As Netherlands prepare to contest the Nations League finals, David Winner, author of Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football, charts how the country's philosophy and methods have been restored, vindicated and reinvigorated through the prism of Ajax.
What are you reading this for? I obviously haven’t got a clue. Nine months ago I thought Holland were finished as a major football power.
Everyone in the Netherlands thought the same thing.
Arjen Robben reacts on the night Netherlands failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup
Image credit: Eurosport
The reasons for gloom were obvious. The inventers of Total Football had apparently stopped producing world-class players. Their best coaches were either dead, retired or over 60. And the Eredivsie had fallen so low that even the country’s champions were obliged to play qualification rounds to reach the Champions League group stage. The great Johan Cruyff had died in 2016 and the beautiful positional game he pioneered as player and coach had decayed to the point of self-parody. The Dutch league was a backwater and the national team played a feeble possession game and defended badly.
One of the most pessimistic observers of the scene was Auke Kok, author, broadcaster and Cruyff’s biographer. Kok reckoned the country’s football was in a worse state than at any time since the mostly amateur, backward days of the 1950s. Tom Egbers, face of Dutch TV football coverage of football since the 1980s, said the national team was “in pieces” and its football “unwatchable”. Holland had fallen far behind Iceland, “a country with a population comparable to the city of Utrecht!”
Recent World Cup exploits only hid the scale of the problem. In 2010 Holland had battled to the final in South Africa, only to disgrace themselves by acting like cage fighters against a Spain team which played a better version of Dutch football than they did. In 2014, an average team lifted by the brilliance of Arjen Robben, the fading gifts of Robin van Persie and Louis van Gaal’s clever coaching had somehow come third in the World Cup. When that trio drifted from the scene, successor coaches Danny Blind, Guus Hiddink and Dick Advocaat seemed powerless to stop the rot.
Van Basten Gullit Rijkaard
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The men in orange finished an abject fourth behind Iceland, Turkey and the Czech Republic while failing to qualify for Euro 2016. Two years later, the Dutch failed to qualify for the World Cup, coming third behind France and Sweden in qualification. Would the Netherlands ever qualify for the finals of a major tournament again? We began to doubt it.
It didn’t help Dutch self-esteem to see Belgium, traditional butt of Dutch condescension, with a great team that came close to winning the World Cup in Russia. Even England had better players and had apparently leapt ahead technically and tactically. When interviewers asked what had gone wrong with Dutch football, this writer liked to compare the country’s plight to Britain’s after the industrial revolution. Inventing railways and spinning jennies had given Britain a strategic advantage. But when other countries caught up and overtook it the country went into decline.
Likewise, the Dutch had their football revolution in the 1960s, invented Total Football and created youth development methods that were the envy of the world. But rivals like France, Germany, Spain and Belgium eventually copied the best bits of the Dutch approach, added a few touches of their own and raced ahead.
In 1989 four of the top five Ballon d’Or players were Dutch (Van Basten, Gullit, Rijkaard were the top three, Koeman fifth). In 2018 there was not a single Dutchman in the top 30. The once-mighty youth system still produced tidy, technically and tactically solid players who played at decent clubs around Europe. But the land of Cruyff, Van Basten and Dennis Bergkamp had run out of era-defining talents.
2. New stars stirring old memories
Virgil van Dijk of Holland celebrates his crucial goal against Germany in November
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When Holland were drawn against France and Germany (the reigning and previous world champions) in the new UEFA Nations League, anxiety gave way to something like despair. Some gruesome new humiliation surely beckoned. And then something properly weird happened.
In their first Nations League game against France last September, Holland, under new coach Ronald Koeman, played surprisingly well. They lost, of course, but only 2-1, which was a big improvement on the 0-4 humiliation of the year before. A month later, even more amazingly, Holland beat Germany 3-0 in Amsterdam. Not too much could be read into this, of course. Germany had been humbled by Mexico and South Korea in the World Cup and were shadows of their recent selves. Even so, for the first time in four years Holland like a proper team.
Three days later Holland drew with Belgium. Something was definitely up. A month after that came the unthinkable. Holland outplayed and beat world champions France 2-0. The team had a new midfield star, Ajax’s Frenkie de Jong, but they were stirring old memories. It couldn’t last, of course. Holland wouldn’t actually win the group.
