Football Features

How the Netherlands’ midfield works: the controller, the six & the vacuum cleaner

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 14:47, 7 June 2019

The Netherlands are on the cusp of lifting a first major trophy since 1988.

Ronald Koeman’s reinvigorated Oranje needed extra-time to reach the inaugural UEFA Nations League final at England’s expense, winning 3-1.

A closely fought, error-strewn game was ultimately decided by defensive mishaps. Gareth Southgate, who has done a stellar job as Three Lions boss, rued a number of lapses in concentration from his players but very few on the pitch were performing at their optimum best.

Frenkie de Jong was probably the exception. Virgil van Dijk was imperious as ever, too. The former, since breaking into the Dutch national team, has become part of an irresistible midfield triumvirate which is now Koeman’s cornerstone.

Back to a familiar dimension

On arrival, following yet another failure to reach an international tournament (World Cup 2018), Koeman wouldn’t guarantee Oranje will play in their famed 4-3-3 shape under him. He wasn’t pulling the wool over anyone’s eyes. His opening five matches, all friendlies, saw Oranje play a back-three, however, that would soon change once the competitive games came around, starting with a UEFA Nations League date away to newly-crowned world champions, France.

By now, Koeman knew his players and would implement a system to enhance their skills. The reintroduction of a 4-3-3 saw Memphis Depay move from the left flank into a ‘false nine’ role which he’s grown into, subsequently becoming a game-changer. Van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt have forged the meanest Dutch centre-back pairing since Jaap Stam and Frank de Boer.

Oranje’s current midfield lacks a classical number ten, but it’s laced with three ball-playing footballers, each fulfilling a different role that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. De Jong, who has been a revelation, plays the ‘number six’ (controlling midfielder) position effortlessly. Aside from sitting in front of the defence, retaining and recycling possession, he often drops in between Van Dijk and De Ligt to act as a third centre-back. By combining individual skill with stamina, he’s the blueprint for the modern midfielder.

Marten de Roon – nicknamed ‘the wavebreaker’ – sits adjacent to De Jong, but operates slightly between him and Georginio Wijnaldum when Oranje are in possession. He is the more physical of the triumvirate. Not the most offensive, his job as defensive midfielder is to break up the oppositions play with a tactical foul or, like De Jong, by positioning himself smartly. De Roon, who was pivotal in Atalanta reaching next season’s Champions League against the odds, is the least decorated but no less important in his ‘stofzuiger’ (vacuum cleaner) role.

The aforementioned Wijnaldum has come on leaps and bounds under Jurgen Klopp’s tutelage. His (number eight) role here is the same as the one he performs for Liverpool. Operating box-to-box, the Rotterdammer is a threat in the opposition half – only Depay (8) and Van Dijk (4) have bagged more goals than Wijnaldum (3) in Koeman’s team – and a presence in his own right. For now, this balanced composition is working. There’s no reason why things should change, but the future is not guaranteed.

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Something that could shake things up, though, is the emergence of Donny van de Beek, who became one of the faces of Ajax’s incredible recent Champions League run. The 22-year-old midfielder, given his attributes, is likely to battle Wijnaldum for a spot. Though given these players’ education and tactical flexibility, there’s a strong possibility he could usurp De Roon – whom he came on for against England – and take on the number eight role with Wijnaldum shifting deeper or vice versa. Van de Beek, who played the last 52 minutes (including extra time), helped speed up Oranje’s tempo, giving Koeman some food for thought.


Going back to Koeman’s unveiling as manager and outlining that he will not be dogmatic, there’s no reason why he couldn’t temporarily depart from utilising 4-3-3; we could theoretically see a midfield diamond with De Jong (number six) and Van de Beek (number ten) on either tip. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility, especially as that is how Oranje finished against England with Davy Propper and Wijnaldum alongside the pair. Super-sub, Quincy Promes (grabbing a brace), and the frustrating Depay who, despite a weak performance created two goals, lead the Dutch line.

In the upcoming final against hosts Portugal at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto, chances are Koeman will not make any drastic changes. Even if they fall short, this first phase of his tenure cannot be deemed as a failure. With a robust and dynamic midfield, Oranje’s future is a lot brighter than before Koeman grabbed the wheel.