T hose are my boys”. Louis van Gaal was very bullish in his press conference on the announcement of the 26 man squad he’ll be taking to Qatar. The message he sends across is one of optimism and pride for the group of players he believes can take him to World Cup glory in a month's time. There seems to be an air of confidence for the Dutch going into the tournament, perpetuated, not only by the manager but also the players. Maybe we take it for granted as typical ‘Dutch courage’; or just maybe there is a strong possibility that the Oranje are being overlooked.
Louis van Gaal is in his 3rd stint as Dutch coach and this tournament is likely to serve as his last opportunity to win silverware. While the prospect that he could go one better than the great Rinus Michels, is quite incredible given the latter's status it would all but confirm Van Gaal’s place amongst the pantheon of all-time great managers. It would be a fitting final act for a man who was unceremoniously sacked by Manchester United 6 years ago and had been in the football wilderness and even retired. Just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
Whilst Euro 2020 was a disappointing campaign for the Dutch, since the arrival of Van Gaal, they’ve been on a 15 game unbeaten streak. Wins home and away to Belgium were significant,especially the latter, where the Dutch ripped Belgium to shreds, en route to a 4-1 thrashing. Other highlights include a 4-2 victory against Denmark and a last minute winner against a game Welsh side that all but confirmed their place in next year’s Nations League finals.
The Dutch have a nice blend of experience and youth going into the tournament and are one of the most in-form European sides at the moment. Van Gaal has created a feel good factor around the team and it’s imperative he maintains this, as we know that the “Iron Tulip” can wilt when he doesn’t get his way.
After using a 4-3-3 in the World Cup qualifying campaign, Van Gaal has switched to and predominantly used a variant of the 3-5-2 and 3-4-1-2. Initially the players were not convinced but have since been won over by the back 3 system which sees the Netherlands play some of the most expansive football out of the teams going to Qatar. Personnel is an important distinction to the Netherlands’ approach and will define whether they are playing with a midfield three or duo in what is a fluid approach.
Intensity of Press/Shape
The Netherlands like to play in a compact shape with an aggressive high line. In typical Van Gaal fashion, he is uber specific with how he likes his team to defend, insisting on no more than 10m metres between every player. This Sacchi-esque compactness minimises the amount of space that the opposition can play in and has proved to be an effective strategy, especially when you consider the mobility that the Dutch have in defence.
Despite playing in such an aggressive way, the Netherlands don’t exclusively press high up the pitch. Instead they usually allow the opposition to play out initially before triggering the press. This does two things: (1) It creates space for them to attack if they turn the ball over. This is such a Dutch interpretation of Gegenpressing. Dutch space is different... 2) To go all out pressing from the front, won’t be a feasible tactic in the Qatari heat. It’s a good compromise for a team that wants to play aggressive football in light of the climate limitations.
Often the strikers will split wide to cover the wide options and one of the midfielders will step up to cover the middle. This is done to funnel attacks into the most congested area of the pitch and the Netherlands are best equipped to win the ball back. This can leave the Dutch vulnerable should the opposition find solutions to access the flanks and isolate their wing backs. Van Gaal teams are often exposed when playing against sides that move the ball laterally at speed. Against elite sides, the Netherlands will have to be prepared for this, as they are not blessed with midfielders who excel athletically and could be exposed if being constantly asked to shuttle side to side.
Aerially the Dutch are a bit of an oxymoron. They are both formidable and feeble. It all depends on personnel. Virgil van Dijk, Stefan de Vrij, Nathan Aké and Matthijs de Ligt are all behemoths in the air and are unlikely to be troubled by the elite target men. However, should Jurriën Timber and Daley Blind start, then that aerial presence suddenly diminishes. Van Gaal has been favouring Timber recently ahead of De Ligt, so the opposition may want to look to expose the left channel on crosses. Blind can be covered by Aké but should he play CB, he’s another player who can be targeted for his aerial deficiency.
In terms of on the ball skills in defence, the Netherlands are very gifted. Whilst Van Dijk doesn’t compare to the legendary sweepers of old ala Baresi and Beckenbauer, for a modern CB, he is composed in possession and has a solid range of passes. Add on top of this Akê, who is well versed in juego de posición and Timber, it’s clear to see the Dutch have an incredible depth of players who can all be relied upon. If you add on top of this the gluttony of keepers who are all impressive with their feet, it’s no surprise that the Dutch are one of the more aggressive teams when it comes to play out of the back.