Heading into the last five minutes in their final game against Germany the natural order seemed to be restored. With five minutes to go, Germany were leading 2-0. Then Quincy Promes swiveled and scored. Koeman sent a note onto the field telling Virgil van Dijk to leave defence and move to centre-forward.
In the last minute of the game Feyenoord’s Tonny Vilhena put in a hopeful cross, the ball reached Van Dijk via a German head, and the Liverpool man swept in the volley. Amazingly, Holland had topped the group and qualified for the tournament’s semi-final against England.
3. The most thrilling and admired team in world football
Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax leads the celebrations at the Bernabeu
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Something even more improbable was about to happen at Ajax, traditional powerhouse of Dutch football. Against expectations, and with a suddenness that astonished even themselves, Ajax became what they’d been in the early 1970s and mid 1990s - the most thrilling and admired team in world football.
Starting in August last year, the team had slogged through three qualifying rounds (against Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kiev) before reaching the Champions League group stage. They were thrilled just to be there. Against Bayern Munich they surprisingly drew twice (1-1 away, 3-3 in the pulsating return) and it felt good just to be trading blows as near-equals again with the mighty Germans. In November, Ajax scraped a home win against Benfica with a late, deflected winning goal. Nothing about the game suggested Ajax were about to set the competition alight. It was a routine mid-table Champions League clash between two once–great clubs now strictly in the second or third tier.
Even the first leg of the last-16 tie against Real Madrid fulfilled low expectations. Encouragingly, the spirited young Ajax team outplayed the European champions for long periods. But a team full of kids from one of Europe’s minor leagues was never going to come out on top. They missed chances and succumbed 1-2 to the cannier, more experienced team. Only in the second leg, in Madrid, did it become clear that something new was happening.Thrashing the side that had won four of the last five Champions League finals was surprising enough. But the genius of some of Ajax’s pressing and combinations was astonishing. They suffocated the Spaniards and moved the ball with precision at high speed in tiny spaces.
Johan Cruyff always used to preach the virtue of playing in triangles. Now Ajax created shapes we’d never seen on a football field: rhomboids, elongated rectangles and more. At one point, the esoteric isosceles trapezoid may have made an appearance. Best of all was the sense of history repeating itself. The manner of the victory revived memories of the 1970s and 1990s when Ajax teams featuring Cruyff, Gerrie Muhren, Patrick Kluivert and Jari Litmamen gave Real football lessons in their own stadium. Even the scoreline was reminiscent of Johan Cruyff’s shirt number 14.
In the next round, against Juventus, Ajax were even better. The improvement that had taken nine years during the Michels-Cruyff era was replicated in about nine weeks. The Ajax pressing was again remarkable – not only closing down the man in possession but working out all his options, and snuffing those out too. It required phenomenal levels of intelligence and co-ordination but Ajax made it look simple.
After Ajax outplayed Juventus in Turin, the Juve fans stayed behind to applaud Ajax off the field – a rare honour. And Juve old boy Alessandro del Piero paid the Amsterdammers an even bigger compliment. "What impresses me most isn’t the work rate or technical ability, both of which are exceptional," he said. "It’s the way they fill the pitch, their understanding of space and time, their tactical nous... all at such a young age."
De Jong, the holding-midfielder-with-benefits who became a star this season and will play for Barcelona next, has said that his favourite moment in the competition was his shimmy and quick change of feet in Madrid that left Luka Modric, the best player in the world, sitting on the grass looking confused. It was the collective beauty of a move in Turin that piqued the interest of this observer, however. It didn’t produce a goal, but distilled decades of Ajax genius into 23 seconds.
It’s the way they fill the pitch, their understanding of space and time
Goalkeeper Andre Onana started it by dashing 30 metres from goal to intercept a failed Juventus through-pass and passing to full back Joel Veltman who moved it upfield without fuss to De Jong. As he receives the ball, De Jong sees Juventus midfielder Blaise Matuidi bearing down on him and decides to wait. At the last moment, leaning backwards into a turn, he flicked out his right foot and, with the outside of his boot, spun the ball around the hurtling Matuidi to Lasse Schone who gives the ball back to De Jong who instantly returns it. Schone to Hakim Ziyech to De Jong to Schone and back to Ziyech. Two more Juventus defenders, Miralem Pjanic and Emre Can, have been bypassed as Ajax move 40 yards forward in five seconds.
