The usual suspects are being tipped for glory yet the Dutch have crept, gradually and unassumingly, into contention
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Is there a better footballing nation never to win a World Cup than the Netherlands?
The long relationship between the Oranje and football’s most famous trophy has had more highs and lows than a malfunctioning seismograph. Rarely have they gone into a tournament without a team brimming with talent as bright as the masses of orange shirts that loyally accompany them.
Yet the reliable conveyor belt of quality has never been able to untangle itself from the equally reliable inability to deliver when it matters most. Amongst the rows of ornaments on the shelf, the Netherlands has frequently been the most appealing to look at but the easiest to crack.
The last decade or so sums up the Dutch team’s relationship with the World Cup in a microcosm. A side that paled in comparison to previous incarnations reached the final in 2010, losing to Spain in extra-time. Then, four years later during the ‘Louis van Gaal Holland Version Two’ era, they finished third after being beaten by Argentina in the semi-finals. That contest over eight years ago was their last World Cup appearance, after failure to qualify in 2018. This itself followed an equally damning failure to reach Euro 2016. The Dutch ‘Total Football’ had become a total embarrassment on the international stage.
Yet, despite a disappointing Euro 2020, just over a year later a new Netherlands, under the stewardship of van Gaal for a remarkable third time, have crept gradually and unassumingly right under our noses into contention.
Experience tells us not to get ahead of ourselves when it comes to the Netherlands. However, there are some genuine reasons as to why they should be taken seriously in Qatar.
The form book
Momentum and good form isn’t a necessity before a World Cup – there are just too many variables at play that can influence proceedings – but it is undoubtedly important. And the Dutch currently have it in abundance. The Nations League may be sniffed at but the recent games and those over the summer were strategically key before the World Cup. And whilst the likes of Germany and France could only muster one win apiece over six matches, and England none at all, the Netherlands went undefeated with five wins. This included two impressive performances over Belgium, ranked 2nd in the world, notably a 4-1 thrashing in Brussels. They will be one of four teams in the Nations League Finals next summer.
Going back further, the Netherlands have now gone 15 matches unbeaten, winning 11, scoring 41 and conceding 13. Of the top 15 teams in the world, none has added more points to their ranking than the Dutch. When not playing to their desired level, they have still been able to win (always a sign of a strong side) and have been playing some wonderful football to boot – just check their opening goal in the recent win over Poland.
The man at the helm
The return of Louis van Gaal last summer was a surprise considering he had previously retired. It looked like a conservative move to something tried and tested, when what was required was something shiny and new. His capability to do the job was also put into question by a worrying cancer diagnosis, with the 71 continuing to impressively train and manage the team throughout his treatment.
The decision however looks inspired, as shown by the aforementioned performance numbers. Indeed, if you combine this with the last period he was in charge and remove penalty shoot-outs, the Netherlands are now unbeaten in 32 competitive matches under van Gaal’s leadership. The players, who already had enormous respect and a desire to perform for the grandfather of Dutch football, have been inspired even more by his determination to get on with the job despite difficult personal circumstances.
One can rightly flag faults with van Gaal but his tactics, selections and man management of a seemingly unified, organised and focused squad with real competition for places has so far been admirable. And how invaluable will his experience of previous tournaments be, encompassing both Euro 2000 and World Cup 2014? No other country will have such a battle-hardened figure in the dugout. He’s been there, he’s done that, maybe this is the time he gets the t-shirt…
Right players, right formation
With limited games and training time, it is not an easy task finding the right formation and tactics at international level and getting a changeable squad to buy into and understand it.
Right now the Netherlands look one of the most settled sides going to the tournament. This is in part down to how van Gaal has galvanised the squad. It’s also due to them being a rare case of an international team with the ideal players for the system they want to play. There is balance across a 3-4-1-2 set-up that provides both defensive solidity and attacking potency.
In defence, Jurrien Timber and Nathan Aké are well-suited to playing either side of the less mobile but undeniably world-class Virgil van Dijk. They are a right and left foot combination that is comfortable on the ball and covering the open spaces behind the wing-backs. This allows van Dijk to focus on what he does best, rather than getting pulled out of position into the channels. They also have a depth of players capable of playing in those two wing-back positions. The two likely starters on the flanks, Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind, also balance themselves well – with Dumfries often playing essentially as a right winger and the more defensive Blind naturally capable of slotting inside.
