It has been a tumultuous few years for the Oranje of late, and rather puzzlingly so. About a decade ago, if one had said the Netherlands would fail to qualify for the 2016 European Championships and the 2018 FIFA World Cup, it would have sounded like a lunatic statement. However, things had not gone according to plan for the Dutch squad in the past few years.
This is the same nation, which in 2010 pushed perhaps the greatest Spanish team ever to the limit in a World Cup final. Subsequently, they had a deep run to the semis of the 2014 World Cup and concluded the tournament in third place, beating hosts Brazil in the playoff. Little did they know that their place among the world’s top footballing countries would soon be shaken to the core.
A generation of old players reaching the ends of their careers, beside the organizational instability of the footballing federation, all led to disastrous consequences. Their failure to qualify for the Euros in 2016 and the 2018 World Cup in Russia came as major shocks. It wasn’t until Ronald Koeman’s arrival that the squad began to take shape once again.
He ushered in the new generation of talents that most notably include Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs De Ligt after phasing out the old guard consisting of great players like Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin Van Persie. As a result of the revamp, the Netherlands started to click once again, making it to the final of the maiden UEFA Nations League, narrowly losing out to Portugal.
But Ronald Koeman’s solid run in charge of his country was halted as he rushed to answer Barcelona’s call to take over a broken squad on that end as well. Frank De Boer replaced him shortly after and has now managed to seal the Netherlands’ place in the group stages of the Euros after a lengthy absence from the world’s premier international competitions.
The Oranje find themselves in Group C, alongside Austria, Ukraine and tournament debutants North Macedonia. On paper, the Netherlands can boast of having the best squad in terms of quality, with big names like de Jong and de Ligt, as mentioned before, featuring alongside the attacking talents of Memphis Depay, Quincy Promes and Steven Bergwijn and the strong presences of Georginio Wijnaldum, Donny Van de Beek and Ajax starlet Ryan Gravenberch.
One massive loss for them, however, will be the absence of Virgil Van Dijk. The Liverpool superstar missed almost the entire 2020-21 season after suffering from a serious knee injury in the Merseyside Derby. A little over one week ago, the centre-back ruled himself out of the Euros stating that he was gutted at having to make such a decision, but he has only just begun progressing steadily with his rehab, so there was no realistic chance of him being available.
However, de Boer does have some competent replacements to call upon in Stefan de Vrij and Daley Blind. Although the Dutchmen narrowly missed out on a successive UEFA Nations League semi-final berth, they are doing well in their World Cup qualifying campaign and arrive at the tournament off the back of two successive wins.
The Netherlands will get their Euro campaign underway this year on the 13th of June against Ukraine, followed by games against Austria on the 17th of June and North Macedonia on the 21st of June.
Has the stamp of ‘favourites’ dissolved?
In all brutal honesty, calling Holland the favourites alongside some of the other massive teams — like England, Spain, or Belgium — featuring in the competition would be an overstatement since it is tough to peg down whether or not they can be consistent. They have shown glimpses of their quality since Frank de Boer took charge in September of 2020 after Koeman’s departure, but more often than not, they have also shown some glaring signs of weakness.
But the biggest factor in favour of the Dutch is the amount of firepower they have in attack, in addition to the technically refined midfield brimming with youth. They have a fair amount of depth in each position, as discussed earlier when it comes to replacing Van Dijk. With De Ligt and de Jong marshalling the defence and midfield, coupled with de Jong’s eagerness to join the attack, Holland have more than enough going for them to unsettle any opposition.
They also have some great players at the back, and particularly in goal, have plenty of reliable figures, most notably Tim Krul, whose penalty heroics are very well documented. The side also seems to have a massive sense of cohesion amongst themselves, which has visibly played a crucial role in their recovery from bad form after Koeman’s departure.
Lineup woes and an unnecessary experiment
The Netherlands were earlier expected to stick to their 4-3-3 setup, which has yielded the most successful results for de Boer during his tenure so far. However, if their friendlies against Georgia and Scotland are anything to go by, it looks as if Ons Oranje will use a 3-5-2 in the tournament.
Much like Italy’s experimental setup, a three-at-the-back system has worked well for the Dutchmen in the past, especially under Ronald Koeman, given the wealth of talent they possess across the pitch. However, for de Boer is seems to be an option that came up while scratching the bottom of the barrel.
Jasper Cillissen has been dropped from the team after catching COVID, and Maarten Stekelenburg will likely get the nod in goal ahead of Tim Krul. In defence, Matthijs de Ligt picked up an injury while training, but there have been no updates on his progress, so it can be presumed the Juventus defender will start on the left side of the back-three. Daley Blind is the likely replacement for him in case of any absence.
Owen Wijndal enjoyed a largely successful season with AZ Alkmaar and will start on the left flank, with PSV’s Denzel Dumfries on the right. There has been a lot of controversy on Marten de Roon’s inclusion in this setup over Ryan Gravenberch, but the former’s defensive stability cannot be ignored. Frenkie De Jong is a staple in that midfield and inarguably one of their most important players.