Gambling In Goal
Goalkeeper is a position that has got everyone talking at the moment. Van Gaal has made the incredible decision to exclude both Jasper Cillessen and Mark Flekken from his squad. It seems quite bizarre he’s done away with two goalkeepers who he seemed keen on previously but Van Gaal has defended this by saying the three keepers he has picked all fit his system better.
Whilst goalkeeper does look like a weak position for the Dutch, Remko Pasveer has been a revelation for Ajax and the national team, becoming the second oldest debutante at the tender age of 38. Now 39, in what might be his only tournament, he’s got a great opportunity to continue this fever dream and Van Gaal has backed him with the #1 shirt. It’s a move reminiscent of Michels’ decision to overlook Piet Schrijvers in favour of the 34 year old but inexperienced Jan Jongbloed for the 1974 World Cup. In both cases, the ability with the feet was prioritised for the man between the sticks.
As for the Netherlands’ backline, Van Gaal has experimented with different combinations of players but looks to have found his winning formula. Van Dijk as captain is Van Gaal’s lieutenant and most trusted player at the back. It’s pretty incredible that this will be Van Dijk’s first international tournament but is unlikely to faze a player who’s been played in three Champions League finals over the last five years. Alongside him in the wide centre back positions, are likely to feature Timber and Aké, both having made a late surge to cement their place in the defence.
Timber has excellent speed to be able to defend in the wide areas but isn’t the most astute in terms of positioning. As discussed earlier, he can be exposed aerially, so he’ll need extra support in this regard. Who better to help him than Denzel Dumfries. The flying Dutchman is a key element in this Dutch side. Not only will his aerial prowess help cover Timber on crosses but is also an outlet for the Dutch when they are struggling to beat the first press. Let’s hope that the knock he picked up against Atalanta at the weekend doesn’t impact his tournament.
Left wing back is still arguably up for grabs. Tyrell Malacia has a good chance of starting. A great athlete and someone who can facilitate being a wing back due to his energy, the Dutch would benefit from having two dynamic threats on both flanks. However, due to Malacia's suspect positioning and the fact the Netherlands have a lot of mobility in the back three, they can afford to and are likely to start the steady and safe pair of hands that is Daley Blind.
Elsewhere, there are solid options off the bench at centre half in De Ligt and De Vrij. Should either Timber or Aké struggle in the early games, Van Gaal isn’t afraid to make changes and the Netherlands will be at ease knowing they’ve got a lot of quality coming off the bench. Sven Botman may be a surprise exclusion but given Van Dijk will play in the middle of a back three, Boteman’s bulkiness and lack of mobility means he’s a liability when defending in the wide channels and is ill-suited to playing as a wide centre back. Jeremie Frimpong has done well to get himself a place on the plane, and offers a different skill set to Dumfries. However, considering his lack of international experience and the importance of Dumfries, he is unlikely to see many minutes at the tournament.
Expect to see... a back 3 consisting of Van Dijk in the centre, flanked by Timber and Ake with Pasveer between the sticks.
Van Gaal's Obsession For Possession
The Dutch have shown they can go toe-to-toe in the possession stakes with some of the elite side in Europe. Germany did dominate them in their friendly earlier this year but that was still during their transition to the 3-5-2. Since then they have shown good progress in their ability to control games and play the arrogant football that Van Gaal demands of them.
What sets the Netherlands apart from the rest is the fluidity they have in possession. The amount of rotations the midfield creates is astonishing. During the build up phase, often the midfielders will pull out to wide positions, almost like wing backs, as the actual wing backs push up really high up. This opens up all sorts of angles and solutions for playing through the first press.
At the centre of this is the talismanic figure, Frenkie de Jong. Expect to see De Jong to dictate proceedings, orchestrating build up patterns, telling players where to go and when to pass. He is vital to the Netherlands’ rotations in possession and is a proxy for Van Gaal to remain in control of the shape and structure but in a much more organic way rather than squawking instructions from the sidelines.
