An Orange Nation In Limbo
The Netherlands going into Euro 2020 with Frank de Boer as national manager, who’d have thought that about a year ago? After Koeman’s sudden departure, Frank de Boer’s appointment raised more than a few eyebrows, and initial results only added to the national skepticism. Now, we’re entering a partially home-fielded Euro 2020 with the interesting paradox of a nation confident in its players, but with a manager that keeps making headlines for the wrong reasons.
Written by Sander IJtsma.
During most of the season, international football is frowned upon. International breaks are generally frustrating periods for hardcore fans, depriving them of the drug called club football. For others, international breaks present a helpful moment to catch a breath and do something other than keeping up with the ever-expanding schedule of club football.
However, come a major international tournament, we’re all suddenly fans, and we all undergo the same familiar phases in the buildup towards kick-off. The arousal and anticipation of an exciting event, the countless checking of the schedule without the actual focus to really remember the dates or even the groups, and of course the speculation once the tournament is just around the corner.
A crucial element of this speculation revolves around one central question, for which the answer may be hard to define. When will [insert team] have had a successful tournament? Asked for his goal for Euro 2020, Netherlands manager Frank de Boer made no effort to avoid the question. “I would like to make it to the semi-finals, at a minimum.” Only to downplay this statement, immediately upon hearing his own words, by pointing out that for that to happen, everything should go right.
So, a conditional goal of making the semi-finals then. If everything goes right. Even bypassing the fact that the question of whether ‘things going right’ could at least partly be seen as the manager’s responsibility, it will be hard to properly evaluate any team’s performance in a binary classification system of success versus no success.
After all, we’re playing out an ultra-short knock-out event in a low scoring sport at the end of a grueling period of football still catching up with the lay-off during the highest phase of the pandemic. Good luck to us analysts, trying to properly evaluate performances. The good thing is, however, the guarantee of the excitement that is just around the corner.
In terms of team selection, there is not that much to talk about, really, other than eyebrows getting raised by the choice to in-form players not making the final squad through a simple text message.
In Jasper Cillessen the Dutch have the dubious honour of the first player to withdraw after testing positive for COVID-19. There will be no shortage of experience though, with Maarten Stekelenburg currently having the upper hand over Tim Krul. The Ajax goalkeeper, promoted to a starting role after Onana’s suspension earlier this season, will be the oldest player to feature at EURO 2020, entering his fifth international tournament.
In defense, Oranje has to deal with the absence of Liverpool talisman Virgil van Dijk, the first choice captain for three years and the undoubted leader of the team. The central defense will be formed by Stefan de Vrij, Serie A winner with Internazionale, and Matthijs de Ligt, not Serie A winner with Juventus. After the final two friendlies, it looks more than likely that De Boer will pick a three-man defense, in which case Daley Blind would be the ideal left-sided centre-back, if he manages to return from injury in time. Alternatively, Ajax’ rising star Jurriën Timber, who made an excellent impression in both pre-tournament friendlies, could feature as the right-sided centre-back.
At left back, De Boer has expressed consistent faith in AZ Alkmaar’s Owen Wijndal, whom he gave his debut less than a year ago. Wijndal is untested outside Eredivisie level, where he plays a very offensive version of a four-at-the-back fullback. He has struggled in possession in De Boer’s 3-1-4-2 formation, contributing little to nothing in final third The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. action, seemingly missing a left winger to play off like he does at AZ. As backups, Crystal Palace’s Patrick van Aanholt and – in a completely different mold – Daley Blind, if recovered in time, could feature when needed.
On the right, De Boer has made a clear choice already, since Denzel Dumfries is basically the only full-on right back in the squad, with Hans Hateboer currently injured, and never able to convince in a system other than Atalanta’s and Fulham’s Kenny Tete not making it beyond the preliminary squad.
In both of last week’s friendlies, the dysfunctional ball progression in buildup play was abundantly clear. In both games Marten de Roon featured as the single pivot in a midfield three, with Frenkie de Jong and Gini Wijnaldum playing ahead of him. Despite repeated calls for change, De Boer made it quite clear that he is willing to accept the tradeoff of concessions in possession for improved stability and off-the-ball play with De Roon in the side.
The most likely setup, 5-3-2 with Marten de Roon as the single pivot.
Davy Klaassen – the more offensive flavor – looks to be demoted to a substitute role, and unlucky Donny van de Beek was forced to withdraw with a groin injury, after his past season only added up to 1400 (or 4000?) minutes in a very limited role at Manchester United. Squad players that might come on for a cameo are the surprise selection Teun Koopmeiners – AZ’s defensive midfield passer – and Ajax’s talented Ryan Gravenberch.
The Dutch plan in possession to create chances is simple: get the ball to Memphis. To partner him in this two-striker system, choices still need to be made. In Wout Weghorst and Luuk de Jong, De Boer has selected two very comparable traditional target men, and contrary to expectation, it looks like Weghorst will not be part of plan B, in case of ‘things not going right’.