The next blur of one-touch passing and moving is so complex you have to keep freezing the video to work out what's happened. Ziyech passes diagonally to David Neres who backflicks it to Dusan Tadic (where did he come from!?) who takes out Federico Bernardeschi with a touch to Ziyech who has now reached the D. Finally, Ziyech controls and shoots. Leonardo Bonucci blocks.
In a perfect world the ball would have flown into the net, but the error makes the move memorable. Ziyech even stumbles a little. Had Shakespeare lived a few hundred extra years and become a football commentator he’d have used this non-goal to reflect upon the tragedy of existence ‘cos it’s a perfect case of the “heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”. In other words, these Ajax guys were human after all. All too human, it turned out three weeks later, when they went from demi-gods to a team of Hamlets, nervous and indecisive when all they needed was to stay calm. They fell to Spurs in the last moments of the semi-final despite being 3-0 up with 35 minutes to play. It’ll hurt for decades.
That defeat snatched from the jaws of victory was at least faithful to Dutch tradition. Ever since losing the 1974 World Cup final they should have won, teams from the Netherlands have specialized in accidental self-harm. The national team could or should have been European or world champions in 1976, 1990, 1998 and 2000 but found ways to fail despite playing better football and having the best players. The more interesting questions are: how did Ajax evolve their new version of their traditional style? And does their brilliance in the Champions League herald a new golden age for the national team?
4. Year Zero
Dutch footballer Johan Cruyff playing for AFC Ajax, June 1971
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To understand, we need to go back into history. Ajax 2019 was merely the latest iteration of an old idea. Think of the TV Time Lord who regenerates every few series to keep the franchise going. Ajax are football’s Doctor Who. Each regeneration yields a slightly different character and constitutes an evolution of the original concept, which, like Doctor Who began in the 1960s. Between 1965, when coach Rinus Michels took charge at Ajax, and 1974, when his thrilling Total Football side dominated the World Cup, the Dutch reimagined the game and changed the way it was played.
Many of the most important teams of the modern era trace their lineage directly to this tradition. They include Guardiola’s Manchester City, Barcelona and Bayern Munich (Pep was Cruyff’s most successful managerial protégé), Spain between 2008 and 2012, and the Germany that won the 2014 World Cup. Other successor teams include AC Milan in the late 80s, Arsenal’s Invincibles, the “Danish Dynamite” Denmark of the 1986 World Cup, and the great QPR side that nearly became English champions in 1976.
In modern football, these ideas are taken for granted. But in the early 70s they were new
The first world-significant Ajax team, which won the European Cup in 1971, 72 and 73, wasn’t just a collection of free-spirited, exceptionally skillful players. They pioneered two revolutionary doctrines: unprecedented positional fluidity and a highly aggressive version of what would now be called the high press. In modern football, these ideas are taken for granted. But in the early 70s they were new and gave the Dutch an unanswerable advantage. By 1973, when they played Juventus in the European Cup final, the Italians were so scared their only ambition was to keep the score down. If Cruyff hadn’t left for Barcelona a few months later Ajax could have kept winning the tournament until they got old or bored.
The high point was the 1974 World Cup where opponents were bemused by Dutch position switching and aggressive space-closing. The pressing was particularly intimidating. As soon as you had the ball, men in orange shirts swarmed at you to win it back; the ferocity of the team is often forgotten. And if you ventured over the half way line, you found yourself snared in an unusually potent offside trap.
Exactly who created the great Ajax and Holland is disputed. These days, Cruyff, the greatest player, and later a supremely important coach and guru, usually gets the credit. Louis van Gaal, disciple of Michels and creator of Ajax’s 1995 Champions League winning team, usually gets a mention too. In the 1970s, though, Michels, who was chosen in 1999 as FIFA’s ‘coach of the century’, was considered the author.
5. Michels and his men
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When Michels became Ajax coach, the Netherlands was a footballing backwater. He brought ambition, structure and professionalism to an amateur world. But he didn’t have a blueprint for Total Football. That developed organically among an unusual, daring group of clever players working in the insurrectionary cultural atmosphere of Amsterdam.
