Dutch must rediscover identity or face early Euro 2024 exit

Following their 3-2 defeat to Austria in their final group-stage match, Netherlands manager Ronald Koeman fielded questions about his side’s defensive frailties, midfield dis-organisation and ineffective pressing, only to then be asked if he was reevaluating his future.

Former Netherlands international Demy de Zeeuw was in the stands among the wall of orange in Berlin witnessing the defeat. “It was bad,” he told ESPN. “Very bad. You can’t imagine that you can play so bad with such good players.”

Meanwhile in the Dutch television studios, former players were lining up to take their shots at the manager, some players and tactics. The legendary Marco van Basten was disappointed with centre-back Virgil van Dijk, while ex-midfielder Rafael van der Vaart labelled the defeat a “disgrace” and said he was ready to “cry” at how bad they played. And then there was poor Joey Veerman who was taken off after 33 minutes following a dismal performance. Some pundits said that could be the end of his international career.

“The only positive thing is that we are still alive,” was Koeman’s take on the Dutch performance. But they still qualified for the knockouts.

Then came the twist in the tale — thanks to unpredictable results elsewhere, Netherlands went from potentially playing England, to being drawn against Romania. “It is not impossible to beat Romania and grow in the tournament again,” ex-forward Dirk Kuyt told ESPN.

There do seem to be several questions around this group and their unpredictability: are they poor at pressing? Do they have striker issues? Is Koeman the right man to lead them? Or perhaps all of the above? It depends on who you talk to — the optimist or the pessimist — as there’s also still plenty of optimism around the Oranje, but lose on Tuesday and the backlash will be brutal.

Pressing issues in the midfield

Veerman looked devastated as he sat on the bench having been substituted. Denzel Dumfries — a surprise omission from Netherlands’ starting XI for the Austria defeat — asked the cameras to veer away from Veerman and his footballing grief. The midfielder had a successful passing rate of just 47.4%.

“He’s not the only one who could have been substituted, we all could have been substituted,” midfielder Jerdy Schouten said afterward as the Dutch took stock of their 3-2 defeat. “We are not satisfied with how this match was played. We were late everywhere. We did not get the pressure on. It all went quite easily for them.”

Veerman’s desolation was isolated, but symptomatic of the wider malaise. “We were too passive and gave them too much time to find the free man. If we had the ball ourselves, we would lose it too quickly,” midfielder Tijjani Reijnders said. Koeman added that the team defended like “headless chickens” and ran far too often “out of our positions.” He said there was far too much space between the lines, and the team lacked aggression.

“For their second and third goals, we don’t keep up with our opponent,” Koeman said. “If you play like that, you are not entitled to more.”

Former Ajax and PSV Eindhoven midfielder, and current ESPN analyst, Marciano Vink insisted: “It was so disappointing the way we performed. Some players are totally out of form, some of them didn’t step up and they take charge over matters like communication, [and] getting the team back into shape. There’s no shame in losing against Austria, but it’s the way we lost.”

Midfield balance, or lack of it, has been one talking point throughout. On the eve of the tournament, the midfield lost Frenkie de Jong, Teun Koopmeiners and Marten de Roon to injury. Both De Jong and Koopmeiners would have been guaranteed starters.

“Frenkie de Jong is Netherlands’ best player, the motor of the team,” ex-Denmark international and ESPN analyst Kenneth Perez said. “That’s a big thing, taking out your best player — he’s the one who made the clock tick and the team play better.”

There were calls from former star Wesley Sneijder to include Feyenoord midfielder Quinten Timber in the squad, something he reiterated after the Austria defeat. “I have mentioned it before, but I think Timber is a player that we miss in midfield,” he told De 538 Middagshow. “Especially with that positioning, capturing balls and he can also shoot from distance. It is too easy in midfield.” But there were doubts over his fitness as well.

For their opener, a 2-1 win over Poland, Koeman went with a midfield two of Veerman and Schouten, with Xavi Simons just ahead on the right and Reijnders through the middle. For the 0-0 draw with France, they played Schouten and Reijnders together with Simons in the No. 10 position. Then for Austria he reworked to a middle three with Reijnders, Schouten and Veerman. The experiment failed. Netherlands couldn’t keep the ball, they were dominated on their left flank, and although Simons’ introduction did help with stability, there were still questions over other changes Koeman made.

Talking to several figures in Dutch football, there is still widespread bemusement over why the manager turns to Georginio Wijnaldum to help shore up the midfield in the latter stages of matches, with the Al Ettifaq veteran struggling for form.

The pressing statistics made for grim reading, as ex-pro Daan Sutorius highlighted for ESPN. The Dutch are only winning the ball 3.3 times per 90 in the top third of the pitch, which ranks them 23rd out of the 24 teams at Euro 2024. They also allow the opposition 14.1 passes before they regain the ball (Germany lead the way averaging 8.8 passes on average), which sees them concede 5.0 shots on target per match on average — with only Albania, Scotland, Georgia and Poland more generous.

“There wasn’t a lot of aggression in the team, especially the lack of pressing,” Vink said. “And it’s quite similar to England. England also go into their own half and then wait, and you see that [Harry] Kane, [Bukayo] Saka, they don’t know what to do. And that’s basically also what’s happening [with Netherlands]. It is not that they don’t know what to do, but I believe that maybe the tactics are not the right tactics for this team. It’s a shame because I believe you would rather go full speed ahead and then see where you end up, but instead we have this calculative way of playing, and that’s not the way Dutch people want to see their national team play.”

Koeman and the striker issue

Koeman has come in for plenty of criticism. That question about his future post-Austria revolved around whether he would resign, or was concerned about his job prospects if they lost in the round of 16. Koeman is contracted through to 2026.

