The 2020 European Championships were delayed a year but were well worth the wait. Not, however, if you were a supporter of the Netherlands. After such a great start, why did it all so quickly unravel for the Dutch?
As fans of the likes of Italy, England and Spain start to perk themselves up for the return of domestic football like a stag group trying to get over a hangover from the night before, the return of club action couldn’t come quickly enough for supporters of the Oranje desperate to forget about a deeply disappointing end to their summer.
After waiting seven years for an international tournament – the Netherlands having failed to qualify for Euro 2016 or World Cup 2018 – it would be an understatement to say the overriding feeling was of disappointment at being surprisingly sent packing by the Czech Republic in the second round.
International tournament football is like a game of snakes and ladders. One minute you look like you’re on a steady upward trajectory, then all of a sudden one mistake or piece of misfortune and you’re tumbling back down to square one. During a brilliant group stage, the Dutch looked like real contenders, winning all three games and scoring more goals than anyone else. They were very much climbing the ladder. Yet one needless Matthijs de Ligt handball and red card later and they were saying ‘tot ziens’, tumbling down and off the board altogether before the game had even entered its final stretch.
With the dust now having settled, and Frank de Boer having already been relieved of his duties, what exactly went wrong for the Netherlands?
A defining feature of the most successful teams is the capacity to deal with pressure moments and adversity, with experienced leaders settling nerves, relaxing bodies and focusing minds. Just look at the role of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci for eventual winners Italy.
With their backs against the proverbial wall for the first time in the tournament against the Czech Republic, these leaders were conspicuous by their absence for the Netherlands. The impact of a missing Virgil van Dijk, who would have been captaining the team had it not been for the year delay, was really felt. In the group stage, the Netherlands were never really under any real pressure other than when briefly being pulled back to 2-2 against Ukraine. The cool heads then failed to materialise when they were later needed in the tournament. Looking back, even though they were a man down, they never really looked like taking back control and recovering the situation against the Czechs. Composure was severely lacking. Rather than going out with a bang they provided only a whimper.
The failed de Boer experiment
As a fan, can you imagine going into an international tournament with a manager you don’t really want? That might seem a little unfair on Frank de Boer, who had some support in quarters, but almost from the off the majority of fans were not happy with his appointment to replace Ronald Koeman last year, despite his fantastic career for the national side as a player.
The main reason for this was not necessarily his previous struggles in club management but his perceived naturally conservative and negative tactical tendencies deemed completely at odds with the Dutch rich history of attacking ‘total football’. His move to a back five hardly improved hopes for supporters, to the extent that someone reportedly flew a plane over a training session the day before their final game, asking him to ditch the tactic.
The group stage results seemed to suggest de Boer had got it right, yet when it came to the crunch his cautiousness was exposed. There was no risk taking when a goal and a man down against the Czechs, no change in shape and he removed Donyel Malen, the one man who had been looking threatening. There were more than a few raised eyebrows when de Boer barely rested anyone for the final group game, a dead rubber with the Dutch already confirmed as group winners, and that also proved costly – the men in orange lacked energy as well as ideas as the game wore on. It is not surprising de Boer was shown the door just a few days later.
Young stars will shine brighter
The Netherlands squad had several highly talented players but it’s easy to forget how inexperienced the group was in terms of high-pressure international competition. For example, despite their obvious quality, were they over-reliant on de Ligt (21) and Frenkie de Jong (24 only in May)? Minutes before handball-gate Mallen, only 22, should have put the Oranje in front. In their opening game, Jurien Timber at only 20 years old started merely his third international. And, whilst he had a terrific tournament, Denzel Dumfries is still only 25 and had yet to break 20 international caps pre-tournament. Remarkably even Memphis Depay, widely viewed as their most important player, had just one tournament start to his name going into the competition.
The positive for the Netherlands is that these players will have learnt a lot from this experience. If they can make it to the World Cup next winter, which is by no means guaranteed in a close qualifying group, one would think they will be in a far better position to deal with the turbulence of knock-out football.
The hole up front
Robin Van Persie. Ruud van Nistelrooy. Patrick Kluivert. Marco van Basten. These are just three of the world-class strikers who have led the line in tournaments past for the Netherlands. The cold hard fact for the current Dutch side is that they are severely lacking a centre forward of such quality.
The once in a generation Spain side from 2008-2012 reinvented the attacking game without an out-and-out central striker, but history tells us that if you don’t have a main man up front in tournament football then you will struggle. The goals scored in their first three games masked an uncomfortable truth for the Netherlands.
Of the forwards who were part of the squad, only Wout Weghorst would be categorized as an out-and-out central striker but the fact he has just 10 caps at the age of 28 suggests he was always a short-term fix, not a long-term solution. The previously mentioned Depay and Malen are more wide attackers who like to drift around the attacking third. In the 12 months before the Euros the only other natural striker picked for a squad was AZ Alkmaar’s Myron Boadu, who has only been capped once.
In the game that knocked them out, the Dutch badly needed someone more effective and experienced at holding up the ball, making space for others and getting in the box. No matter the quality elsewhere, a new focal point up front is required if they are to be successful again.
Big names going missing
Go through the list of tournament winners and you’d do well to find a side that did not have at least 2 or 3 big players who stepped up to the mark when it really counted as the team progressed.
Unfortunately for the Netherlands this just didn’t happen when they needed them most. Did having such a comfortable group ultimately work against the Dutch? The obvious fall guy was de Ligt, whose moment of madness saw him correctly given his marching orders, but there were other culprits. Indeed, Georginio Wijnaldum had been vital for everything good the team had done in the group but by half time in their final game he had made just four passes and had 13 touches of the ball. That was before the red card. It was noticeable that most of the big chances for the Netherlands fell to the younger and far less experienced Malen, rather than Depay, whilst de Jong got nowhere close to controlling the midfield in the way he does for Barcelona.
Rather than having a brief interlude to put the pieces back together, the Netherlands need to find solutions and fix the puzzle quickly. The rest of their World Cup Qualifiers are set to come thick and fast this year, with one point currently separating four teams.
Keep your eyes on the Oranje in the coming months.