Barry Hulshoff, the team’s great central defender insisted the players invented Total Football together. Ruud Krol, the left back, said Michels should get the credit. Assistant coach Bobby Haarms, who later served both Cruyff and Van Gaal, said: “It was an ideal mix of talents and intelligence and world-class players. Cruyff was a big influence, especially as he grew older. But Michels was the general who pulled it together.” Velibor Vasovic, the tough and experienced Serb sweeper Michels brought from Partizan Belgrade to teach Ajax’s then-callow kids to win told me: “Michels was the architect of this football. And I helped him the most. When I asked Michels himself about it he acknowledged that it was a group effort.”
Relatively under-appreciated players chipped in with profound contributions. Johan Neeskens, for example, inadvertently invented the high press.
Giuseppe Furino of Juventus (L), Johan Neeskens of Ajax (R) during the European Cup Final between Ajax and Juventus at the Red Star Stadium on may 30, 1973 in Belgrade, Yugoslavia
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A ferocious tackler, he usually had the defensive task of marking opponents’ playmakers who tried to escape his attentions by retreating into their own halves. Naturally, he chased after them. At some point during the 1970 season, Vasovic and the other defenders began to follow. “One minute we were playing the old system. The next the new way was there,” Haarms remembered in 1999. “Vasco [Vasovic] took one step forward and suddenly it was there. It was a kind of miracle. Michels saw it and said: ‘yes! This is how we have to do it!’”
From this eureka moment, all contemporary styles of pressing have developed.
Watching tape of that 70s team now what strikes the most is how slow the game was. Ajax and Holland passed and moved exquisitely, gave free rein to individual creativity, and in Cruyff and Piet Keizer (replaced in the national team by Rob Rensenbrink), had brilliant dribblers. But compared with what came later, they had lots of time and space.
It was mesmerizing. Watching them made one think of tectonic plates being shuffled at speed
By the 1990s, players were faster and fitter, defences were better organized, and there was less time and space. Van Gaal’s solved this problem by speeding up the passing and stretching it all over the field. His Champions League winning team of 1995 manipulated space and pulled opponents apart by switching the ball at speed to find gaps. It was mesmerizing. Watching them made one think of tectonic plates being shuffled at speed. By today’s standards, though, they still had lots of time and space to work with.
The players of ‘95 soon left, mostly for Barcelona or Milan, and took their technical, possession-centric style into the national team which, maddeningly, kept losing on penalties in tournaments they should have won. Van Gaal took his methods and ideas to Barcelona and Bayern Munich. At Barca, he strengthened the club’s Dutch-inflected tradition that owes more to Cruyff. And in Munich, he played a large part in converting German football from old kampfgeist to a more creative and style. Only at Manchester United did he encounter resistance. At the club still in thrall to Alex Ferguson’s methods and principles, Van Gaal’s football was considered dull and ineffective. Across town, by contrast, Manchester City eagerly embraced the Dutch-influenced vision of Guardiola.
Cruyff and Van Gaal both practised and preached spatially sophisticated attacking football but they had different ideas on how to achieve it. Following Michels, Van Gaal put his faith more in systems and rigid application of tactics. Cruyff believed in giving the most talented players freedom within a looser tactical structure.
6. The Velvet Revolution
Dennis Bergkamp (L), Wim Jonk (R) during a match of Ajax at August 1, 1991 at the Olympic stadium in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
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Meanwhile, back at Ajax, the financial weakness of the Dutch league gradually took its toll, and Total Football, which had started as a something fresh, bold and iconoclastic stagnated into inflexible dogma. By the 2010s the Dutch were no longer even the best at playing Dutch football. After that year's World Cup final, Cruyff condemned the brutal Dutch approach as ‘anti-football’.
In 2011, Cruyff, joined by Wim Jonk and Dennis Bergkamp, and frustrated by years of on-field mediocrity, organized a coup that wrested control of Ajax from the old board and put former players in control. Cruyff is still a revered figure and there has been sentimental talk during this year’s Champions League run that his “velvet revolution” improved the academy and led directly to Erik ten Hag’s team. Some scepticism is in order. For one thing, the upheaval was closer in spirit to the French or Russian revolutions than the Prague Spring, and its most enduring legacy was not progress but the wreckage of lifelong friendships. The period was so turbulent that Ten Hag’s team could be said to have emerged despite the revolution rather than because of it.
