Football Features

Netherlands ‘throw heritage away’ to win: Five things learned from today’s Euro 2020 Group C action

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 22:33, 13 June 2021

The Netherlands and Ukraine got their Euro 2020 campaign underway in Amsterdam this evening.

Both sides will have fancied their chances of starting this pan-European tournament with a win and in a game that came alive inside the final 40 minutes, Frank de Boer’s Oranje raced into a commanding 2-0 lead before their visitors completed a stunning comeback. However, just when it seemed the Group C rivals were going to play out an entertaining draw the hosts snatched a sensational 3-2 victory which those in attendance will remember for a long time.

As the dust settles, here are five things we learned from this pulsating encounter and the earlier game between Austria and North Macedonia.

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1. Formation debate rages on

Despite being two football-mad nations, expectations couldn’t be anymore different, the pressure to perform laid heavily on the shoulders of Frank de Boer, who heading into tonight’s game controversially borrowed a page from Louis van Gaal’s book. That feeling was illustrated on the eve of tonight’s game when a plane flew above Oranje’s final training with a message that read, “Frank, just play 4-3-3”. It refers to an oft-quoted phrase ’17 miljoen bondscoaches’, which essentially (albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way) means every Dutch citizen has a strong opinion of the national team but in this case there’s a historical perspective.

It’s been well-documented how sacrosanct the formation is to purists, but like Van Gaal in 2014 — the last time Oranje played tournament football before today — there’s a belief from De Boer that a 3-5-2 shape will serve those at his disposal better. “Five at the back. It’s not something that the Dutch know how to play,” Euro 1988-winning captain Ruud Gullit told beIN SPORTS. “Most of the players have never played it. But he has a reason because he doesn’t trust his defense, even with De Ligt and Van Dijk we were always 1-0 down… It’s almost like you are throwing away heritage.”

The Netherlands failed to make a great case for De Boer’s stance against Scotland in their first warm-up game but there were promising signs next time out as they inflicted a 3-0 defeat on lowly Georgia. No fewer than 10 who started that game kept their spot, with Patrick van Aanholt coming in for Owen Wijndal to assume the left wing-back role. Onus was then on him and Denzel Dumfries operating the opposite flank to provide attacking width. Dumfries in particular is full of energy and attitude but he’s essentially a wingback that’s not really a wingback.

He’s an orthodox right-back for PSV Eindhoven and although his positivity is endearing, always looking for a forward option, one area where the Everton target falls short is finishing. So, when Depay played a cross into Ukraine’s penalty area, it was no surprise to see him nod a free header wide. It quickly cast into light the Dutch wide players on the bench — Steven Berghuis, Cody Gakpo and Donyell Malen — each capable of slotting the ball home, but this is a price you pay when moving away from a system that doesn’t utilise wingers.

Each of the six players (three centre-backs and three central midfielders) between Van Aanholt and Dumfries are technically sound but there’s often a lack of penetration and creativity with star forward Memphis Depay the only one who’s seemingly able to create something out of nothing. And that was exemplified inside the opening two minutes when he exuded big ‘I’ll do it myself’ energy while collecting possession deep inside his own half before setting off on a scintillating run and subsequently forcing Georgiy Bushchan into making an excellent save. It proved to be the first of three excellent stops by the Ukrainian goalkeeper, who amazingly denied Georginio Wijnaldum minutes from half-time.

2. Dumfries’ game of two halves

You can never have too many good players but where Oranje struggles is their overreliance on Depay in the final third. There’s no question he is an elite footballer (there’s a reason why Barcelona are set to acquire his signature) but carrying a team for so long can only end in tears unless you shed such a one-dimensional approach. Heading into Euro 2020, Depay played a key role in Oranje’s last six international goals (scoring four and creating two).

What explicitly stood out this evening in the Dutch capital was Oranje’s disjointed play. Rather than enjoying a cohesive attacking pattern, they relied on individual pieces of brilliance, especially when entering the final third. See their opening goal: an unthreatening cross from Dumfries could only be parried by the excellent Bushchan into the feet of Wijnaldum, who composed himself before passing the ball into an empty net.

Keeping possession was a formality as Ukraine preferred a counter-attacking strategy and when they did break forward they kept Oranje’s backline as honest as could be. But once the Dutch went in front, Andriy Shevchenko’s men froze. Dumfries, who must have kicked himself heading into the interval, became a nuisance and Oranje’s most threatening outlet. Near the hour mark he unleashed chaos in the penalty area, sending a ricochetted ball into the path of Wout Weghorst at close range. The 28-year-old striker unleashed a shot beyond Bushchan at his near post and doubled De Boer’s side’s lead.

But that advantage was quickly whittled away with 11 minutes remaining. Now staring at the ignominy of letting a first European Championship win since 2008 away, De Boer’s blushes were spared by Dumfries of all people. As touched upon, his finishing isn’t always up to scratch, but in the 85th minute he expertly headed past Bushchan, who really should have done better to score his first international goal. You couldn’t make it up. The villain in the first half, Dumfries more than anyone got Oranje over the line.

3. Tournament’s first thriller

This was undoubtedly a second-half reprieve by Dumfries and the look on De Boer’s face suggested his tactical switch was vindicated, but to suggest the conversation will go away would be foolish. It wasn’t until the Dutch went in front through fortunate means that Ukraine’s resolve break, and Andriy Yarmolenko’s early contender for ‘goal of the tournament’ did in turn rattle the Dutch.

Whatever control they had dissipated moments later when Ruslan Malinovskyi’s free-kick was headed home by Roman Yaremchuk. It was a stunning comeback that demonstrated why some feel Ukraine can be this summer’s surprise package. But if they want to go deep into the championship, Shevchenko will need to shore up their defence. Bushchan, like Dumfries, enjoyed a game of two halves. He was imperious in the opening 45 minutes but susceptible in the second.

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4. Age is but a number

In the early Group C game Austria and Euro debutant North Macedonia locked horns at Bucharest’s lavish Arena Națională stadium, with both looking to get their campaign off to a winning start. Much of the headlines coming into this championship focused on veteran striker Goran Pandev and the 37-year-old Genoa marksman lived up to his billing when he became the second-oldest player ever to score at the European Championship behind (funnily enough) Austrian midfielder-cum-striker Ivica Vastic.

It was a deserved and rewarding strike. He’s waited this long to play in a major international tournament. Since turning professional in the early 2000s, he’s gone on to become his nation’s most-capped (120) player and leading scorer (38). Pandev in the months leading up to Euro 2020 created a huge stir by netting the opener in a historic 1-2 win over four-time world champions Germany, but he couldn’t inspire North Macedonia against their neighbours.

5. Seventh time’s a charm

Borussia Monchengladbach defender Stefan Lainer had broken the deadlock with 18 minutes having passed. Following the North Macedonian equaliser, Franco Foda’s side kept their composure and got themselves back into the game. Michael Gregoritsch would convert a David Alba pass to put them back in front before Marko Arnautović sealed all three points for Unsere Burschen, their first European Championship win at the seventh time of asking. Next up is a first competitive meeting against the Netherlands since September 2003 on Thursday evening.

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