Despite ongoing criticism toward their manager and formation, along with a sense of negativity regarding their recent run of results, the Netherlands have regained their mojo at the perfect time.
After failing to qualify for Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, the Dutch have successfully returned to the major international tournament stage, winning their first two matches of Euro 2020, defeating both Ukraine and Austria in Amsterdam. After Thursday’s victory over the Austrians, the Netherlands became the third team in the competition to advance to the knockout stages (following Italy and Belgium), while clinching Group C in the process.
It has certainly not been perfect, particularly considering the Dutch blew a two-goal lead against Ukraine in their first match, before scoring a late winner. But, while many question marks surrounding the Dutch were made public over the last several weeks and months, the team has made an impressive start to Euro 2020 – the product of a footballing reboot over the last three years.
The Netherlands Have Returned to the International Football Party
A Storied History
Even though the Netherlands have only won one major trophy in their history (Euro 1988), they are historically one of the most riveting and romantic international sides. From their passionate, well-travelled supporters to a stylish and beautiful orange kit, along with an attractive style of football, the Dutch always are among one of the neutrals’ favourite national teams.
This is the nation of Total Football and Johan Cruyff, a combination that changed the way the world played and interpreted football. It is a national side that has produced a factory of global stars, such as Dennis Bergkamp, Marco van Basten, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. The Dutch are also the only nation to have finished as World Cup runners up three or more times while never winning the competition. There is a history of glorious victories and devastating defeats. Regardless of the tournament, the Dutch always play a role.
Rebuilding a Reputation
However, since the Netherlands’ third-place World Cup finish in Brazil seven years ago, their history has become clouded with disappointment and chaos.
There have been six different managers, including a four in a three-year spell. There was the pitiful qualification attempt for Euro 2016, where the Dutch finished fourth in their group, as they lost half of their matches en route to missing their first European championships in 32 years. Then came the agony of missing out on the 2018 World Cup, finishing behind eventual champions France and Sweden. Something had to change.
Enter Ronald Koeman. The former Dutch and Barcelona legend had just been sacked by Everton, and like his national team, was in the need of a revival. With the old guard of van Persie, Robben and Wesley Sneijder (the most capped Dutch player of all time) leaving, it was the perfect time for Koeman to institute a reboot.
Koeman turned to established stars such as Virgil van Dijk, Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay in his revolution, as all three scored in the Netherlands’ impressive 3-0 win over Germany in October 2018. This victory was one of two the Dutch achieved in the inaugural UEFA Nations League competition – the other a confident 2-0 win over world champions France, where Wijnaldum and Depay also scored. Two late goals in the reverse Germany fixture allowed the Dutch to qualify for the tournament’s semi-finals in the summer of 2019, an indication that Koeman’s reboot was working.
The revival also included the rise of a new crop of Dutch youthful superstars. As the national team was regaining momentum from their Nations League performances, Ajax produced one of their greatest seasons in recent history. Led by generational talents Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt, the Amsterdam club sparkled in 2018/19, winning the Eredivisie title for the first time in five years, while reaching the UEFA Champions League semi-finals, knocking out Real Madrid and Juventus in the process.
De Jong and de Ligt played in all six Nations League matches, including the semi-final victory over England and the defeat in the final to Portugal. Other key members included right-back Denzel Dumfries of PSV and midfielder Marten de Roon, who became a pivotal cog in the free-flowing scoring machine of Atalanta in Serie A.
Within one year, these new faces became irreplaceable bedrocks in a national team that had returned from one of the darkest periods of its history and had become a legitimate world and European contender once again.
Qualification At Last
Qualification for Euro 2020 was relatively comfortable for the Dutch, who won six of their eight matches, including another victory over Germany. They finished in second place (behind the Germans), scoring 24 goals, with Wijnaldum and Depay responsible for 14 of them. With van Dijk and de Ligt patrolling the backline, the Netherlands conceded only seven goals, tied for fewest in their group. This exciting Dutch squad’s confidence and expectations were sky high while preparing to enter a major tournament once again.
Then came COVID-19, as the world shut down, postponing Euro 2020 by a full year. Meanwhile, Koeman left to manage Barcelona, who began a reboot of their own, and the Netherlands lost momentum gained from the past few years. The only positive development was that Depay would be able to play in the tournament, since he would have missed out if it was held that summer, due to a cruciate ligament rupture suffered playing for Lyon.
The Doubt Begins
Following Koeman’s departure, negativity began to seep into the Dutch national team once again, especially following the appointment of Frank de Boer in September 2020. De Boer (captain of the Netherlands at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000) was considered an underwhelming hire at best, particularly due to his sketchy managerial history, as he was fired from his last three jobs, including an embarrassing five-game stint in the Premier League with Crystal Palace.
De Boer’s football appeared static and more conservative, threatening to ruin all progress made under Koeman. A dull 1-0 defeat to Mexico and a 0-0 draw against Bosnia and Herzegovina in October reinforced this idea and criticism of the new manager continued. Despite the Netherlands winning two of their final three matches in 2020 (plus a credible 1-1 draw at Italy), de Boer’s appointment caused any remaining Dutch optimism toward Euro 2020 to wither away.
Additionally, the buildup to this summer’s tournament for the Dutch was far from ideal. First, they lost 4-2 to Turkey in March in their first 2022 World Cup qualifier. With the absence of Van Dijk (due to a knee injury ruling him out of Euro 2020), de Boer’s squad looked lifeless and uninspiring – an ominous sign with the Euros only three months away.
Wins over Latvia and Gibraltar did little to instil confidence for the Dutch, nor did a 2-2 draw against Scotland in a friendly earlier this month, where the Netherlands trailed twice in the match. Outrage later ensued when de Boer publicly announced his decision to forgo the traditional Dutch 4-3-3 formation in favour of playing with a back three. Despite the prospect of playing all three Euro 2020 group matches in front of home supporters in Amsterdam, confidence was low.
Euro Success So Far
However, the Netherlands have been a rousing success so far at Euro 2020. Fears of de Boer’s new formation (3-5-2 against Ukraine and 3-4-1-2 against Austria) appear to be misguided, as the Dutch have played exciting, free-flowing football, scoring five goals through two matches (tied for second-most). In fact, the Netherlands have almost been too attacking, with two wing-backs (Dumfries and Patrick van Aanholt) essentially playing as wingers, leading to seven Dutch attackers creating opportunities throughout the matches.
In fact, each of the key performers in the first two matches were among the major contributors to the Dutch squad since Koeman’s revolution began in 2018. Depay and Wijnaldum have both appeared on the scoresheet, while de Jong’s control of the midfield has been impeccable. Dumfries has also been revelatory, scoring two goals from his wing-back/winger position, while constantly providing threatening crosses into the box. Along with Italy, the Netherlands have played the most exciting football at the tournament.
While it is still early in Euro 2020, the Dutch have clearly improved. The team has a great cadre of young and experienced talent, who are hungry for success, with a manager who has a lot to prove. With a potentially favourable draw in the knockout stages, it is not inconceivable that the Netherlands can make a deep run in the competition. Considering where the national team was three years ago, that would be an incredible achievement.