netherlands have that player in Memphis Depay. He has been the star of the side since Koeman initially took over, transferring his consistently prolific form for Lyon in Ligue 1 to the international arena. The man who failed to make the cut at Manchester United is a prime source of goals and assists for club and country. He was involved in 23 of the 43 goals scored by the Netherlands in the Koeman era, scoring six goals and making a further eight during Euro 2020 qualification. This season he hasn’t missed a league game for Lyon, with 15 goals and 9 assists and counting, and despite a penalty miss in the recent defeat to Turkey, has four goals and 3 assists in his last ten international appearances heading into this summer.
A lot will depend on new coach Frank de Boer, who has remarked that Depay is ‘a player who has everything’, reversing his strange decision to use Depay out wide, with him being far more potent down the middle. If the Netherlands are to thrive this summer they need an in-form Depay – right now they have it.
The young generation is ready
Any side goes through periods of transition. Some take longer than others and that has certainly been the case with the Netherlands. The talent pool was always there, it just wasn’t quite ready to begin leaving its mark.
That isn’t the case now. The Dutch have a new generation of players unburdened by past failures and motivated by future successes, led by not one but two of Europe’s finest young players in Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, who have been excelling for Juventus and Barcelona respectively. They will be at the core of this Dutch side. It is not an exaggeration to say that any international coach would want them in their team.
Beyond that, 21 year-old AZ defender Owen Wijndal has established himself at left-back, whilst striker Donyell Malen is currently the joint-second top scorer in the Eredivisie with 15 goals, as well as six assists. There’s also the exciting Ryan Gravenberch, who at only 18 is already a regular with Ajax and has been described as ‘the next Patrick Viera’ by de Boer. It’s also easy to forget that Donny van de Beek and Steven Bergwijn are still only 23 years of age.
None of these players have appeared in a major international tournament before. This can of course work both ways. Yet, blended with experienced heads such as Georginio Wijnaldum, the Netherlands could well have the ideal balance between canny campaigners and exuberant newcomers to achieve success.
Being able to cope without van Dijk
Let’s be clear – no team can properly fill the shoes of a world-class defender like Virgil van Dijk. The Netherlands are certainly worse off without him. The knee-jerk reaction to his knee-damaging injury was to simply write-off any Euros hopes for the Dutch but he hasn’t actually been as sorely missed as expected. In the six games without him, the Dutch have only conceded two more goals than France, Belgium and Spain and fewer than Germany. And even then over half came in the crazy 4-2 defeat to Turkey.
Despite the Van Dijk void it says something for the depth of the Dutch squad that two of the most sought-after young central defenders at present, Perr Schuurs and Sven Botman, are currently playing in the Under-21s tournament. The coming Euros could be the moment when de Ligt stakes his claim as one of the world’s best and Stefan de Vrij is a more than suitable partner, having been one of Inter Milan’s most consistent performers for several seasons. If he can overcome an ankle injury, Daley Blind has also been very consistent in the position for his country. In the Premier League, Manchester City’s £40m Nathan Ake may have been lacking in game time due to injury but can now be fresh and ready, whilst Joan Veltman has proven himself a reliable and versatile option at Brighton & Hove Albion and has nearly 30 international caps.
Defensive weakness in the absence of Van Dijk was predicted to be the Netherlands downfall. Yet with many strong options to step-in, should we really be writing them off?
The luck of the draw
We all know anything can happen in international football. Remember how Spain and Germany were each knocked out in the World Cup Group stage as defending champions? Nevertheless, the way the cards fall for you in terms of your potential pathway to the latter stages is still crucial. For the Netherlands, those cards have landed favourably.
They are expected to top a group that involves Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia. On paper these are all fixtures they should be winning, providing crucial confidence and momentum going into the knockout rounds. It is still unclear how many fans, if any, will be in attendance but the fact that all of their group games are set to be played at their home ground, the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam, is also advantageous.
Win their group and England, Spain and France can only be met in the semi-finals (unless the current World Champions surprisingly finish third in their group). Different permutations could see a challenging confrontation against Portugal or Germany in the second round, a challenge but a huge opportunity to put out a major opponent – especially with the latter’s current problems. Then it could be one of Turkey, Denmark or Russia waiting in the quarter-finals – tricky but not fixtures that will strike fear into the Oranje supporters.
Making predictions on results is a tricky task considering the unpredictable nature of football but you can bet that de Boer and his coaches will have checked their potential route forwards. And they will like what they see.
A level playing field
There is always an outright favourite going into the European Championships and this time it is France. After that though, all of the frontrunners still have problems to resolve or question marks in certain areas as the tournament looms large. It is a relatively level playing field.
One can never dispel Germany but they are in one of their toughest periods in decades, recently suffering their heaviest ever defeat and losing to North Macedonia. In terms of talent, Belgium are incredibly strong but, Kevin de Bruyne aside and if Eden Hazard is injured, do their players have the necessary big trophy-winning experience and temperament? The current holders of the Henri Delaunay Trophy, Portugal, have depth and quality but are they still too reliant on Cristiano Ronaldo? For the past year Italy have been on a great run but their squad clearly lacks experience, whilst Spain are in transition and therefore inconsistent. And despite their attacking talents, England still seem unclear on how they want to play and have traditionally crumbled under the weight of expectation. You could even question whether France really have the same quality as the famous side they’re trying to replicate, who simultaneously held both the World Cup and European Championships at the turn of the century.
This tournament is one of the most difficult to call in years. In this context, why can’t the Netherlands go all the way?
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