The Netherlands are back at a major tournament for the first time since 2014. Who are the lesser known stars who could light up the tournament for the Oranje as they look to emulate the European Champions of 1988?
It is natural that when an international tournament squad is announced, the majority of the focus is on who has not been included, rather than who has. The scrutiny is even higher when it is your first tournament since 2014, such is the case for the Netherlands following a malaise that saw them fail to reach both the last World Cup and European Championship.
Debate over personnel for the Dutch Euro 2020 squad has stretched right back to last October when their captain Virgil van Dijk suffered a season ending injury that ruled him out of the tournament. It even went beyond the final squad announcement itself, when first choice goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was removed from the squad due to contracting COVID-19, a decision the Valenca keeper was said to be furious about. There has also been much debate about the rationale for leaving two of Europe’s finest young centre backs in the under-21s in Sven Botman, who has been crucial in helping Lille win Ligue 1, and Peer Schuurs, who started almost every game for Ajax in their domestic double.
Nevertheless, there is quality in this Dutch squad – most teams in the tournament would fancy having the likes of Matthijs de Ligt, Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay at their disposal. Yet, amongst the more established names, who are the lesser known stars who could light up the tournament for the Oranje as they look to emulate the European Champions of 1988?
The fabled Ajax talent conveyor-belt has done it again. The 19-year-old central midfielder Ryan Gravenberch is being bracketed pre-tournament as one of the young stars to look out for along with the likes of Phil Foden. Just like the Englishman, he is one of the brightest prospects in European football and looks completely at home on the biggest stage, with a composure and confidence that belies his slender years.
That is perhaps natural after a season in which he rose to become one of the first names on the Ajax team sheet as they cruised to the Eredivisie title and took the KNVB Cup for good measure. His performances ensured he was named as Dutch Football’s Talent of the Year for 2020/21. He plays with a technical ability, aligned with a comprehension of both the attacking and defensive facets of the central midfield role, that could see him become one of Europe’s top box-to-box midfield players.
He only made his international debut in November last year but there is already a clamour for him to be in the first eleven – although realistically Coach Frank De Boer will pair de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum in central midfield. We will most likely see Gravenberch making a real impact off the bench and he is expected to get a lot of minutes of game time. He has already been linked with several of Europe’s biggest clubs, so this tournament is an ideal opportunity to find out why.
Born and bred in Amsterdam, Gravenberch is another poster-boy for a new generation of young Dutch talent unburdened by recent international failures. And his one and only experience of a European international tournament? Winning the Under-17s Championship in 2018…
In the past two Eredivisie seasons, Teun Koopmeiners has scored 26 goals from defensive midfield. Granted he takes penalties, but you’d do well to find another holding midfielder in Europe at the moment with such attacking output as the 23-year-old AZ Alkmaar player.
This summer Koopmeiners, who came through the AZ academy, was expected to be playing in the Under-21s tournament, after playing an integral role in their qualification. However, De Boer couldn’t ignore his form any longer, calling him up for the senior squad despite him having yet to have played a competitive international.
That it was a last minute decision is a surprise. Although he only made his club debut four years ago, Koopmeiners is already captain of his boyhood club, a hint to his leadership abilities as well as his quality, and has played 150 times. As suggested by the attacking stats (which stand at 43 goals and 17 assists in four seasons) he is a very versatile player, which is ideal for tournament football. This includes the ability to operate as a centre back. An excellent passer who always looks to get the ball forward, he is exceptional at breaking up play and launching attacks. Whether it is to unlock tight defences or help repel attacks, he could be invaluable for the Netherlands in the tournament.
The consistently impressive displays have inevitably attracted attention from abroad but for now Koopmeiners deserves particular recognition this summer in the orange of his country.
If you’re an Arsenal fan, you may want to look away now…
After initially signing him for their youth sides, Arsenal sold centre forward Donyell Malen to PSV Eindhoven in 2017. Now, four years later, the 22 year-old has developed into one of Europe’s most promising strikers, amassing 55 goals and 24 assists in three years in the PSV first team. Crucially going into this tournament, he is brimming with confidence and momentum after his most prolific campaign yet and has a very strong case for a starting spot.
With only two international starts to his name, his coach will need to reign in his cautious tendencies if we are to see a fully unleashed Malen. Like many young forwards staking their claim for a place in the first 11, we may see Malen getting the opportunity to play off one of the flanks in support of a central striker. Especially when you sense that De Boer still isn’t quite sure of his best line-up.
With his natural pace, trickery and eye for a goal, not to mention the quality service you’d expect him to get from midfield, Malen could be in for a productive summer. He is said to want a move away from the Eredivisie – the Euros will provide him with the perfect platform to prove why he should get it.
In March 2020, Jurriën Timber made his first-team debut for Ajax. Just 15 months later, the centre half is part of the Netherlands squad for the European Championships and only got his first cap in the pre-tournament friendly against Scotland.
It has been a spectacular rise for the 19-year-old. There is an element of fortune due to injuries for others and the fact that he would have been nowhere near the squad had the tournament not been postponed for a year. However, his fine form this season has justified his inclusion. If the highly rated Botman and Schuurs can’t make the squad, how good does that make Timber?
He isn’t a giant of a centre-back, coming in at only 5’10, but that isn’t really a problem if you’re as technically solid as the man from Utretcht who played with the aforementioned Gravenberch in the U17 success three years ago. He has all the characteristics of your typical Dutch centre half – great on the ball, fast, strong and exceptional at reading the danger unfolding in front of him – and is only going to get better. With the Oranje playing with a back three recently, his chances of starting have increased. Indeed he started both of their pre-tournament friendlies on the right of three centre backs.
Often young players are selected for tournaments just for the fun of the ride and to get a bit of experience of being part of the big time. You can’t help but feel that Timber may end up having a much more vital role as the tournament progresses.
Another AZ Alkmaar talent, Owen Wijndal recently confidently stated that he is the best left back in the Netherlands. By the end of this tournament, could we be describing him as one of the best in Europe?
In two seasons in the AZ first team, Wijndal has racked up 100 appearances and been one of their most consistent performers. At only 21 he is already club vice-captain. If you were to describe the modern-day full-back, you’d be pretty much describing Wijndal. He is as dangerous whipping in crosses in the attacking third as he is effective in stopping opponents in the defensive one. At AZ, he is also sometimes utilised in a more inverted full-back role, in which he steps across to cover in central midfield.
Interestingly, he has represented his country at every level starting with the Under-15s and is now by far the Netherland’s first choice left back, despite only making his international bow in September last year. His energetic, attacking style suits De Boer’s wing-back system, as seen by the fact he has started in all of the Oranje’s last 8 matches.
If the Netherlands are to make real progress at this European Championship, the performances of their number 5 Wijndal will be key. You can add his name to the list of quality left-backs at this tournament.