The media coverage surrounding the Netherlands National Team in recent months, and even into the first week of this Euro 2020 tournament has, on the whole, been rather negative.
Virgil Van Dijk ruled himself out of the tournament early on, while Frank de Boer’s tenure, after he replaced Ronald Koeman in the summer of 2020, has been uninspiring to say the least.
The negativity of these reports, however, ignores the fact that there is still quite a lot to be excited about heading into the pan-European tournament this summer, with the fervour surrounding the team only increasing after their hectic 3-2 triumph over Ukraine.
A fact that seemed to be forgotten by the majority of the pundits commentating on the game, was that Ukraine are not a bad side. They finished at the top of a qualifying group which included Portugal, one of the favourites for the tournament, and have quality all over the pitch, from Oleksander Zinchenko in midfield to the mercurial Andriy Yarmelenko up top.
And yet the Netherlands dominated them. The teams only went in at half-time goalless as a result of the Dutch’s profligate finishing and the outstanding performance of the Ukrainian goalkeeper, Heorhiy Bushchan.
In the second half, goals from Georginio Wijnaldum and Wout Weghorst put the team into a commanding position, and only with complacency and a wonder goal from Yarmelenko were Ukraine able to get back into the game, before man-of-the-match Denzel Dumfries’ last minute header won it for the Dutch.
Should they top the group, and with victory over Ukraine this is likely, their run to the semi-finals should be a simple task, and from that point, anything can happen.
It should not be forgotten that, despite recent setbacks, the Netherlands do still possess the quality to challenge any side in Europe. Even with the loss of Van Dijk, the centre-back duo of the rejuvenated Matthijs De Ligt and Stefan De Vrij, two of the best centre-halves in world football, is the envy of the majority of teams in Europe. Supported by the experienced Daley Blind or confident prodigy Jurrien Timber, De Boer’s new-look back three is, on paper, solid.
Frenkie De Jong, who always plays in his preferred deeper role for the Netherlands, is, in my book, the best midfielder in the world. In a Dutch shirt he always steps up to the occasion, dictating possession, dribbling through teams and finding passes that can turn defence into attack in an instant. He single-handedly dismantled England in the Nations League semi-finals a couple of years back, and did the same against Ukraine, driving the team forward with defence splitting passes and winning vital free-kicks as the game came towards its conclusion.
In attack, Memphis Depay has become something of a talisman in recent years. Most associate Memphis with his disastrous spell at Manchester United, but his record for Lyon, especially this season, has been remarkable, and he has become arguably the leading light in this Dutch team.
In the qualifiers for this summer’s Euros, Depay picked up six goals and seven assists in six games for the Netherlands. While at Lyon he is a top player, when he pulls on the Oranje shirt, he becomes world-class. He was quiet against Ukraine, but you can certainly expect him to light up the tournament at some stage in its progression.
The spine of the team, therefore, is up there with the best in the world: a solid defence supporting a creative midfield assisting a effervescent attack, but the supporting cast is not too shabby either. While perhaps being nowhere near the level of France, some of the Dutch players are criminally underrated.
Denzel Dumfries, the PSV right-back, is a name that most in Europe will be unaware of, but he has the pace and strength required to more than hold his own at this level. At right-wing-back against Ukraine, he was the team’s main attacking driving force, playing effectively as a right winger, with his pace, power and crossing ability proving too much for Ukraine to deal with.
The solid quality of Georginio Wijnaldum is something that Liverpool fans appreciate and, in a Dutch shirt, his attacking ability is given licence to shine through as well. While not a starter, this could also be 19-year-old Ryan Gravenberch’s breakthrough tournament, the latest Ajax talent with the potential to shine on the world stage.
Maarten Stekelenburg at 38 is a solid, if unspectacular keeper, while in attack, Wout Weghorst has already scored one in the tournament, while his hold up play vital in bringing the more mobile and dangerous Memphis into play. His passion for wearing the Dutch shirt is also clear for all to see, and has already endeared him to the Oranje fans. If a goal is needed in the last few minutes, Donyell Malen, one of the best young strikers in Europe, brings pace and a finishing ability that many teams across Europe would envy.
What is key to this Dutch side, however, is their team spirit, something that should not be underestimated in a major tournament. The Dutch have been infamous in the past for their training-ground bust-ups, but this team very simply gets along. Log onto the ‘Ons Oranje’ Instagram page at any point, and there will be tens of stories of players laughing and smiling.
They have quality but, combined with a unity that means each and every one of the players will fight for the shirt and each other, they can equal if not surpass most of the opposition they will face.
Two years ago, they made the Nations League final in a group containing France and Germany, and since then, their young team has only developed and improved.
De Boer has dampened the atmosphere somewhat in recent times but criticism post-Ukraine has lessened. His 3-5-2 system created a lot of controversy prior to the tournament, as it is so untested, but, against Ukraine, it reaped the rewards that the Dutch population desired.
What was lacking under Koeman was attacking threat, as the team very simply has few high-class forwards, but the 3-5-2 relies less on these forwards to single-handedly carry the attack, with the wing-backs, such as Dumfries, vital. Against Ukraine, the system proved up to the task, creating attacking threat and excitement that has been unseen in the Dutch team in recent years. They scored three, but should have had six.
The one problem is in the defence, where the midfield fails to provide the requisite cover for the three centre-halves, who can be left vulnerable. However, this is a new system, and teething problems are to be expected. As the tournament progresses, these will disappear.
With these underrated players, therefore (ignore Gary Neville and the ignorant English pundits), combined with a solid tactical system and a genuinely cohesive team united behind the shirt, this Dutch team could well be the tournament’s dark horses.