Farewell Netherlands, Euro 2020’s great entertainers drowned by reality

For all the fun Frank de Boer’s side brought, sounder tactics triumphed over their freedom

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Sports Feature Writer
Monday 28 June 2021 09:08
<p>Frenkie de Jong reacts to the Netherlands’ defeat</p>

Frenkie de Jong reacts to the Netherlands’ defeat

Ah, Netherlands. We hardly knew ye.

Of course, we know about you. Total Football. Marco Van Basten. Ruud Gullit. Dennis Bergkamp. Arjen Robben. Thank you for that, by the way. This team, though. Thank you for them as well. A lovely and welcome distraction from the seriousness of the real world. Total Vibes, if you will.

No sooner had they arrived, Euro 2020’s great entertainers have gone, like the well-oiled party-boy rocking up with his dial turned up to 11 before an hour passes and the rest are drawing mental straws to see who has to spoon him into an Uber. Three wins, one defeat after four games. Eight goals scored, individual values increased and plenty of hearts won that are now a little empty.

That’s how it feels in the aftermath of a chastening defeat to Czech Republic. A 2-0 scoreline that advances the worthy on the day to the quarter-finals at the expense of these cavalier footballing romantics.

No more shall we witness the free spirit marauding of Denzel Dumfries, confirming the unconfirmed, still highly debated wisdom that one of your front three can be a right-back. Those Memphis Depay drag-backs and dropped shoulders will exist only in our memories. Donyell Malen striding briskly through our grey matter. Georginio Wijnaldum leaving his responsibility on Merseyside a real thing we will soon doubt. Daley Blind finding pockets from deep like Ronnie O’Sullivan, I wanna run to you.

We neutrals were eventually going to have to wake from this fever dream. As with all summer romances, it does not take until the leaves change colour to realise we took it and them a little too seriously. The signs were there before it came to an end. Signs that, perhaps, we knew all along deep down.

Dumfries marauded, just as much as before. But beyond his presence so far forward, there was little end product from out wide. Those words from those who knew his work well, that the PSV Eindhoven full-back, often uncomfortable in a back four, can flatter to deceive, slowly getting louder in the back of your mind. Still, a big move to an under-researching and over-resourced club feels inevitable.

Memphis did what Memphis does, but even that brilliance was tempered by thoughts and tricks on a plane where no others resided. Wijnaldum’s influence in the area he was allowed to roam was nonexistent. But most dispiriting was Malen being presented with a one-on-one of his own making that he spurned in such tame fashion.

The key part of all of the above is that they revealed themselves before Matthijs de Ligt’s red card early in the second half. In Malen’s case, just 27 seconds before Patrick Schick got on the wrong side of de Light, who grabbed out for the ball like he was clutching at a moment that, even at 0-0, was slipping slowly through Dutch fingers.

Had they sweet-talked us? Hard to say. All that was sweet was coming from others, and they were never going to tell us otherwise. The squad were doing their utmost to harness the glow into the more open side of the knockout bracket, as they should. But the well-versed had clocked issues before the summer got into full swing.

It’s not solely Frank de Boer’s fault, but he is part of the problem. Failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup brought about a sense that rebuilding was needed. Not quite “starting again” as is the way with most organisations. More operational than foundational.

Ronald Koeman took the reins, leading them through a relatively straightforward qualification to be here. A sole 3-2 defeat to Germany offset by a rousing 4-2 win in the return fixture, along with a scoreless draw with Northern Ireland that set the Dutch as second in their group.

But when Barcelona came calling for a manager they don’t even want anymore, De Boer got the gig in what many felt could be the re-making of a managerial career that had worn too many blows to function on the club scene. All he had to do was keep this path. The rest, within reason, would work out itself.

Though results since his appointment in September 2020 have been patchy, their dominance even in a meek Group C was progress. The 3-4-1-2 system had accommodated the players we fell for and satiated supporters who began to enjoy again.

Czech Republic’s players celebrate

But that opening match against Ukraine scratched at the surface. A 2-0 lead spurned, even if salvaged by Dumfries’ 85th-minute winner. The fickle nature of their confidence rattled, seemingly for our pleasure, in a 3-2 that for drama ranked as the best of the early bouts.

Really, though, what this team needed was a big name to go up against. Certainly not a Czech Republic side who quietly established themselves as an organisational rock. They saw off Scotland with a professional 2-0 win, took Croatia as deep as they needed to secure near-automatic qualification to the next rounds before playing possum in a 1-0 defeat to England.

They emerged in Budapest with the best of game plans: sure of themselves and just as sure of what they were up against. A team that could exploit space while forcing less seasoned observers to look forward when their kinks lay elsewhere. A misdirection that relies on the trust of love but was ripe to be scrutinised by less forgiving eyes.

Netherlands out-passed their opponents and, with 11 versus 11, outshot them too. But they ran less, created fewer clear-cut chances, even before their man disadvantage. And when de Ligt was isolated then sent off, failed to maintain their veneer of control. They also finished without a single shot on target.

Quincy Promes was brought on almost immediately for Malen to instigate, well, a 4-3-2? Hard to say and harder to tell when it happened. Eleven minutes after the change was made, Tomas Holes headed Czech Republic into the lead. Twelve minutes later, Holes took up Dutch generosity on possession and space to set-up Patrick Schick for 2-0. All while de Boer fumbled and grimaced on the sidelines.

“Actually at 1-0 I had wanted to go to 3-3-3, by bringing Berghuis on as a right-winger, putting Quincy [Promes] wide on the left and having Wout [Weghorst] as centre forward,” he explained after the match when pressed on his logic. “But just before that the Czechs made it 2-0, and so I had to ditch that idea.”

That was the last of any idea from De Boer, and any hope this Dutch summer would last much longer. And as much as we, the casual, may lament their demise, it’s not to say these players playing in this manner deserved success. Or that they will not come again.

In a way, they must. The quiet generation of Dutch football only has so long left: Wijnaldum (30), Blind (31) and the absent Virgil van Dijk (31) are key adults to supervise the next generation to greater responsibility. Any further wasting of their time could have a debilitating longer-term effect on the next crop.

Perhaps this was also a lesson on what this European Championship is about. Tournament favourites Belgium and France have tempered excitement despite the fact they could excite the most. Even Italy, who thrilled in their group outings, wised up in their eventual round-of-16 defeat of Austria. Heck, we could even throw England into that bracket, regardless of how Tuesday against Germany plays out.

Maybe it is no surprise after the relentlessness of the last 12 months that this is the tournament where watchful triumphs over the watchable. And now the Dutch are a word to the wise on that, and also how fickle these rounds can be. Similarly, Czech Republic an unassuming example to follow, and the merits of staying in a contest as long as possible until your opponents’ flaws reveal themselves.

All that’s left to be said is farewell, Netherlands. They came and thrilled, seemingly playing for the rest of us rather than themselves. Now, they won’t be playing at all, and we’ll get over that far quicker than they will.

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