In midfield the Dutch may miss an out-and-out defensive midfielder but with a three man defence this is not a necessity. Instead, there is a collection of accomplished and intelligent central midfielders all adept at picking the ball up from deep, playing progressive forward passes and joining attacks, as well as having the requisite energy to play in a midfield double pivot. The combative Marten de Roon or Teun Koopmeiners are likely to start alongside the creative crown jewel Frenkie de Jong.
And up front, whilst there is a gap where a Robin van Persie and Ruud van Nistelrooy once stood, van Gaal’s shape enables him to play a creative number 10 (frequently a dying position in modern football) in behind a pacey, direct front two. Playing a system with wing-backs hardly screams fluid, exciting football but it is doing the job.
A strong spine
We often don’t realise the importance of something until it has gone. This was the prevailing feeling for Netherlands fans at Euro 2020 without their captain Virgil van Dijk at the back. The responsibility on Matthijs de Ligt, who is not as comfortable in a 3 and cannot even get in the starting 11 right now, was too much despite his quality. The return of the Liverpool man reinforces the foundations of a spine of players that any successful side needs.
Ahead of him, this could be the tournament in which the star quality of Frenkie de Jong, a player poorly treated off the pitch and missunderstood on it by Barcelona, really shines brightly. He is the metronome that keeps the Netherlands ticking, the conductor of van Gaal’s highly tuned orchestra. Don’t let his recent difficulties in Spain influence you – this is a world-class midfielder who is well-suited to the slightly slower tempo of international football. Indeed, recent research by The Athletic showed that De Jong is able to hold onto the ball for an average of nearly three seconds, longer than almost every other midfielder in the world.
At the head of this spine is Memphis Depay – another who has not quite come alive in Catalonia, mainly through lack of game-time – but who is one of the best marksmen in the international game at present. He has an incredible 42 goals and 30 assists in 80 caps, close to a goal contribution a game, and is only 8 short of van Persie’s national record. Across World Cup Qualifying and the Nations League, he found the net 13 times in 11 appearances.
The last three major international tournament winners – Portugal, France and Italy – trumped the orthodox view that you need a free-flowing, goalscoring side to go all the way. Yet it will be surprising if that conservative approach reaps the same rewards this winter. And whilst the Oranje do not have an elite centre forward, what they do have is a trio of forwards in Depay, Steven Bergwijn and Cody Gapko who will be a real danger to any opponent.
The pairing of Depay and Bergwijn benefits both as neither thrive as solo forwards. In this set up they don’t need to be shifted onto the wing, which requires a degree of defensive work, and can focus purely on wreaking havoc linking up together in the final third. Meanwhile, they also get to feast on the service delivered by Gapko playing just behind them. The PSV Eindhoven captain is one of the hottest young properties in European football at present and it has been a wise recent move by van Gaal to find a place for him in the starting side.
All three can interchange roles, are comfortable on either foot, create as well as score and have electric pace. If the opponent sits deep, this trio has the creativity to break them down; if the opponent looks to press high then they have the speed to run in behind. It goes without saying that they could be lethal on the counter-attack. On top of Depay’s record-chasing exploits, Gapko already has 3 goals and 2 assists in 9 international appearances. And although Bergwijn’s goal-rate dipped over the Nations League, he still has 9 goals or assists in 24 games and is flying for new team Ajax. If these three catch fire during the World Cup, there is no question that the Netherlands will have a chance.
Can that long wait for a World Cup for the Netherlands finally be about to come to an end? If they and England win their respective groups, which on paper they should, you’d expect the Oranje to at least reach the quarter-finals, where an out of form and controversy-ridden France could await. Right now, the Netherlands are a match for them. Then factoring in the above, and all the unpredictability of tournament football, could you really write them off?
It has been an up and down journey for the Netherlands since that final in 2010. Perhaps it is time to get ahead of ourselves and wonder whether maybe, just maybe, the ultimate stop on that journey is just around the corner.
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