De Zeeuw has his concerns, saying: “It seems as if Koeman cannot motivate the players. If you have been like this for three games, you have a problem.” But Perez said the team will embody Koeman’s spirit. “He is somebody who will really battle for his team and for himself,” he said. “And he’s a winner, he’s a survivor.”

What Koeman has limited control over is the players’ ability to hit the target when it matters. Netherlands have had 40 shots, but just 10 on target. That record of 25% puts them 22nd in Euro 2024, with Serbia (23.1%) and Scotland (17.6%) worse off.

Where to play Memphis Depay has been a constant theme both in these Euros and previous tournaments. “Memphis needs to step up his game, first of all, and then because he’s losing too many silly balls in his own half up front,” Vink said. Against France, he was isolated, and recorded zero successful dribbles, won just one of his four duels with a pass success rate of 63%. Against Austria, he dropped deeper, more a link man than an out-and-out striker, and had greater success.

“Everyone in the stadium [against Austria] was talking about Memphis simply having to be ‘on 10,'” De Zeeuw said. “That’s where he was in the second half and he scored straight away.”

Vink would like to see Brian Brobbey start up front, in a role similar to how Belgium‘s Romelu Lukaku played against Romania.

“Memphis is a very creative player who also goes deep, he changes up speed as a smart player with a lot of skills,” he said. “If you are up front there alone and … players are way too far from you, it’s a difficult thing. But he is skilful enough to handle that and he needs a little bit of support, but he needs to change his game also. I’d love to start Brobbey, as he’s capable of laying balls off for the midfielders, that’s the way Youri Tielemans scored against Romania. There are so many ways to be dominant, but also to be successful against Romania. You have to be brave, so Koeman, in my opinion, should make changes for the better and not because of people who gave you a lot in the past.”

Then there’s also a school of thought that perhaps it’s time for Wout Weghorst — the super-sub from Qatar 2022 and in their opener when he scored the winner against Poland — to be given the keys to the starting striker role. All the while there’s also Joshua Zirkzee in the mix, the Bologna striker who has been linked with Manchester United, but was a late call-up to the squad so clearly Koeman has his misgivings there.

Former Netherlands striker Pierre van Hooijdonk suggested Donyell Malen should start up front, with Cody Gakpo and Jeremie Frimpong on each side of him and Depay in the 10. Either way, the consensus is, Depay needs a foil.

“There has to be a striker who can keep the ball and whether that’s Zirkzee or Weghorst or Brobbey, it doesn’t matter,” De Zeeuw said. “At Atlético [Depay] often played with [Antoine] Griezmann. He needs someone who moves around him.”

Romania and the path ahead

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Virgil van Dijk: ‘We can’t think further than Romania’

Virgil van Dijk speaks ahead of the Netherlands’ Round of 16 match with Romania.

But it’s not all doom and gloom — far from it. The draw has opened up beautifully for the Dutch, and they have some in-form players; Gakpo has had a brilliant tournament, while Bart Verbruggen, 21, has put in performances beyond his years in goal.

Nevertheless, there are always expectations for the Netherlands. Kuyt remembered well the external pressure that came in major tournaments, having played in five of them.

“I remember in 2010 that we said to each other that we were in a tunnel, and you cannot escape external pressure,” he said. “You can try to close yourself off to that, but one way or another it still comes through friends or family. You always get that. This is a new experience for some boys. I am sure that experience will make them stronger.”

The team have been trying to compartmentalise that all week. The backlash to Veerman’s performance was frequently mentioned in the build-up to Romania, but his teammates rallied around him. That old moniker footballers roll out saying they haven’t read the press or haven’t seen the comments was cast aside to support Veerman on Friday. Nathan Aké said the criticisms from the media “went a bit too far,” and then Van Dijk stepped in. “We can all have a bad match. Of course, he didn’t play well, but one match doesn’t define the rest of his career,” he said.

And then Van Dijk was asked about his own form, which he took on the chin. “I can certainly understand the criticism completely after the last match,” he said. “I will work on it, and I also blame myself for it. The responsibility I feel for Oranje and also Liverpool is very high, and I also think that I can and should do better than that.”

There is a general acceptance that things much improve.

“It is just an eye opener,” Van Dijk said. “If we continue on the same path, we have no business here and that has become very clear. If we want to achieve something here, something has to change very quickly.”

Koeman ran the rule over his team in a practise match against TSV Havelse from the Regionalliga Nord across two 35-minute halves on Wednesday. The Netherlands won 6-1 — Weghorst and Micky van de Ven both got two goals, while Brobbey and Frimpong also scored. Perhaps someone there will force Koeman’s hand.

Van der Vaart wants Koeman to make three switches for Romania: He wants Simons starting instead of Veerman, Matthijs de Ligt over Stefan de Vrij, and Dumfries returning in Lutsharel Geertruida‘s place. Vink wants other changes.

“I’d love to Frimpong because Romania are not the quickest in defence, so I’d love to see Frimpong on the right, I would play Brobbey as a striker and Depay as a 10 with Gakpo on the left-hand side,” he said. “I’d have Reijnders who is more eight, who is a box-to-box player, and then you have Schouten who is more or less a sitting six. And I wouldn’t change the backline because Geertruida can also enforce the midfield because he likes to come in on the inside and play there. So I wouldn’t change the last line, but I would make some changes up front.”

But as Van Dijk insisted on Friday, the time for talking is over. It’s now time for the team to deliver, a sentiment Kuyt agrees with.

“I hope that the boys seize this opportunity and make the tournament even more successful,” he said. “That’s how tournament football is. You can have a bad day once, but not anymore from this moment on, because then you are out.”