The countdown to Qatar 2022 is on – yet the Oranje are currently heading there without a recognised centre-forward. What exactly is the problem facing Louis van Gaal?
The Netherlands has a rich history of world-class strikers – from Robin van Persie to Ruud van Nistelrooy, Patrick Kluivert, Dennis Bergkamp and Marco van Basten. The list could go on. And it is this history which makes the current incarnation of the Oranje, headed once more by Louis van Gaal, so puzzling.
For all the talent, including players such as Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong, along with emerging diamonds such as Ryan Gravenberch, the deep well of prolific Dutch centre forwards has run dry. There is an ongoing drought for just the type of player that the Dutch have previously been famous for, with attempts to fully solve the problem so far proving only a mirage.
Soon they will be in a real desert, when the Qatar World Cup arrives this winter. Time is of the essence if they want to find a solution, with just six games to play before their opening match, including an exciting Nations League Group containing Belgium, Poland and Wales.
The Netherlands did look pretty handy in front of goal in the group stage of Euro 2020 and have only failed to score once in eight games since that tournament. However, World Cup’s are a different kettle of fish – teams will rarely go far without a genuine goalscoring option leading the line.
The Depay and Bergwijn conundrum
One big issue is that the main attackers the Netherlands rely on for goals are hardly making waves domestically. Step forward Memphis Depay and Steven Bergwijn.
There is no doubt that Depay is a crucial player for his country. He could well break van Persie’s national record of 50 goals, with the PSV Eindhoven graduate already on 38 from 75 appearances. The issue is that Depay is currently struggling for game time at Barcelona. He has started one match since December, in part due to injury, but more worryingly because Barca are now flying without him with the new attacking toys they signed in January. There has even been talk of him leaving this summer, which would be disappointing after the excitement of his arrival.
Similar befuddlement surrounds Bergwijn, who like Depay originally lit up the Eredivisie with PSV. In the famous orange national shirt he has been in superb recent form, with five goals and an assist in his last three appearances. Yet in the Premier League he has only played 90 minutes twice all season for Tottenham Hotspur. Flashes, such as his dramatic two late goals against Leicester City, have shown he can be an effective leader of the line. Like with Depay, the problem is the lack of game time.
Yet on top of this, neither of these players are natural strikers, with Bergwijn most effective using his pace running from deep, especially during counter-attacks. Meanwhile, Depay is one of today’s typical hybrid attackers, a shape-shifter floating across the front line to find gaps to exploit. The two played up front together in the recent friendly win against Denmark and both scored. Nevertheless, once the World Cup comes around, can the Dutch really rely on them for goals if they are not in their natural positions, and worse, hardly playing for their clubs?
The lack of a dynamic lone forward
Some sides can opt for a dynamic target man on his own who – as well as being a goal threat – can link the play well, show an impressive passing range and stretch defences via runs in behind or intelligent movement dropping deep.
The main current applicants for this role for the Netherlands are Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst, who each found the net recently for Barcelona and Burnley respectively. They can, in certain circumstances and in specific tactical set-ups, prove effective options. However for their country it just hasn’t worked out – they cannot offer what van Gaal needs from a lone forward, which is one of the reasons for the persistence with a back 3 formation which enables him to play two inverted wingers up front.
In a World Cup year, de Jong has no international goals since March 2021 and hasn’t appeared in the two squads since Euro 2020, a tournament in which he made only two late substitute appearances. Last summer, Weghorst arrived at the Euros as a bulldozing dark horse, having had only one 27 minute cameo previously. It started well, getting a goal against Ukraine playing alongside Depay, yet his impact petered out and by the end he was on the periphery of the squad along with de Jong. At present, neither seem genuine options for van Gaal’s.
Alternatives lacking big-time experience
Talented individuals have to gain their experience somewhere, but is a World Cup the best arena for it to happen? One option strangely overlooked by van Gaal in recent squad’s is PSV’s Cody Kapko, who could end up reaching more than 40 goals and assists this season and has just fired his team to a KNVB Cup win over Ajax. An exciting, pacey forward adept at cutting onto his natural right side, Gapko is a real talent and has captained his club. Yet he is still only 22 and completely inexperienced at international level.
A similar assessment could be given to Donyell Malen, who made an exciting move to Borussia Dortmund last summer. His time in Germany has so far not really taken-off and, although 4 goals in 19 for his country sounds respectable, half of those have come against Gibraltar. The former Arsenal Academy product showed his raw potential at the Euros. The fact he is still learning the ropes of playing in the biggest, most pressurised environments was also just as evident.
Over in Spain, Arnaut Danjuma is having a strong first season for Villarreal including six Champions League goals, but he has a grand total of 13 minutes of international football. Another recent call up is Noa Lang, who has been performing well domestically for Club Brugge but to say he is inexperienced internationally would be an understatement. Can any of these players really shoulder the World Cup goalscoring responsibility? Or at least share it with Depay?
And there’s one final point with all four of these options. All but Malen are wingers, and even then there are debates about whether he is more effective starting out wide, as many young forwards first do.
In an age of Pep Guardiola inspired ‘false 9’ teams and Jürgen Klopp shaped, rotating ‘rock and roll’ front lines, we perhaps have come to neglect the importance of a free-scoring, traditional striker. There are possible World Cup options for van Gaal, if he can find a suitable system to maximise an abundance of effective wider attackers at his disposal.
Nonetheless, whether the Netherlands in their current guise can realistically go deep into the tournament is a pertinent question.
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