Ahead of their match with Austria Pete Sharland looks at the Netherlands' opening game and why this new, chaotic style is just what they, and the tournament need when so many sides are deciding to play very defensively.
It’s a plan that help some of the smaller nations as well rather than just coming and shutting up shop. It’s almost funny to watch and listen to people complaining about how boring some of the games at Euro 2020 have been so far.
It’s as if these people have never watched international football before, or at least haven’t watched it since the World Cup.
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With so little time to spend with their players it’s hardly surprising that international managers prefer to be compact and tough to break down rather than attacking and open.
The changes to the format of Euro 2020 don’t help either. It’s brilliant to see smaller countries like North Macedonia and Finland get a chance to play in a major tournament but with more teams it means more chances to get through the group stages. That means it’s more important not to lose than it is to win. After all there’s a chance that a team could get through to the knockouts with three draws, depending on the results.

ZEIST - (LR) Donyell Malen, Denzel Dumfries during a training session of the Dutch national team at the KNVB Campus on June 16, 2021 in Zeist, The Netherlands. The Dutch national team is preparing in Zeist for the UEFA EURO 2020. A

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That’s why the game between the Netherlands and the Ukraine was so refreshing to watch. The game was a classic, the Dutch went into a two-goal lead before they were pegged back, with Andriy Yarmolenko scoring an absolute banger. Then the Dutch scored a dramatic late winner through Denzel Dumfries, who had already missed a couple of gilt-edged chances.
The game was open and it was chaotic, it was great fun for everyone.
Plenty of pundits, including this one, tipped the Netherlands to struggle this summer. They are missing key players and Frank de Boer’s recent managerial CV doesn’t exactly inspire confidence with high-profile failures at Inter Milan, Crystal Palace and most recently Atlanta United.
Yet the first game offers some hope for this team. De Boer has continued to give Memphis Depay a free role, as he had under Ronald Koeman, and there are very obvious Ajax influences in the 3-4-1-2 that was used. After all that is where he was formed as both a player and manager. It’s easy to forget that he produced a brilliant Ajax team that won four straight titles. You can scoff and say it is only the Eredivisie but that was the first time in their history that Ajax had done that and they failed to win the league in the first two seasons after he left.

ZEIST, NETHERLANDS - JUNE 16: Quincy Promes of Holland, Memphis Depay of Holland during the Training MenTraining Holland in Zeist at the KNVB Campus on June 16, 2021 in Zeist Netherlands

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Of course in part one of the reasons that the Netherlands will have to take a different path and attack more is because of the players they are missing, specifically Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt. Had those two been fit they would have formed one of the best back threes in Europe alongside Stefan de Vrij, perhaps that might have led to a more defensive approach? We will never know. What we do know is that Daley Blind and Jurrien Timber, good players that they are, do not match up to the missing players.
Whilst Van Dijk will miss the tournament De Ligt might be back for the Austria game on Thursday evening. In an ideal world De Boer will use that return to build from the back more, De Ligt is one of the best defenders on the ball in the world after all, rather than an excuse to become more compact.
It was slightly worrying to hear De Boer say “Let’s say this will not happen again", when asked about the Ukraine goals after the game. There is a great debate within Holland about whether De Boer should stick with the back three or move to a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. It should be pointed out that a 4-3-3 with De Vrij and Blind at the centre of the backline recently gave up four goals in a big World Cup qualifying defeat.
Realistically the Dutch aren’t going to win this tournament, especially without Van Dijk but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a reason here. De Boer can lay the ground work for Qatar where he will have the big centre-half back and a bunch of these extremely talented young players will be 18 months older and more experienced. He can use this tournament to show them that they belong on this stage.

Football fans celebrate as people gather on the street after the 2020 UEFA European Championship football match between the Netherlands and Ukraine on June 13, 2021 in The Hague, Netherlands.

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Speaking of belonging on this stage, let’s also praise the minnows who have come to Euro 2020 and haven’t been afraid. North Macedonia, Hungary and Slovakia have of course had to be defensive, but they have shown far more offensive willing than most of us expect. It puts the performances of teams like Turkey to shame. A word too for Sweden, who were very defensive against Spain in their opener but showed enough promise through Alexander Isak in particular to suggest that they will start attacking more in their final two group games.
Defending is a risky business, one mistake and you can come unstuck very quickly. You have to take your chances and try and make your mark, particularly as a smaller team. What happens if you keep playing defensively, bore your way to the knockouts and get hammered by an elite team and go home? Where has that gotten you?
No, it’s best to attack and go for it, that way you will be remembered. Think of teams like the Czech Republic, Turkey and Russia over the past few years. Even Iceland in 2016 weren’t afraid to attack the big teams, they just felt they didn’t need the ball. As we move into the second round of group games here’s hoping that more teams choose boldness, and to entertain rather than to put to sleep.
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