Football Features

A ‘hidden talent’ unleashed? The popular moves De Boer could make for Netherlands v North Macedonia

By Mohamed Moallim

Published: 20:35, 20 June 2021

The clouds of doom and gloom which hung over the Netherlands heading into Euro 2020 are gradually evaporating following impressive wins over Ukraine and Austria.

It means with one fixture to spare Frank de Boer’s men are guaranteed to finish the opening phase as Group C winners and most importantly, there’s no incredible pressure on their shoulders when facing European Championship debutants North Macedonia.

De Boer can subsequently evaluate his squad in peace, but momentum can quickly shift and he will not want his Oranje side to fall into complacency. That being said, it’s a squad game, and if the Dutch harbour grand ambitions of going all the way, then relying on the same 11 players is a big risk.

This meeting with the 62nd-ranked team in world football is a golden opportunity to rotate as well as implement other ideas which can be called upon when plan A doesn’t work. Here are four moves we’d like to see De Boer undertake in their Amsterdam farewell before setting off for Budapest.

1. Hello old friend

The biggest talking point from a Dutch perspective at these championships is their formation of choice. De Boer on the eve of the competition moved away from a 4-3-3, instead preferring a back-three, which initially raised more than a few eyebrows. But, he has since won skeptics over.

It’s not wholly perfect, though positives outweigh the negatives. For one, it’s making right wing-back Denzel Dumfries look like prime Dani Alves. His performances have even attracted the attention of several clubs including Bayern Munich, with the expectation that he’ll leave present club PSV Eindhoven if their valuation of him is matched.

Dumfries, with his boundless energy, continues against North Macedonia (though Joel Veltman and even Quincy Promes are options). On the opposite flank Owen Wijndal gets a first start at Patrick van Aanholt’s expense but Oranje on Monday evening should revert to a national favourite. That’s right, De Boer reintroduces a 4-3-3 shape, which he’s previously done eight times (across 13 outings) whilst at the helm, and it’s not like they’ve come in friendlies, as 75% of those matches were competitive.

Unlike his predecessors De Boer opts for a double pivot when deploying the system. Though he could easily field a single midfielder behind a pair of deep-lying forwards, though he’s unlikely to opt for the latter.

2. De Ligt-Blind reunited

It also presents a chance for Matthijs de Ligt, who returned from injury to play the full 90 minutes in the Netherlands’ 2-0 win over Austria, to keep pushing forward in search of his best form.

The 21-year-old Juventus central defender came in for some tasty criticism from Euro 1988 hero and former national team boss Marco van Basten. “De Ligt is a central defender and needs more leadership,” he began. “He has to make himself heard, lead the department and instead he just chases his man, leaving a hole. He went to Italy to learn how to defend but I don’t think he has learned much.”

To his credit, De Ligt took it on the chin, though following that same game he wasn’t exactly enamoured with the tactics. “Today we had to play a lot of long balls in quite a few moments, and as an Ajax player it makes you feel a little strange doing that all the time” he commented. Familiarity breeds confidence and maybe De Boer can kill two birds with one stone.

Going back to 4-3-3 is something De Ligt knows like the back of his hand, and more so if he lines up alongside Daley Blind, his former central defensive partner. Erik ten Hag fielded them at the heart of Ajax’s defence regularly before De Ligt took his talents to Turin, where he’s nominally played in a back-four.

They’ve seldom replicated that union at international level due to heavy competition for places, most notably Virgil van Dijk’s presence, which has forced Blind to assume a left-back role. However in the build-up to Euro 2020 they were entrusted to be Oranje’s first choice centre-back pairing in their opening three 2022 World Cup qualification matches.

There’s no better moment with De Ligt needing to get back up to speed whilst having someone familiar next to him, and De Boer putting his prospective back-up plan into practice, as the assumption is 3-5-2 will certainly be unleashed from the off in their round-of-16 game.

3. Take five

The importance of role players cannot be underestimated during a tournament. Although different circumstances, De Boer recognised this point when leading Ajax to four consecutive Eredivisie titles. By forging slick collective spirit there was never a dependency on one or two individuals. “Football is a team sport,” he once quipped.

Of course managing a national team is a totally different experience as you’re not with your players on a regular basis. Even so, creating a strong team chemistry isn’t difficult for the very best coaches. He might be continually undermined, but De Boer has stumbled onto something; across Oranje’s first two matches at Euro 2020 he’s started 13 players. The only change so far has been Jurrien Timber, who made way for De Ligt in the Austria outing after starting against Ukraine.