Almost as soon as the old guard fell, supporters of Louis van Gaal tried to oust the Cruyffians. After the Van Gaal supporters lost, new arguments broke out among the Cruyffians, mostly over the academy, which became the fiefdom of Jonk, increasingly the main ally of Cruyff, who remained in Barcelona. Established coaches were forced out while Jonk put his faith in another Cruyff favourite, Ruben Jongkind, a fitness expert with a background in athletics. Eventually, Jonk and Jongkind were themselves forced out by the club’s new “technical heart”, Bergkamp, Edwin van der Sar and Marc Overmars.
In the summer of 2016, first-team coach Frank de Boer, who had won the Dutch league four years in a row with rather dull possession football, left for Inter (where he lasted just 14 games). He was replaced by Peter Bosz, a former Feyenoord player and Cruyff disciple. Cruyff had died of cancer in March that year, and in his last weeks had spent time with Bosz in Israel. Johan’s son Jordi was technical director of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Bosz was the club’s manager.
His conversations with the dying master had a profound effect on Bosz. At Ajax, he instituted a policy of all-out attack in the traditional Cruyff style, using fast, advanced wingers, and much risk-taking. The young team, featuring 17-year-old defender Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech, who was then 24, stormed to the Europa League final.
Matthijs de Ligt of Ajax Amsterdam, Hakim Ziyech of Ajax Amsterdam, Kasper Dolberg of Ajax Amsterdam scored, Justin kluivert of Ajax Amsterdam, Donny van Beek of Ajax Amsterdam, Davinson Sanchez of Ajax Amsterdamduring the Dutch Eredivisie match between A
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It was club’s best run in Europe in years, but the Ajax kids froze in the final and were squashed by Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United. Stars of the team, including defender Davinson Sanchez and captain Davy Klaassen left and the brief renaissance seemed to be over when a new round of conflict led to Bosz leaving. He had fallen out with Bergkamp, who was both his subordinate (as assistant manager) and boss (as member of the ‘technical heart’). When Borussia Dortmund offered Bosz a job, he left; he lasted just six months in Dortmund but is now doing well with Bayer Leverkusen.
Meanwhile, no sooner had Marcel Keizer, Bergkamp’s preferred candidate, taken over as coach than Ajax was engulfed by tragedy.
Abdelhak “Appie” Nouri, their best-loved and most gifted young player, the guy team-mates like Donny van de Beek and De Jong looked up to, suffered a heart attack during a pre-season friendly in Bremen. His life was saved, but he suffered permanent brain damage. This, the club belatedly admitted after Nouri’s family took legal action, was caused by inadequate medical care when he collapsed. [Treatment had been too focused on Nouri's breathing instead of his heart rate, and the defibrillator was used too late.]
Nearly two years on, Nouri remains in a coma, and has become a cult figure. His name is regularly chanted at matches and his shirt number, 34, now rivals that of Cruyff as an icon for fans.
An Ajax fan wears a shirt saying stay strong Appie in support of Abdelhak Nouri of Ajax before the UEFA Champions League Qualifying Third Round match between Ajax and OSC Nice at Amsterdam Arena on August 2, 2017 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.
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Keizer, who’d been in charge of the reserves, was popular with the players and conducted himself admirably during the months of trauma. Unfortunately, a new battle over transfer policy was brewing.
Bergkamp wanted the club to continue to rely on players from the youth system. His old Arsenal and Holland team-mate Marc Overmars, the club’s director of football and increasingly the main power behind the scenes, wanted to add some big-money signings of established talent from elsewhere. When Ajax lost a cup match at Twente in December 2017, Overmars took the opportunity to sack Keizer, Bergkamp and another assistant, Hennie Spijkerman. “The club management does not have the requisite confidence that our ambitions will be realised under them,” Ajax said in a brutal statement, adding that there was a difference of opinion with Bergkamp about the technical direction of the club.
