In an exciting game in Portugal, the Netherlands beat England in the UEFA Nations League.
The win takes the Dutch into Sunday’s final against Portugal whilst England have to settle for another third-placed playoff, this time against Switzerland. What did we learn?
1. The ups and downs of Matthijs de Ligt
Matthijs de Ligt is one hell of a defender. The teenager (yes, he’s still just 19) is being courted by basically every single elite side on the planet. Every day there’s new links and it’s a who’s who of clubs. Barcelona, PSG, Liverpool, Juventus, and even Manchester United. Tonight we saw both why that is the case but why people do need to keep in mind that he is only 19 and has learning to do.
Matthijs de Ligt speaking to Ajax TV about his toughest opponent: "That has to be Rashford, from Manchester United. Great player, quick, technical skills.” pic.twitter.com/qwSpUIYjjk
— Squawka News (@SquawkaNews) June 6, 2019
First, the bad. With a pass played back to him on the edge of his box, De Ligt turned around to pass it back to Jasper Cillessen but he didn’t move his feet quickly enough, leaving a gap for Marcus Rashford (who De Ligt says is his toughest-ever opponent) to race onto it. Seeing Rashford encroach, De Ligt panicked and dove in, conceding a penalty.
But the titans of Europe aren’t after him for no reason. After his early error De Ligt settled down, and especially in the second half and extra time he turned into a brick wall. Crosses, runs, passes, suddenly De Ligt was as stable as Van Dijk in thumping the ball away. And then in attack De Ligt morphed into a weapon of mass destruction from set-pieces as he absolutely bullied England’s defenders with his aerial prowess, including a stunning near-post header to draw the Dutch level and atone for his earlier mistake.
2. England’s midfield woes
England have a very solid defensive unit (yes, even with Stones’ mistake – that was an error of judgement not a lack of quality or a systemic flaw) and a terrifyingly good attacking one. They even have a goalkeeper who can rise to the big occasion with some enormous saves.
What they don’t have is a great midfield. Sure, they have great midfielders, but putting them together in an organised unit can often prove troubling. The trio used at the World Cup was expansive and exciting but had no ability to control the tempo of games, a problem which came back to haunt them in the semi-final against Croatia.
So changes have been made. The midfield that lined up against the Dutch had the potential to link well together, but… they didn’t. England’s centre-backs rarely had more than one option when trying to pass out from the back and whilst The Three Lions could send the ball forward nice enough, they couldn’t get hold of the ball. But hey, they had the lead and Marcus Rashford on the break; no worries yeah?
Well, when Rashford left the field at half-time and Sancho followed soon after, England lost a lot of their thrust and drive on the break and their midfield problems became more pronounced. The Dutch controlled the tempo and pushed England further and further back, and because England’s midfield couldn’t get hold of the ball to slow the Dutch assault, eventually their lead vanished and turned into defeat. The fact that Ross Barkley, a midfielder, made the final error, was deeply fitting.
3. Frenkie de Jong is a class apart
You’d think that with players like Virgil van Dijk, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane on the field it’d be hard for any one player to be so obviously better than everyone else but you’d be wrong. Frenkie de Jong absolutely ran the show in the UEFA Nations League semi-final.
The Dutch midfielder, who is still just 21-years-old remember, was impossibly serene in his performance. The English midfield wasn’t the first-choice and that minute amount of weakness got thoroughly exploited by the young De Jong.
Looking like a combination of Xavi and Busquets, De Jong played passes promptly and perfectly weighted. He never overplayed, but wasn’t just tapping it five yards sideways either. Frenkie was constantly shifting the direction and focus of the Netherlands’ play and making sure that England were always on the back-foot.
105 – Frenkie de Jong recorded more passes (105), touches (128), tackles (5) & recoveries (13) than any other player during Netherlands v England. Clockwork. pic.twitter.com/YkEYZrGZBG
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 6, 2019
Frenkie was impeccable. 101/105 passes completed. 5/7 tackles won. 3 interceptions, 100% dribbles and aerial duels, 2 fouls won, 2 key passes and a massive 13 ball recoveries. This kind of display is exactly why Barcelona paid £65m for him, and why he is going to light up the Camp Nou for years to come – and why the Dutch just might win the Nations League.
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4. Jadon The Irrepressible
Jadon Sancho played an hour of football in the semi-final against the Dutch and it’s impossible to comprehend the fact that two years ago he was basically some prospect who had taken the incredible step of leaving Manchester City and joining Borussia Dortmund.
Everyone assumed Sancho was being impatient, but the youngster bet on himself and his talent. Two years later and he’s now an established starter with Dortmund and a regular fixture of the England side. There’s a genuine argument to be made that Sancho is, if not a starter, then certainly the first alternate after the starting three. He’s so good that he can confidently turn down Manchester United, Manchester United, because he wants to stay in the Champions League and none of the English media think that’s a bad idea.
All that hype is justified, too. Tonight against the Netherlands, Sancho was incredible despite England’s performance meaning his role was sporadic because England barely saw the ball. Every time he did get possession, he made it count with incredible thrusts into the heart of the Dutch. No one could live with his combination of pace and skill and the moment when he casually dismissed Matthijs de Ligt with a nutmeg was absolutely outrageous. There seems to be no challenge Sancho can’t meet.
5. Southgate must stick to his guns
There’s going to be a lot of noise over the next few days, and most of it is going to be about “playing out from the back,” you’ll here the system described as needless, or showy-offy. Some may even say that they’re not objected to it on principle but that sometimes you just need to hoof the ball clear. There will also definitely be an element of xenophobia about the discourse, with talk of “foreign managers” introducing the concept (a line of debate which may bleed into lamenting the lack of English managers in the top six). It will be loud and relentless.
But here’s the thing: playing out from the back is absolutely essential to modern football at the elite level. It’s how the best teams in the world play. So you have to stick with it, because what it will give you is worth so much more than it will take away.
You can guarantee that had the Netherlands lost because of Matthijs de Ligt’s mistake in dawdling on the ball, no one in their media would have been blaming the system. They will with England, for sure, and Gareth Southgate has to not only stick with the system but relentlessly and vociferously defend John Stones and Ross Barkley in the media, because giving players the confidence to play out of the back is half the battle. The second they begin to doubt themselves, everything falls apart. And England are so close to being ready for the big time that it would be a tragedy for it to stop now.