Chances are, some of those faces could feature against North Macedonia but with only winning momentum riding on this fixture, why not give some of those key players a breather in preparation for the business end of the tournament? Already those names are identifiable; there being three: Memphis Depay — who opened his account last time out — can be wrapped up in cotton wool.

De Boer himself stressed that despite a slow start, the new Barcelona forward can prove his worth deeper into the competition. You don’t want to risk an injury or suspension in a freebie game especially when there’s alternatives in his role. The same could be said for midfield duo Georginio Wijnaldum and Frenkie de Jong, both have been nothing short of sensational, the latter in particular.

The deep-lying Dutchman is on a smooth trajectory to become one of Europe’s best midfielders. In a Dutch squad bereft of world class individuals, unlike previous times, he’s the one star who could walk into any major international team. His passing acumen is frightening and that has been on display for all to see (currently averaging 77.5 per 90 minutes).

When taking on Europe’s elite as Oranje will certainly be doing if they progress further into these pan-European games, De Jong’s mere presence could be a difference maker. Wijnaldum’s leadership too. Paris Saint-Germain’s latest recruit operates more like a ‘number 10’ when representing his country (one goal and one chance created per 90 at Euro 2020 so far) which is worlds away from the box-to-box midfielder Liverpool supporters have cheered on. Again there are options to replace him temporarily before the knockout phase gets started.

4. Keeping it local

On paper the future of Oranje’s midfield looks tasty. And that’s not considering the fact that the aforementioned De Jong and Wijnaldum still have a couple of tournament cycles left in them. De Boer initially selected no fewer than seven players who can operate between the defensive and forward lines, before Donny van de Beek pulled out through injury, with three of those based at home.

And it just so happens those individuals — who have played a combined 16 minutes at Euro 2020 to date — could shape an operational triumvirate. Davy Klaassen (0 appearances) and Ryan Gravenberch (one appearance) are club mates, having shared the pitch many times for Ajax. So, already there’s an inbuilt understanding. Klaassen, in Ten Hag’s 4-3-3 last season, was commonly used as a ‘number 10’ behind a striker, whilst Gravenberch played deeper in a ‘number eight’ role alongside a defensive-oriented ‘number six’ in the guise of Edson Alvarez.

That role which Alvarez undertook could easily be replicated by Teun Koopmeiners, the 23-year-old AZ skipper, who has been heavily linked with a move to Atalanta. He showed it during the 2020/21 campaign by expertly breaking up attacks. His impeccable tackling and good positional sense allows him to win possession and then distribute it effectively. Not exactly like-for-like replacements but Oranje can easily rest De Jong and Wijnaldum, whilst creating a new midfield that has the ability to function, as well as posing uncomfortable questions for North Macedonia by feeding the speed merchants ahead of them.

Among them, as touched upon, shouldn’t be Depay but his spiritual PSV Eindhoven successor — who came off the bench against Austria to register an assist — Donyell Malen, who needs to be given a run out, preferably through the middle. The former Ajax youth prospect ended last season with 19 league goals across 32 outings. Each game he took part in saw Roger Schmidt field him up top, albeit in a 4-4-2, but it’s not much of an issue as Malen is still operating in the area of the pitch where he can be most effective. De Boer’s use of wing-backs has seemingly made everyone forget about the quality of wingers at his disposal. None more so than ex-Watford forward Steven Berghuis, who seemed undroppable in the months leading up to Euro 2020.

Feyenoord’s influential captain bagged 19 goals plus 13 assists last term and when donning a Dutch jersey he’s managed two goals and two assists in his last four appearances. A left-footed winger, De Boer and Ronald Koeman before him, would play Berghuis from the right flank (a la Arjen Robben), which is his realistic position here thus leaving the possibility of Cody Gakpo on the opposite side.

Again the importance of synergy is important here as Gakpo and Malen share the same locker room during the domestic season. Gakpo, who remains uncapped, played the final seven games of last season on the left flank scoring twice in the process. There’s an Eredivisie flavour to this hypothetical front six but it only goes to show the hidden talent, with a bulk of them not looking out of place in an international setting. Getting minutes under the legs could also serve Oranje well if they go beyond the next round.