Alongside De Jong, is likely to be Teun Koopmeiners. The Atalanta player doesn’t possess the flair or dynamism of a Frenkie de Jong but what he does bring is most importantly, balance. His has the defensive nous that complements De Jong wondrous nature. He’s very adept at defending in transitions through his solid defensive positioning. As a deep lying playmaker, Koopmeiners will also get involved in the build up. However, whereas De Jong likes to keep the play ticking over, with short sharp passes, Koopmeiners is much more of a risk taker, favouring more progressive passes.
It’s imperative that he and De Jong are constantly on the move looking to receive, otherwise the Netherlands will see their star man swapped in midfield. Marten de Roon is another midfield option who can come in for Koopmeiners should the Netherlands need to tighten their belts and see out a game. The midfield destroyer loves to get stuck in but also offers a safety-first possession game that might be useful as an end game strategy in the knockout stages.
Berghuis rounds out the Dutch midfield very nicely. His energy and willingness to run in the channels gives a good level of thrust from the midfield, which they otherwise lack with De Jong and Koopmeiners. Defensively, he will look to push further up to press the opposition centre backs and midfielders, while the other two sit and wait to pounce. All three together look incredibly fluid, constantly moving the opposition around with their rotations, not afraid to receive the ball in tight spaces and offer an impact in all thirds on the pitch.
The Back-Up Options
Gravenberch's exclusion has raised a few eyebrows. Struggling to get gametime at Bayern,has not helped his cause but a big factor in Van Gaal giving him the cold-shoulder is the emergence of the more talented replacement at Ajax, Kenneth Taylor. Taylor offers a younger and fresh alternative should the Netherlands need to replace Berghuis through fatigue or injury. Similar to Berghuis, he offers a goal threat with impeccable timing of when to arrive in the box. Unlike Berghuis, he’s a prolific dribbler and much tidier in possession, having the right balance of risk and reward with his passing. He’s been likened to Toni Kroos, which isn’t really a fair or accurate comparison, but goes to show what his potential ceiling is.
If the Netherlands need some extra physical presence in midfield, Davy Klaassen is more than an adequate option. Very much a hard working midfield grinder, who likes to press aggressively but also offers a goal threat. When Klaassen plays, he also frees up De Jong to dictate the proceedings from deep. We saw how effective this was away to Belgium, with De Jong enjoying an incredible 93 touches, as Klaassen floated around allowing De Jong the space to operate in, whilst always giving him a passing option. This tactic may not work against all teams, but shows the level of flexibility the Dutch have when playing a midfield three.
The Bat-Shit Crazy Option
Van Gaal, however, is a bit of a weird guy. Whilst mainly fielding three midfielders, Van Gaal on many occasions has gone with a double pivot with a more attack minded midfielder further ahead. An example of this has been his deployment of Cody Gakpo. The PSV man, who you’d more associate as a wing forward, has been deployed as a auxiliary #10, even at times playing as a Mezzala. It’s pretty bizarre and invokes memories of some of the sides Van Gaal would put out during his tenure at Manchester United.
While Gakpo can do a good in there, it does have an overall negative impact on the team. With only a double pivot, the midfield looks much more vulnerable. Build up is greatly affected and it can stagnate their ability to progress the ball through the thirds. Should the Netherlands be chasing a goal late in the game, it’s a more understandable strategy but would be daft to employ from the start of a game.
Expect… De Jong and Koopmeiners to form a double pivot behind an attacking midfielder such as Berghuis.
Naturally, because the Netherlands deploy a back three, there’s a lot of onus and responsibility on the wing backs to provide the width and look after what is essentially two-thirds of the pitch.
Denzel Dumfries is ever present on the right side and will be the Netherlands biggest threat from the flanks. He’s perfect for Van Gaal’s system which demands the wing back to start high and wide. As discussed earlier, Dumfries offers an aerial presence which the Dutch will utilise when playing out of the back should they want to bypass an aggressive press and also for when they need a last minute goal and need to hoof the ball up field. Whilst Dumfries isn’t a prolific crosser ala Trent Alexander-Arnold, he offers enough penetration to get into dangerous positions on a consistent basis and could be a potential goal threat for the Netherlands.
