Football Features

Chasing redemption with the Netherlands: Frank de Boer at Euro 2020

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 9:00, 16 June 2021

Football etiquette says criticising a game plan before or during the actual match would be impolite. You have to wait until it’s over.

A lot of the discourse surrounding the Netherlands’ preparation for Euro 2020 focused on manager Frank de Boer’s appointment — to say it was unpopular among pundits and supporters alike would be an understatement — and subsequent tactics.

So you can hardly blame him for enjoying a sense of vindication following their entertaining 3-2 win over Ukraine to kick off the championship. As the saying goes, one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but given Oranje’s display, it could very well be the first step towards repairing a broken reputation.

A broken reputation

Heading into the 2014 FIFA World Cup — which happened to be the Netherlands’ last major tournament appearance before this summer — life was good for then Ajax manager De Boer, who had just won a fourth consecutive Eredivisie title. He subsequently became a wanted man but stayed loyal to de Godenzonen before leaving two years later after winning 158 of his 263 matches (60.1% win-rate).

Long-term admirers Inter Milan acquired De Boer’s signature, though his tenure only lasted 14 games (35.7% win-rate). At least under him, the Nerazzurri picked up a 2-1 win over rivals Juventus. Seemingly damaged goods, Premier League outfit Crystal Palace gave the Dutchman another chance in 2017 but soon regretted it after infamously terminating his contract after five matches (20% win-rate).

By now, the consensus was De Boer was done coaching at the highest level. There was seemingly no coming back from these embarrassments. A sad fall after such a promising start. However, those halcyon days in Amsterdam were still being felt across the Atlantic but he couldn’t sustain Atlanta United’s newfound MLS powerhouse status. At least De Boer lasted 55 games (56.4% win-rate) in charge. Even though he won US Open Cup and Campeones Cup titles in his first season, this tenure registered as another failure, surely the final nail.

Unpopular choice

A month after De Boer left the United States, a managerial vacancy opened up after Ronald Koeman, who guided Oranje back from the international wilderness, couldn’t turn down the opportunity of managing FC Barcelona, where he’s still idolised. To the surprise of many, the Dutch FA (KNVB) hired the Hoorn-born coach, who previously assisted former national team boss Bert van Marwijk, but the news went down like a lead balloon.

The lack of enthusiasm was unexpected. A combined 156 days in charge of Inter Milan and Crystal Palace where he won six times across 19 outings plus not exactly pulling up any trees at Atlanta United — where he inherited a championship-winning squad — led to fans and pundits writing this appointment off. Matters were not helped when Oranje lost their opening game under him (0-1 v Mexico) before a string of three consecutive draws albeit two of those came against Italy (1-1) and Spain (1-1).

Netherlands best 21st century managers by win percentage

  • Marco van Basten (2004-08) – 67.3%
  • Bert van Marwijk (2008-12) – 65.4%
  • Dick Advocaat (2002-04 and 2017) – 61.1%
  • Louis van Gaal (2000-02 and 2012-14) – 60.5%
  • Ronald Koeman (2018-20) – 55%
  • Frank de Boer (2020-present) – 50%
  • Danny Blind (2015-17) – 41.2%
  • Guus Hiddink (2014-15) – 40%

Qualification for next year’s World Cup didn’t start well, a 4-2 loss at Turkey, but there was an immediate response of back-to-back victories (2-0 vs Latvia and 7-0 vs Gibraltar), though they were always going to be routine wins. Anything less would be a sackable offence. With nine matches remaining Oranje are one point behind leaders Turkey who, in their most recent World Cup qualifying game, were held to a 3-3 draw by Latvia. Even days before Euro 2020 began there was none of that usual Dutch excitement that often precedes a major tournament.

Sticking to his guns and cancelling out the noise

Perhaps their disappointing 2-2 draw with Scotland was a major factor. The friendly, which took place 11 days before Oranje’s opening Euro 2020 game, saw him reintroduce the 3-5-2 formation which the Netherlands had played once under him (against Italy). Utilising a back-three isn’t new for De Boer. He played a similar formation at Palace and Atlanta but this being the Netherlands — land of 4-3-3 — you can imagine this got everyone talking.

Not to give in to public pressure, he fielded the same lineup in their final Euro 2020 warm-up match (3-0 vs Georgia) before unleashing it against Ukraine in what turned out to be the first thrilling game of this summer’s tournament. Oranje raced into a 2-0 lead, following a frustrating opening half, before Andriy Shevchenko’s men pegged them back. Denzel Dumfries saved the day minutes from time and in the process taking any post-match heat off his manager’s shoulders.

In many ways, this game was a microcosm of De Boer’s reign so far. Under him, there are often individual displays of brilliance, though Oranje remain weak at the back. It’s that defensive fragility that initially led to him deploying three centre-backs. Consequently, it deprives the Dutch of using their explosive wingers. A trade-off which they greatly felt in the first half against Ukraine but Oranje soon recovered and, it must be said, through good pieces of fortune, they were celebrating their first tournament goals.

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Securing all three points in some ways justified De Boer’s team selection but also lifted some of the doom and gloom. No one for a second believes Oranje will go all the way, there needs to be an unusual set of circumstances for that to happen. But, for now, there are smiles back on faces, none more notable than De Boer’s who hasn’t tasted a win on this kind of stage since his Ajax days. If he can repeat what mentor Louis van Gaal did at the 2014 World Cup finals, he too bucked the trend by opting for three at the back, and go deep into this competition it will go some way to restoring his managerial credibility and bringing forth redemption.