Football Features

The key players behind Netherlands’ escape from international wilderness

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 13:29, 14 November 2019

“I think at the upcoming European Championships there are several countries which are equally matched and can win the tournament. And we are one of them.”

You can never accuse a footballer from the Netherlands of lacking in self-confidence and given how the national team have been transformed under Ronald Koeman, it’s easy to understand why Frenkie de Jong, one of the many new faces since their World Cup 2018 qualification, believes the future is bright.

Oranje, as they’re commonly known, are yet to secure passage. A point at Windsor Park this weekend against Northern Ireland will be enough for the 1988 champions to participate at next summer’s European championship.

How they’ve got here after missing out in back-to-back tournaments isn’t so miraculous. They were bound to come out of this slumber. But that being said, Koeman should take full credit. His present squad, with an average age of 27, is a mesh of different generations, with many unfancied talents stepping up and playing brilliantly.

Reaching the inaugural Uefa Nations League final – progressing from a group containing the last two world champions – was the first sign something special is brewing. Now they’re on the cusp of a first summer games appearance since Louis van Gaal was at the helm in Brazil, it’s worth looking at four players who epitomise this latest class driving Dutch football out of the international wilderness.

1. Virgil van Dijk

Age: 28

Caps under Koeman: 16

Goals/Assists: 4/0

Van Dijk and Koeman are no strangers. Both worked together at Southampton prior to a reunion with the national team. Following his appointment, which should have taken place a lot sooner, Koeman’s first act was to name Van Dijk as his voice on the pitch. It has proven to be a successful decision.

Van Dijk’s leadership radiates throughout the team and he’s quickly forged a stellar centre-back partnership with Europe’s current ‘golden boy’ Matthijs de Ligt, which is arguably the best Dutch pairing since Jaap Stam and Frank de Boer. It’s not only instructing others where Van Dijk has been valuable.

His take no prisoners approach to defending, which Premier League forwards know all too well, is another brilliant facet of Van Dijk’s game which has transformed Oranje’s defensive fortunes. And there’s also his attacking threat. At the moment only two players – Georginio Wijnaldum and Memphis Depay – have outscored him under Koeman’s watch.

No goal better illustrated their never-say-die attitude than Van Dijk’s late equaliser away to Germany in the Uefa Nations League, which sealed their path to the subsequent finals. There’s no doubt constantly playing in high-profile fixtures with Liverpool is to Oranje’s benefit. It’s been a long time since the Dutch can lay claim to having the world’s best defender in their ranks.

2. Frenkie de Jong

Age: 22

Caps under Koeman: 13

Goals/Assists: 1/3

No fewer than 12 players have been handed their first international cap by Koeman, and Frenkie de Jong is the most prominent. His emergence, truth be told, has coincided with this mini Dutch renaissance. De Jong is simultaneously both a throwback and quintessentially modern. It’s hard to categorise him while avoiding the pitfalls of boxing the press-resistant midfielder into one role.

Peter Bosz, who brought De Jong through at Ajax, felt he could play in every midfield position; this universality is a Dutchman’s dream. For Koeman, he’s a ‘number eight’ operating between the forward and defensive lines. De Jong’s comfort in possession has seen him quickly become the kernel around which the rest of the side’s panache is constructed (à la Johan Neeskens from yesteryear).

Passing aside, De Jong’s ability to carry the ball is fast-becoming his trademark. Such flamboyant guile and innate ability to make sharp movements have greatly benefited Oranje, especially when coming up against defensive opponents. He doesn’t turn 23 until a month before Euro 2020 meaning his best years are in front of him.

Representing an institution like Barcelona will only accelerate that development. An issue facing the Dutch in recent years was a lack of players turning out for a European super club. De Jong, a once in a generation talent, is the present and future all at once.

3. Georginio Wijnaldum

Age: 29

Caps under Koeman: 16

Goals/Assists: 7/3

Among this current crop are survivors from Oranje’s last major summer tournament. Playing a critical role is Georginio Wijnaldum, who is a far cry from the 24-year-old Louis van Gaal regularly counted on in Brazil as the Dutch ended with a bronze medal. Back then, he was your run-of-the-mill number 10, whose home was the space behind their centre-forward.

That is no longer the case. Under Jurgen Klopp’s tutelage at Liverpool, the Rotterdammer has floated between a number six and eight, which has piqued Koeman’s interest; though he’s retained Wijnaldum just behind the centre-forward with De Jong (8) and Marten de Roon/Donny van de Beek (6) filling those roles.

Again, like Van Dijk, he’s a far better player after being exposed to his current club-level environment. Playing and performing well in big European Cup/Premier League games only benefits Oranje and those big-game instincts have continually been showcased in recent internationals.

An occasional goalscorer for Liverpool, partly due to his placement on the pitch and role ascribed to him, Wijnaldum has so far bagged seven under Koeman including efforts against France and Germany.

4. Memphis Depay

Age: 25

Caps under Koeman: 17

Goals/Assists: 11/7

You’d be hard-pressed to describe anyone other than Memphis Depay as the most influential player under Koeman’s tenures. A big part of that is the manager himself. Koeman saw Depay as the solution to a centre-forward shortage; given those placed on the flank are reluctant to cross – meaning someone like Bas Dost who thrives on delivery becomes redundant – it made sense to play with a ‘false nine’.

Depay, who made his name as a left-winger cutting onto his favoured right foot, was given that responsibility and he’s not looked back since. It’s also made the Dutch attack, which to date has featured the likes of Quincy Promes, Ryan Babel and Steven Bergwijn, a little less predictable given their interchangeability and movement.

No one has been more involved during Koeman’s reign so far than Depay who has 11 goals and seven assists to his name. In fact, across 17 appearances he’s blanked in five games. Such performances have led to many wondering how long the Moordrecht-born footballer would be remaining at Lyon.