An in-depth look at the revival of the Dutch national team

Karan Tejwani 13:32 19/10/2019
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Ronald Koeman

Bad decisions are inevitable. By anyone, any group or any organisation, it’s almost a given that bad calls will be made. However, how they are reacted to is often just as important as the good decisions.

When the Netherlands failed to qualify for the European Championships in 2016 after finishing fourth in their qualifying group – behind the Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey – huge changes were required.

This was a side that had finished third at the World Cup just two years prior, but now finished fourth in a group behind nations they would ideally have been expected to overcome with ease.

After Louis van Gaal left his role following the World Cup, the Dutch had a merry-go-round of managers.

Guus Hiddink first tried but resigned a year into his role and his replacement, the inexperienced Danny Blind, failed to inspire with failure to qualify for Euro 2016 following.

Dick Advocaat came in temporarily and oversaw the failure to make it to the 2018 World Cup, although that was largely down to his predecessor’s ineptness.

Recognising the need for a massive overhaul, the KNVB went for a man long chased and out of work.

Ronald Koeman took charge of the national team in February 2018 and has overseen a Dutch revolution.


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The most notable change under Koeman is the team’s style.

Hiddink, Blind and Advocaat’s teams were directionless but Koeman has sought to keep Dutch traditions of ‘totaalvoetbal’ alive.

Koeman initially experimented with the 3-5-2 formation used by Van Gaal at the World Cup but quickly ditched it for a smooth 4-3-3 when the Nations League began in September 2018.

A confidence-boosting victory against World Champions France arrived in November as they dominated possession, moved the ball quickly and maintained a firm structure.

The numbers provide a window into the improvement. His side score an average of 2.11 goals per game and concede one  and in 11 competitive fixtures, they’ve averaged 59 per cent possession.

Those competitive fixtures have seen results such as a 4-2 and 3-0 success against Germany in European Championship qualification and the Nations League respectively, the 2-0 success against France, a 3-1 win over England in the Nations League semi-final and the come-from-behind 3-1 win over Northern Ireland last week.

They have shown resilience and they are growing in confidence.

Koeman has also blended youth and experience while replacing iconic figures like Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder and transferring responsibility to the likes of Matthijs de Ligt, Virgil van Dijk, Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum.

De Ligt, in particular, has been impressive. Having led a wonderful Ajax side last season, he has proven his quality for the national side as well, flourishing with the helping hand of Van Dijk next to him.


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No player has scored more goals under Koeman’s management than Depay. When Koeman took over, however, he was a forgotten man.

He had a bust-up with Robin van Persie in 2015 and then Danny Blind dropped him in 2017, raising questions about his attitude. However, since the forward’s move to Lyon, not picking him for the national side has been an inconceivable.

The 25-year-old has scored 11 goals under Koeman, six of which have come in 2019. In addition to that, he has also provided eight assists in 2019, becoming the first Dutch player in the 21st century to be involved in 14 or more goals in a calendar year.

Modern attackers are dynamic and the evolution of Depay over the past year is worthy of high praise. Since leaving Manchester United, he has adapted well to a more central role improving vastly in his link-up with his creative team-mates.

A big change has been his willingness to drop deep and create chances for teammates, spending much of his time in creative zones around the box and averaging 3.4 key passes per game.

The forward has matured well on and off the field. Gone are the days inconsistent wing-play – he is now the focal point of the Dutch attack, leading the charge down the middle and getting support from the wings through Steven Bergwijn and Ryan Babel.

His technique and excellent reading of the game makes him one of the key components.


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Every great Dutch team has always had a great midfielder. Whether it was Johan Cruyff or Sneijder, the midfield has provided the X-Factor.

In the current era, Georginio Wijnaldum is stepping up to be that spark.

His role for the Dutch largely contrasts his one for Liverpool as he is tasked with getting high up the pitch.

This more advanced role has always suited Wijnaldum. In his final season at PSV Eindhoven in 2014/15, when they won the Eredivise, he was involved in 18 goals and six assists. The next season at Newcastle he recorded 11 goals and five assists.

These have been his two best individual seasons from a goal production perspective and it’s been replicated at international level as he both creates and scores, as seen in the most recent qualifier against Belarus, where he netted twice.

His partner in midfield, Frenkie de Jong, has been just as good. De Jong hasn’t quite hit the heights for Barcelona but for the Dutch he dominates, although in Oranje he plays in a more suited No6 slot as opposed to further forward in Blaugrana.

The 22-year-old is key to the fast-moving transitions that Koeman wants to deploy. Smooth as silk on the ball, he can move, pass and direct play with ease.

These two midfield pieces are vital, but they are joined by the hard-working Marten de Roon, another key component. His defensive work-rate and adherence to Koeman’s pressing system aids De Jong in the double pivot as he does much of the dirty work.


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Following the retirements of players like Van Persie, Robben, Sneijder and Dirk Kuyt, new leaders had to emerge.

While Van Dijk dons the armband for the nation, others such as De Ligt (20), De Jong (22), Depay (26) and Jasper Cillessen (30), have shown great composure and made the transition between coaches, eras and players much easier.

In tough situations, the team steps up collectively and shows the character that is required to succeed. Together, they are a united bunch hungry to succeed and make it back to a major tournament for the first time since the 2014 World Cup.

We saw in the Nations League semi-final against England, where the team went into extra-time, held their own and came out with a victory whilst their success against Germany in a qualifier in September was another testament to their character, as they dug deep and came from behind to win 4-2 in Hamburg.

The leadership of Van Dijk at the back has done them wonders and the fact that he has been in the running for top individual honours will be of great inspiration.

Having won both their qualifiers this month, they are in a strong spot and only need a draw in their next game away against Northern Ireland to seal qualification for the European Championships next year.

Should they succeed, they will be place in Group C, where they will have a fair bit of home support, seeing as that group will be shared between the Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam and Arena Naționala in Bucharest, Romania.

Maarten Wijffels, a journalist for Algemeen Dagblad, recently said of the team: “Back then it was difficult to find faces for a billboard or poster because the public was fed up with them. Now with Van Dijk, Wijnaldum, Depay, De Jong & De Ligt the public likes the national team again.”

And he is right, the Dutch now have so much to be proud of, and come next year, a strong performance in the Euros – perhaps even going as far as the semi-finals – should not be a surprise.

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