On the bench, Jeremie Frimpong is unlikely to get many minutes but should he be called upon can offer a different type of threat. While Dumfries is a sort of battering ram, who comes with power and industry, Dumfries relatively speaking, is a lot tidier and technically. He’s a more proficient dribbler to his counterpart and has much better command of the ball in tight spaces. Dumfries can be a bit clumsy in possession, so it’s nice to have an alternative option in that regard, should the Netherlands need a different look. Frimpong is also incredibly rapid, amongst one of the fastest players in the Bundesliga and combined with his stamina, means he can constantly cover a lot of ground at great speed.
A weak point for the Netherlands has to be their presence on the left side. With Blind usually deployed at left wing back, it’s difficult for the player to cover much ground given his lack of athleticism. Depay can at times look to pull out wide, but this isn’t a constant fixture of the Netherlands play, so unless they completely dominate possession, there is space for the opposition to play with on this side. Once in the final third, Blind is very composed and often finds the right pass/cross to play. It’s a question of whether he can cope in a game that’s back of forth.
Malacia would be a remedy for this but there are a couple of reasons why he might not be fancied by Van Gaal. Firstly, Malacia does not have much variety in his attacking movements. Van Gaal wants players who can be aggressive, fluid and dynamic. Malacia will mainly stay out wide and rarely inverts. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it’s just he’s not the most aggressive runner, as opposed to Dumfries on the opposite flank. This passiveness in his play, can mean too often he’s involving himself in the play in front of the defence when he should be running in behind.
To be fair to Malacia, he is a tidy player in possession and his passing is slightly underrated, so I can understand his willingness to participate, it’s just not necessary to the extent he does it. Another issue with Malacia is his tendency to shoot from positions on the pitch that are unlikely to yield a shot on target, let alone a goal. Van Gaal being the control freak he is can only put up with so much.
Expect…Dumfries to be a nailed on starter at right back, with Blind likely to be given the nod in the first instance down the left. Malacia will be trying his best to muscle his way in.
Quintessential Van Gaal sides prioritise the system as the source of creativity. In his eyes, the power of the collective is more important than individualism. Whilst, this is also true for a side that lacks a standout star, there’s a good variety of players that possess the inventiveness to unlock defences.
Since the Netherlands mainly deploy a 3-5-2, a lot of their creativity comes from the front two. Steven Bergwijn has managed to resurrect his career after a disastrous spell at Tottenham. As a shadow striker, his exceptional ball carrying ability is a catalyst for the Dutch in the final third. Not only does he excel in tight spaces but he can also weave past defenders at will. On top of this, his strong upper body and powerful acceleration allows him to carry a lot of attacking impetus when isolated.
His partner in crime, Memphis Depay may not be able to carry this team like De Jong, but he still plays a crucial role in how the Netherlands like to play. His timing of when to drop and receive makes him such an underrated false 9, who is very much involved in the middle phase of possession. His movement alone is a source of creativity and when you add in his ability to play a killer pass, it’s easy to see why Van Gaal adores him. It’s a shame this season has seen him sidelined since September with an injury and he’s likely to miss the opening game, but when he returns, it will be with ferocity.
Despite being so involved in deeper build up, some of the midfielders can definitely have an impact in the final third. With De Jong’s ability to run a game, this allows other players like Berghuis, Taylor or Klaassen to have an impact further up field. On top of this how resourceful the wing backs can be when the Dutch are camped around the oppositions box, especially Blind, who is such a clever passer.
Elsewhere, there are many young and hungry squad options Van Gaal has at his disposal. Noa Lang has been quite the revelation at Club Brugge, which has seen him rewarded with five caps so far from Van Gaal. A wide playmaker who is very much in the mould of Jadon Sancho, Lang can provide that extra layer of creativity that the front two don’t have. He’s fantastic in tight spaces and is very agile on the ball. Again like Sancho, he’s not a speedster, but this is unlikely to matter in Van Gaal’s system which would see him deployed centrally.
Another option is the 19 year old Xavi Simons. For those who don’t know, Simons was long touted and ridiculed for being a overhyped Barcelona prospect, more known for his Instagram fame than his on the pitch performances. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Simons has a terrific footballing brain. He’s also great in tight spaces, with La Masia grade technique. They’ve been question marks over his slight frame and how it would adapt to the senior game. If his performances against Arsenal in the Europa League are anything to go by, I think he’s silenced those doubts.