De Boer placed a lot of emphasis on the option to easily switch to a 4-3-3 system when needed as well. In that case, the flank players should probably not be seen as traditional role players, but rather as independent orchestrators of additional danger.
In this role, rather loosely depending on interaction with the striker, all four of Feyenoord’s Steven Berghuis, PSV Eindhoven’s Cody Gakpo and Donyell Malen and Spartak Moscow’s Quincy Promes play in a somewhat comparable style at their respective clubs. Either of them could feature, although it looks most likely that we will see left-footed Berghuis cutting in from the right and Malen interacting and switching with Depay from the left flank.
Who wouldn’t want to see attractive offense-first football, played with accurate positional play, leading to dominance on the offensive end of the pitch. It wouldn’t be hard to convince people that the ‘Hollandse School’ sounds like the football heaven. Well… so far the theory. In reality, Dutch football fans have endured their fair share of horizontal passing around a settled defensive block, after the principle of dominance underwent a subliminal exchange with a statistic called possession percentage.
All too often have managers referred to their team dominating a match, while in fact they had been the perpetrator in a crime where the beautiful game was brutally abused. Rings a bell, Ajax fans? Inter fans? Palace fans? Atlanta fans? Or perhaps the shorter-lived spells at the latter clubs didn’t quite make the lasting memory, which would most likely not be all that bad anyway.
Frank de Boer’s challenges are numerous, but avoiding the scenario where the team in orange competes ninety percent of the passes, but creates zero danger is definitely one of them. To try and challenge this, De Boer is lucky to have more than a few players capable of upsetting things and creating positive chaos. Basically we’re putting all our orange eggs in the Frenkie de Jong basket. The Barcelona midfielder is a unique distributor of the ball, capable of delaying the pass to the very last moment and creating maximum space for his team mates as a result. In addition, Memphis offers a very high degree of mobility up front and is an astute retainer of passes to serve as a ball-to-the-foot type of target man.
Same system, different principles
It looks like a safe bet to assume the Netherlands will play a five-at-the-back defensive line, as they did in both friendlies. Another certainty looks to be a two-men offensive line, with one target man striker partnered with a freely roaming Memphis.
20th minute, friendly match against Georgia.
The achilles heel of this 5-3-2 / 3-1-4-2 formation is immediately clear from the above image. In the absence of wide forwards, and with Frenkie de Jong and Wijnaldum not in the habit of roaming out wide, all of the width has to come from the fullbacks. This is not unlike Wijndal and Dumfries do at AZ and PSV, but in their clubs the contralateral fullback provides compensation with a slightly less offensive role.
The balance in Oranje’s 5-3-2 formation has to come from midfield. This calls for three midfield players excelling at smart positional play and experienced at striking the right balance between providing rest-defense and linking with the offensive line. A double pivot of Frenkie de Jong and Gini Wijnaldum looks made for that, and this season’s revival of Davy Klaassen at Ajax couldn’t have come at a better time. All of this would result in a 3-4-1-2 / 3-4-2-1 formation, much like Tuchel lays it out at Chelsea.
A possible alternative to De Boer’ 3-1-4-2 formation would be to invert the triangle in midfield and play Klaassen as the number ten.
While this may look like a reasonable approach, it hasn’t featured in De Boer’s actions, nor in his words, which clearly reflect on the 5-3-2 setup with De Roon, and a potential in-game switch to the 4-3-3 setup as backup plan in case things don’t work out.
The luck of the draw
While good manners call for the cliché that every team is not to be underestimated, in Ukraine, Austria and North-Macedonia, the Netherlands have drawn an easy group. Add to this the fact that in this scattered tournament all three group games will be home fixtures played in Amsterdam, and nothing short of a first place finish should be expected, though Austria’s tactical approach and Ukraine’s individual quality up front and in midfield might stand in the way of that.
In that case, the schedule for the knock-out phase may not look all that bad, with a third placed team from either group D, E or F awaiting in the first knock-out round. Depending on results in each group this could mean one of Germany, France or Portugal from the group of death, group F, even though this isn’t the most likely scenario. Next up, in a potential quarter-final would then be a runner up from either group A or B. In a speculation full of ifs and if nots, things could definitely have looked worse beforehand.
Partial home field advantage, a beneficent draw and the core of the squad consisting of players from Liverpool, Barcelona, Internazionale, Juventus. What could possibly go wrong!? Well… everything really, and that is entirely the beauty of the extreme short-termism of major international tournament football.
Everything that a (national) manager can add in terms of structure, serves to cement the floor of the performance. Meanwhile, we judge their performances by looking at their ceiling. So, it may well be possible that the Dutch national team will fly through the Euros, even with structural deficits in place.
Five weeks from now, De Boer might be the hero parading the Amsterdam canals together with his squad that struck the ultimate balance between staying true to their principles of play and capitalizing on each and every opportunity presented. Or he might be the villain that committed exactly those mistakes that 17 million Dutch people will claim to have seen in advance all that time. Isn’t football a great microcosm?
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