The Netherlands finished Group C with a flourish, defeating North Macedonia 3-0 to secure a third win from three games. What are the main insights to take from the performance?
It may have been a dead-rubber, with Group C already won, and it may have been against a weaker opponent, but this was still an important performance from the Netherlands. A 100% record remains with eight goals scored and just two conceded, showing both a sharpness up front and a robustness at the back. On this occasion a first-half goal from Memphis Depay and two in seven second-half minutes from the irrepressible Georginio Wijnaldum ensured an enjoyable night for the 12,000 mainly Dutch fans inside the Johan Cruijff ArenA.
As the group stage has progressed this team has got stronger and their performances more assured. They look a cohesive, well-drilled group under Frank de Boer. No one will fancy coming up against them in the second round, with the Dutch due to move from Amsterdam to Budapest for their next game on Sunday.
Here are our main talking points from this latest impressive display from the Oranje:
Main man Memphis
If neutrals needed any further evidence of the jewel in this Dutch crown then they got it in this match. Earlier in the group Memphis Depay didn’t quite reach the heights expected of him, although he did score a penalty against Austria. Yet in this contest he showed all of the qualities that have convinced Barcelona to sign him.
He was at the eye of the Dutch attacking storm, either laying on chances for colleagues or being on the end of them. He opened the scoring with a finish that was coolness personified, got the assist for the second and it was his parried shot that ended up with the third. His recent international record of nine goals and five assists in his last 12 games is exceptional. That he doesn’t really have an obvious position is testament to his quality – he is a threat pulling out wide, running in behind or dropping deep to link up the play. Indeed it was pleasing to see his connection with Donyel Malen, who we said after the Austria game needed to be given a run alongside Depay. The modern Memphis is a different beast to the one who played for Manchester United. With him up front, the Dutch will always stand a chance.
Kings of the counter
If the win over the Ukraine displayed an unrelenting will to attack, and the triumph over Austria showed an ability to contain and control, this last victory evidenced another useful characteristic for the Netherlands – an ability to counter-attack.
On paper, you would not have expected this to be a match in which such a tactic would be necessary but the first half was very even. The finest of offside margins denied North Macedonia the lead, whilst the tournament debutants also hit the post. The Netherlands at times sat deap but then showed they have the ability to devastatingly spring from defence into attack. The pace of Depay, Malen, Wijnaldum and Denzel Dumfries, aligned with the laser-accurate passing from deep from the likes Frenkie de Jong, Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt, means the Netherlands have the ideal personnel to execute this kind of tactic.
This ability to change styles requires a tip of the hat to de Boer and his coaching staff. To do well in a tournament you need to find different ways to break down opponents and what this match showed is that this group of Dutch players has several.
Gini out of the bottle
Those who will have watched Gini Wijnaldum’s many successful years at Liverpool would probably describe him as an energetic, versatile midfielder who excels at the fundamentals a top-level player needs in the middle of the pitch. Few would refer to him as a clinical number 10 but that is exactly what he has become for the Netherlands, as was clearly shown in this match with two well taken goals to add to his opener against Ukraine. At time of writing he is joint leading goal scorer for the tournament. Who would have predicted that after the group stages?
Followers of the Oranje may have done so. Indeed, since the start of 2019 the Netherlands captain has 16 goals and six assists in 26 appearances for his country. What’s more, he now has seven in his last ten matches, meaning he is in fine form just at the right time for this competition.
The importance of de Roon
Sometimes it takes for something not to be there in order to realise its importance. Against North Macedonia, the Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon was one of the few from the first-choice 11 rested. And in the first-half at least the effect of his absence was clear.
In a midfield and attack full of flair, it’s easy to not acknowledge the vital work done by defensive midfielder de Roon. His screening of the defence and simple breaking up of the play is the foundation from which de Jong and Wijnaldum can be freed up to do their damage further forward. In this game, the highly talented youngster Ryan Gravenberch started in the middle with de Jong but sitting deep is not his natural game, which was evident from some of the intelligent runs and flicks he showed in the opposing penalty area. If the Netherlands make it into the quarter-finals the focus is likely to be on these thrilling attacking players but de Roon will be at the core of any success.
de Boer’s selection gamble
Ultimately it did not matter but there were many raised eyebrows and nervous stomachs when it was revealed that Frank de Boer had selected what was very close to a first choice 11 for a game in which the result ultimately didn’t matter, with the Dutch already through as group winners.
After making his full allotment of ten substitutes across the previous two games, it was expected that de Boer would protect his starters and give his reserves some useful game-time. An injury to one of de Ligt, de Jong, Wijanldum, Depay or even Dumfries in a dead-rubber match would have been catastrophic. Yet he made just two changes before eventually making changes in the second half, with the assumption being that priority was given towards building momentum and continuing form ahead of the next round. As shown by the impressive result and performance, it was a gamble that paid off.