Cody Gakpo is a fascinating prospect as a creative force for the Netherlands. Whilst he lacks the ingenuity and artistry of Lang and Simons, he’s a powerful runner who can burst through space when presented with the opportunity. This means on the counter, he’s an absolute nightmare for defences, as he can eat up the ground while shielding off defenders. The issue with Gakpo, is his ability in tight spaces and when the opposition sit off him. Like Rashford, he needs to have space in front of him.
It’s safe to say Van Gaal has an embarrassment of riches on the creative front. The only worry with him is trying to shoehorn in the more rugged Gakpo as a hybrid #10, which does ruin the balance quite a bit.
Expect… the likes of De Jong and Berghuis to provide a creative threat from deep but a lot will be expected of Depay who usually finds spaces and looks to devastate the opposition with his limitless creativity.
The Main Men...
By far the weakest aspect of this Netherlands side, yet one of the most confusing. The Dutch were top goalscorers in the Nations League (albeit being in a much easier group relative to other sides) and were also very prolific in the qualifying campaign. Despite this there is lack of depth and quality across the board in their attacking arsenal.
Depay, who was joint top goalscorer with Harry Kane on 12 goals apiece, will be the main marksman for the Dutch. Despite having to juggle creative responsibilities, Depay does a great job of maximising lower xG opportunities. He’s a nice range of finishes, whether that’s a long range rocket or a curler into the far corner. He’s also shown on occasion good movement inside the box but isn’t an exclusive feature to his game.
Beyond Depay, there’s a dearth of goal getters. The Dutch have for the most part shared the goals around. Bergwijn has been on form for Ajax, but has a history of complacency in front of goal. He’s much better suited as the shadow striker playing off a #9. The three other strikers Van Gaal has selected are not the strongest.
Wout Weghorst can be a handful for any defender with his aerial presence, but isn’t the best systematic fit for this Dutch side and should only be considered as a bench option for a last minute goal. Luuk de Jong is quite frankly a shocking inclusion. Like Weghorst, he will be a nuisance in the air but his poor technique and lack of composure in front of goal makes you think that one big man was enough for Van Gaal, not two! Vincent Janssen is a workhorse, who can run the hard yards to open up space for other forwards. He could fit in well with another striker partner willing to utilise the space he creates, like Gakpo.
Talking about Gakpo, whilst he shares some similarities with Rashford, one thing that sets them apart is Gakpo’s feel for space. His off the ball movement is incredible, in the mould of a Raumdueter, waiting for the right moments to move, rather than being a constant livewire. If Van Gaal were to deploy him as a striker rather than behind a front two, his movement combined with his prowess in front of goal would give the Dutch a much needed penetrative force they can sometimes lack.
Potentially, the Netherlands can find goals from midfield but at international level, many of their players haven’t managed to translate their club goalscoring form to the national side. This is not a surprise, as international football is fraught with pragmatic and ultra defensive tactics that restrict the spaces many of these players are used to in their domestic leagues.
Looking at the players who weren’t included, Donyell Malen and Arnaut Danjuma may understandably feel slighted to have been left out in favour of the likes of Luuk de Jong but they have both flattered to deceive in their recent club performances. One player who has a strong claim for inclusion is Brian Brobbey. Even if it’s to sit on the bench, it would’ve been beneficial for him to get some tournament experience for future tournaments and at 20, he doesn’t necessarily need to be shielded from the limelight.
Expect… Depay and Bergwijn to lead the attack but do not be surprised if Gakpo wriggles his way into the attack by the end of the tournament.
Rather like Argentina, the Dutch have the feel of a well-knitted together club side. There is a nice mixture of elderly statesmen and young players who have been mistreated at club level but have so much more to give and feel at home within the national set up.
Unlike the Argentines, the Dutch have on paper a world class defensive unit with only left wing back a weakness but up top they look a little short of elite quality. Having said that Depay is underrated and always comes up trumps internationally and Bergwijn has been a handful in this years Champions League so do not be surprised if they dish out some heavy beatings in the group stage.
Dutch sides are known to crack under pressure but this one is going under the radar yet seems to be pretty functional in all departments with a humility that seems very non-Dutch. For that reason they are genuine dark horses for the tournament and could take out some heavy hitters in the knock-outs.
Verdict: The Official Dark Horses