Almost out of nowhere, Netherlands have muscled their way into the group of potential favourites to actually win Euro 2020.
Manager Frank de Boer, who came into the tournament under some pressure, has safely guided his side into the round of 16 with a record of three wins from three following a comfortable 3-0 win over North Macedonia.
Qualification had been secured prior to the match against the tournament debutants, allowing de Boer to hand starts to the highly rated young duo of Donyell Malen up front and Ryan Gravenberch in midfield.
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As De Boer persisted with the sometimes divisive 5-3-2 formation, the latter was positioned alongside Frenkie de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum as a fluid trio in the middle of the park, while the former was paired in attack next to Memphis Depay.
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Bursting forward in an early attack, Gravenberch unleashed a rocket of a shot inside two minutes, while a clever run from Malen was only marginally offside moments later. It was clear both players were setting out to show exactly why they are being talked up so much.
The 22-year-old Malen, a former Arsenal youth product who has flourished at PSV Eindhoven, came into the side in place of Wout Weghorst and offers something very different to the Wolfsburg frontman.
Weghorst, a towering 6’6” operates as focal point or target man, primarily to hold up the ball and getting on the end of attacking moves to score goals.
Malen is a nippy speed merchant, deployed to give defenders a torrid time with his pace and dribbling ability.
His runs from deep frequently left the Macedonian defence on the back foot and he eventually punished them when one typically electric run into the box led to him laying on the assist for Depay’s opener.
He also played a key role in the third goal, flicking the ball confidently and cleverly through the Macedonia defence for Depay who saw his shot saved before Wijnaldum added his second.
Gravenberch, 19, looked an intelligent presence in midfield despite his tender years, linking up well with teammates to contribute to dangerous attacking patterns although his final pass was lacking on one or two occasions – although one suspects that will improve in time.
The Ajax starlet was also unafraid to get stuck into the physical battle, making sure his opponents were well aware of his 6’3” frame.
Malen played a key role in two of the Dutch goals
Image credit: Getty Images
As the Dutch turned the screw, Gravenberch had a comfortable second half, taking the opportunity to both protect and move the ball through the midfield without too much pressure from the worn down Macedonians.
While both players are perhaps still a little rough around the edges, their talent is clear and certainly useful options for De Boer as he hopes to go deep in the tournament.
The feeling in the Netherlands is that this team is still a work in progress and with Gravenberch and Malen, as well as the likes of 20-year-old Jurrien Timber and 22-year-old Cody Gakpo who came on as subs, the team will be more of a force in 2022.
But based on what we've now seen, few teams will relish facing them as the current tournament continues.
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