Euro 2020: Netherlands v Ukraine – what we learnt

What were the key talking points for the Netherland’s after their 3-2 win?

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If the Netherlands’ opening game of Euro 2020 was the first you have seen of the Oranje since their last tournament seven years ago, you’d naturally assume the end-to-end attacking style is the default approach for Frank de Boer’s men. You’d be wrong. The chaotic game in Amsterdam was both thrilling and unexpected in its nature, based on de Boer’s naturally conservative inclinations, and showed numerous positives and a couple of negatives for this Dutch side. 

All that matters in the first game of a tournament is to get the three points. It was mission accomplished in that sense, even though there was a fair dose of drama after a 2-0 lead was thrown away in a matter of minutes before a late winner from Denzel Dumfries that sent the majority of the Johan Cruijff ArenA into raptures. 

So what were the main talking points for the Netherlands from their opening Euro 2020 game?

The defence need de Ligt back – and fast

We often don’t realise how important something is until we don’t have it and that’s how the rest of the back three in de Boer’s much discussed 3-5-2 must have felt without Juventus star Matthijs de Ligt. 

The starting defence of Stefan de Vrij, Daley Blind and the talented yet immensely inexperienced Jurriën Timber never looked totally in control and often stretched by the Ukrainian counter-attacks. The Dutch missed de Ligt’s composure and leadership at the back, which was glaringly shown in the poor marking for Ukraine’s equalising goal, a free header from a set-piece. Without the right personnel an unstable back three can very quickly damage the whole shape of a team and leave the attacking players isolated, so de Ligt’s passing ability and pace to cover the flanks is invaluable. If they are to make real progress in the tournament the Netherlands need their main defender back quickly.

Photo: Hindustan Times

Defensive shape, attacking output

The mainly negative talk of the town in the Netherlands pre-game was about de Boer’s tactical emphasis on ensuring his side are defensively stable. However, in this game they looked far more dangerous going forwards than resolute at the back despite having five defenders on the pitch, contributing to the electric tempo reminiscent of an NBA basketball match. 

If this game is anything to go by, the Netherlands are set to entertain us a lot more than we originally thought. The ease in which the opposition was able to bypass the three-man midfield was concerning. Nevertheless, seeing Frenkie de Jong and Captain Georginio Wijnaldum liberated to break into the final third with and without the ball added an intriguing attacking dimension. Indeed, the opening goal came from the new PSG midfielder arriving late in the box. Whether de Boer sticks with his on paper defensive shape, and how he continues to use de Jong and Wijnaldum, are both interesting sub-plots in the next games against Austria and North Macedonia. 

Photo: TEAMtalk

Home comforts could be key

We have stated before on these pages that the Netherlands playing all of their group games at home in Amsterdam could be vital and the victory over Ukraine only strengthened this perception. 

Even with the Johan Cruijff ArenA at less than half capacity, the atmosphere was fantastic and you could sense it giving the men in orange that little crucial extra percent of energy. One wonders how they would have responded after being pegged back to 2-2 in a ground filled with more opposition supporters, or none at all as has been the case for much of the last year. Momentum, and the confidence it breeds, is everything in tournament football and if this home advantage can play even a small part in driving the Netherlands towards three wins out of three in their group, who knows where it might take them?

Photo: RTE

Depay’s ideal fold

If the neutral needed any further confirmation over who the star of this team is, then they got it within the first five minutes when Memphis Depay came deep to take the ball and breezed past several players before testing the goalkeeper. The excitement as soon as he touched the ball was obvious. The striker rumoured to be joining Barcelona has to be firing if the Netherlands are to do well. That it didn’t matter that he didn’t find the back of the net in this match though was due to his new partner up front – Wout Weghorst.

The giant VfL Wolfsburg striker not only scored, held up the ball well and ran the line hard all match but also crucially drew Ukraine’s central defensive players towards him, opening up space for Depay. His energy in pressing the opposition defence is also invaluable and takes some of that particular burden off Depay. The days of the big and little centre forward pairing looked long over but this could be a new, and effective, modern interpretation. 

Photo: Jinda News

Decision to be made on the left 

It was a surprise to see Patrick van Aanholt being picked at left-wing back ahead of Owen Wijndal. The former recently lost his first-team place at Crystal Palace, whilst the latter has just come off the back of a brilliant season with AZ Alkmaar and is the more natural attacking full-back

The Dutch looked strong on the right-hand side and on another day Dumfries, playing as right wing-back, could have ended up with at least another goal to add to his winner. The result was an imbalance in which they were far too reliant on attacks down one side. With the slower Blind playing on the left of the defensive three, it may be that van Aanholt was there to offer more protection to the Ajax man. In the end, both were replaced with Wijndal coming in on the left wing.

If de Boer persists with wing-backs for the game against Austria – and there seems no reason why not to after this win – it would surely make sense to bring in the flying Wijndal, a player far more suited to the role.

Photo: Getty Images

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