Georginio Wijnaldum has been in the news a little too much recently, snubbing Barcelona for PSG. He rounds off the midfield as the most mobile option in that trident, looking to join the attack whenever possible.
All eyes will be on Memphis Depay, who has been spectacular, to say the least. On the verge of completing his Barcelona move after an improved offer, Depay has directly contributed to 11 goals (7g, 4a) in his last nine appearances for the Dutch team, including a goal and assist yesternight. Wout Weghorst brilliant campaign with Wolfsburg did not go unnoticed, as he is set to start alongside Depay as the front-two.
Depay is thus free to operate as a shadow striker while Weghorst occupies the centre-backs. Depay can use his tremendous creativity to fashion chances for his teammates or release the midfielders while he holds the ball up. A free role for the 27-year old in and around the centre should serve as a mouthwatering prospect for de Boer, and frankly, their only hope.
Ryan Gravenberch and especially Donyell Malen are also options off the bench to inject a youthful burst of energy whenever the team gets tired. The latter seems to connect well with Depay, and the duo’s pace could wreak havoc as twin strikers.
A viable alternative
One would have thought there is not much scope for experimentation for the de Boer, considering the tournament is right at their throats. Well, that proved to be wrong, and the 3-5-2 does not seem to be working; at least as well as the 4-3-3 did.
To bring the best out of their excellent unit, Netherlands should revert to the 4-3-3. In a possession-based, midfield reliant system, Marten de Roon could and should be dropped to make way for Ryan Gravenberch at the base of the midfield. Georginio Wijnaldum and Frenkie de Jong could take turns making late runs as the third-man, while the other drops to make sure the structure resembles a 4-2-3-1.
Stefan de Vrij, much like Milan Skriniar and Alessandro Bastoni, was exceptional for Inter and takes his place alongside de Ligt in the heart of the defence.
Meanwhile, Steven Berghuis comes back into the side on the right-wing. He has done exceptionally well whenever given the chance by de Boer and should start in a setup similar to this one. Depay on the left, and Weghorst in a more natural role for him cap off this 4-3-3.
The primary function of Wijndal and Dumfries will be to provide width and overlapping runs while Depay and Berghuis look to cut in. With their crossing ability, it will only be a matter of probability given Weghorst aerial pedigree, as he is bound to fashion a high-quality chance or two at the very least with the number of passes aimed to his head.
The best of the lot
Frenkie de Jong
Across all season, Barcelona’s midfield hero Frenkie de Jong registered more than 5000 minutes of action on the pitch without injury. He has been a key member of the Dutch team since 2018, when he debuted and will look to extend his brilliant form in the European Championship.
De Jong is very versatile, and can slot in as a defensive midfielder, a box-to-box midfielder, or even a centre-back when push comes to shove. His exceptional ability to carry the ball through midfield traffic means the workload on the forwards will reduce, giving them a cutting edge in the final third.
Undoubtedly the MVP for the Netherlands, Memphis Depay, is coming off a personal best season where he contributed 32 goals plus assists for Olympique Lyonnais in the league. His form for the Dutch team been tremendous as well, with three goals and an assist in the pre-Euro friendlies, and a total of 49 direct contributions (26 goals, 23 assists) in 63 for the National Team.
He is at the absolute peak of his career, and due to a big move to Barcelona soon, Depay will hope to continue this form, giving Joan Laporta and co. a justification for the revised three-year contract they are offering him.
Aside from these big names, Wijndal will be a key player for Holland. The left-back is incredibly pacy and possesses incredible technical ability with the ball at his feet. He has proven to be a revelation for the Oranje with his willingness to get forward and contribute to the attack. Since making his debut in October, he has earned seven caps for the national side and a call up to the Euros.
The AZ defender has notched three assists in those seven appearances and has put in some awe-inspiring performances both offensively and defensively. He has also earned plaudits for his versatility, as he can thrive in various setups, including in a 3-5-2 as a wingback. His domestic form has also been noteworthy, as he has scored twice and provided six assists for AZ in all competitions, as they also finished third in the Eredivisie.
Heading into the Euros, the Netherlands are not as well-oiled a machine under de Boer as under Ronald Koeman. After de Boer took charge, Holland endured their longest winless streak ever under a new coach. However, things have since gotten better, and they have picked up some good results heading into the tournament.
Given the tournament’s new format, where the third-placed teams also stand a chance of progressing through to the group stages, the Dutchmen should ideally make it out of their group with relative ease. Round of 16 onwards, though, their lack of experience of playing in major tournaments together and de Boer’s occasional tactical rigidity could come to bite them against top opposition. Moreover, they don’t necessarily have the amount of talent on paper akin to England’s or even Portugal’s squad.
The Oranje can mount a serious challenge and can go deep into the tournament if at their best. Realistically speaking, however, reaching and going past Round of 16 will be an achievement given their several problems. The last eight could be where they may face their most stern test without being able to come up with the answers.