Football Features

Netherlands resurgence: Why Ronald Koeman’s side are back on the rise

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 9:19, 10 September 2019

Despite their Nations League defeat in the summer, the Netherlands are a nation on the rise.

After their miracle third place showing at the 2014 World Cup, the Dutch missed out on both Euro 2016 and the World Cup in 2018. They appeared to be a team lost to history, failing to qualify ahead of teams they really shouldn’t have been losing out to such as Iceland, Turkey and Sweden.

But now, under Ronald Koeman, they have risen like a phoenix from the ashes. They shook up the inaugural Uefa Nations League, eliminating France and relegating Germany to qualify for the finals.

There they beat England in the semi-finals before losing out in the final to Portugal. And most recently they smashed both Germany and Estonia away from home in Euro 2020 qualification.

So what has sparked this resurgence? We’ve isolated four main factors that have led the Dutch on the road back to the top of the international game.

1. A new generation

One of the major hurdles the Netherlands always had to “moving on” was that players from previous generations would never go away. Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie both experienced career peaks in 2013 and have been declining since, meanwhile Wesley Sneijder has been something of a joke since 2012 and yet he kept on being featured and has more Dutch caps than anybody in history.

This isn’t to say they became bad players, Robben in particular remained effective on his day right up to the end, but that these aren’t the kind of players you can build any forward momentum around because of their age – especially when you pair them with players who are good but not great like Vincent Janssen, Gini Wijnaldum, Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind.

Ronald Koeman got rid of all legends within months of taking charge, and he made instant changes to the structure of the side. He put Matthijs de Ligt into a starting role, Memphis Depay at the head of attack as a false nine, and as soon as the Uefa Nations League started Frenkie de Jong came into the picture too.

This new generation of players (as well as others like Quincy Promes, Denzel Dumfries and Steven Bergwijn) are the pillars around which this new side is built, with Memphis’ role in attack bringing the best out of an obscenely talented player who had, prior to Koeman, been an enormously frustrating winger. He has become the Dutch talisman in attack, a symbol of the new generation.

No one has scored or assisted more goals under Koeman than Memphis. In fact with a total goal involvement of 19, the Lyon forward has had a direct hand in over half the 33 goals scored under the new boss.

Memphis may not be the fastest but his strength, vision and incredible technique make him ideal for the false nine role which shapes the structure of Koeman’s side.

2. Back to basics

Of course, new players isn’t going to mean much without a defined system of play, but thankfully that’s exactly what Koeman did. In the friendlies they experimented with 3-5-2, but by the time the Nations League had rolled around they were playing the Dutch classic 4-3-3.

They went back-to-basics, with an emphasis on passing and possession. But true to their strengths they didn’t play a slow attack, sure, they knew how to monopolise the ball and probe for weaknesses but their attacks, by and large, were fast and used overloads in the middle (thanks to Memphis dropping deep) to create space on the flanks for their wingers and full-backs.

This made players like Wijnaldum explode in terms of their output, and Blind was finding the kind of space he used to do when playing in Louis van Gaal’s 5-3-2 back in 2014.

Suddenly even ‘alright’ players could play above their level, notably Ryan Babel. A career disappointment (outside of the Netherlands and Turkey), Babel found new life as the team’s veteran forward, unleashed by Memphis’ (and the system’s) creativity to be a genuine threat to all opponents.

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3. Frenkie de Jong

No one exemplifies a new generation and a back-to-basics tactical approach better than De Jong, and the Barcelona man is arguably one of the three most important players in this new side (along with Memphis and skipper Virgil van Dijk). And overwhelmingly it proves to be De Jong’s genius as a midfielder that has had the biggest impact on the Dutch resurgence.

De Jong is a miracle of a footballer. At just 21 years of age he runs the base of midfield with all the calm assurance and smart decision-making of a player 10 years his senior.

Blessed with athletic ability, De Jong is even capable of handling himself defensively and in transition as well as being a supreme passer of the ball, keeping his side dominating possession of the ball and on the front foot.

With De Jong running midfield, Ajax made it to within seconds of making the Champions League final (and Spurs’ comeback in that game only happened when they started hoofing the ball over De Jong and swamping him in possession, so dominant was he) and the Dutch easily outplayed France, Germany and England in their Nations League adventure. In truth they dominated the final too but were unable to break down a rock solid Portugal defence.

Now he’s moved to Barcelona, De Jong is only going to improve as a player which is a scary prospect when you consider how good he already is and how much control he exerts over the Dutch midfield.

Pretty soon there won’t be a midfield on the planet (besides, perhaps, Spain) who can go toe-to-toe with the Netherlands thanks to De Jong’s genius.

4. A dominant defensive triangle

Of course one thing that is central to any good side is their defence. They must be able to shut out and shut down opposing attacks, and Koeman has constructed a phenomenal defensive unit for the Oranje. Alright, Blind isn’t the best and Dumfries is better in attack than defence, but the triangle at the heart of the Dutch defence is dominant.

Jasper Cillessen has long been a quality goalkeeper but ironically it was three years spent on the bench at Barcelona that was the making of him.

Not only was he receiving quality coaching and working with one of the world’s finest in Marc-André Ter Stegen, but he also won things. Major things. These victories helped improve his own mentality to the point where he could carry himself with authority.

And ahead of him? Van Dijk was morphing into one of the best defenders on the planet (perhaps the very best). He joined Liverpool at the start of 2018 and his rise since then has been meteoric.

Van Dijk’s organisational abilities have transformed the Dutch defence and his own individual defensive skill makes him a superb weapon of last resort.

Alongside Van Dijk is the titanic De Ligt, the teenager with the mentality (and turning circle) of a seasoned veteran but the incredible defensive ability and reading of the game to be a perfect partner for the Dutch captain.

And with these two dominating ahead of a goalkeeper like Cillessen, then the Netherlands know they will always be in with a chance no matter the opponent.

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