7. The Farmer's guiding hand
Coach Erik ten Hag of Ajax during the UEFA Champions League match between Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur at the Johan Cruijff Arena on May 8, 2019 in Amsterdam Netherlands
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Some Amsterdammers sneered that the man Overmars wanted as replacement – Erik ten Hag – was a “farmer” because he grew up in the east of the country and had no prior Ajax connections. In fact, he’d worked under Pep Guardiola in Munich and was a terrific coach. With Ten Hag in place, the club signed Tadic and brought Daley Blind home from Manchester for what for Ajax were huge sums (£10 million and £14 million respectively).
Outside Holland, the Ajax 2019 vintage is seen as homegrown, but only about half the team (Veltman, De Ligt, Blind, Noussair Mazraoui, and Van de Beek) grew up at Ajax. Goalkeeper Onana is from Cameroon, Schone from Denmark, Nicolas Tagliafico from Argentina, David Neres from Brazil, and Tadic, Ajax’s favourite Serb since Vasovic, from Southampton. Closer to home, Frenkie de Jong became a great player in Tilburg, with Willem II youth and Ziyech was signed from FC Twente.
The blend of experience and youth worked better than anyone expected and the 2019 side will probably go down as one of the best-loved in Ajax history. The pain of losing to Spurs will linger but at least the players clinched the Eredivisie championship, the second leg of the Dutch double a few days later. The players, coaching staff and tens of thousands of fans then partied on the Museumplein.
As in the days of Michels and Cruyff, the question of authorship arises. Was it the players or the coach who made them so good? Once again, it seems to be a joint effort. Ten Hag is clearly the guiding hand. But much of the on-field magic stemmed from what Haarms identified as the secret of the seventies: an ideal mix of talent, intelligence and world-class players. Pure luck and personal chemistry has played a part too. Ziyech and Tadic, for example, had a telepathic understanding from their very first training session.
It’s a pity they can’t all play together for Holland. Ziyech is Dutch born and bred but, feeling snubbed by then-bondscoach Danny Blind, opted to play instead for Morocco. Noussair Mazraoui, born in Leiderdorp, also chose to play for Morocco.
At the time of writing, no–one knows how many of the team will leave. De Jong has already signed for Barcelona, but De Ligt, now seen as the best young defender in the world, hesitates. His wage demands are said to be too high for Barcelona. Rumours swirl about the others, but Ziyech is understood to want to stay in Amsterdam unless one of the world’s handful of top clubs come for him.
8. Winners of tomorrow?
Virgil van Dijk of Holland Celebrates 4-0 with Memphis Depay of Holland, Frenkie de Jong of Holland, Georginio Wijnaldum of Holland during the EURO Qualifier match between Holland v Belarus at the Feyenoord Stadium on March 21, 2019 in Rotterdam Netherlan
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And what of the national team, which is heavily dependent on current and former Ajax men? Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt form Holland’s best central defensive partnership since Jaap Stam and Frank de Boer in 1998. In attack, without Ziyech, Tadic and Neres, Holland cannot play as beautifully as Ajax. Instead, Koeman will rely on a more conventional Dutch-style attack with Frenkie de Jong as the main creator for Memphis Depay in the centre. Quincy Promes will probably play on the right and 32-year-old Ryan Babel will probably be dropped on the left. His replacement could be PSV’s Steven Bergwijn, who is rumoured to be about to rejoin Ajax.
Koeman’s most interesting problem is in midfield. Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum is probably undroppable. But who should be the other foil for De Jong? So far, the bondscoach has favoured tough-tackling Marten de Roon of Atalanta (and once, unhappily, of Middlesbrough). But he may be tempted to play the much more creative Van de Beek instead.
There isn’t much excitement for the Nations’ League finals. The tournament is brand new and so far has none of the glamour of the World Cup or European Championship. But heading into the semi-final against England, the Dutch have rediscovered their mojo.
Before this season there was talk of the need for radical measures. A KNVB (Dutch FA) report called “Winners of Tomorrow” had demanded improvements to young players’ “winning mentality”. There were calls for a foreign coach for the national team, and for “obsolete” old Cruyffian principles to be abandoned. No one talks like that now. Confidence in Dutch philosophy and methods has been restored, vindicated and reinvigorated. A new generation of fans has had a taste of glory. With luck, there may be more to come.