Total football is back.
This week’s international break — the first of the calendar year — brings a perhaps much-needed opportunity to draw breath after an increasingly pressurized domestic schedule and a hotly-contested Champions League round of 16. The break features the opening round of Euro 2020 qualifying games across the continent, but there is a major trophy on the minds of four nations before qualifying for next year’s tournament intensifies.
For Portugal, Switzerland, England and the Netherlands, this provides a chance for increased preparation for the inaugural Nations League Finals in June. In particular, for the Dutch, the next few months have the look of being the start of something truly special as the current side aim to emulate their country’s legendary side of the 1970s and 80s.
The performances of some of Europe’s historic elite in the last couple of weeks of Champions League action highlight exactly why this crop could go a long way to replicating past Dutch success.
Ajax swept the floor with Real Madrid in the second leg at the Bernabeu. It was a performance for the ages, a 4-1 victory delivered embodying the spirit of Johan Cruyff: full of freedom, youthful creativity and attacking verve eventually toying with their aging hosts. The men who were the beating heart of Ajax’s success? The young Dutch stars Mathias De Ligt and Frenkie De Jong – living up to their potential on the biggest of stages and indicating why the future of their national team is in safe hands for years to come.
But it is not just the stars of the future which provide Dutch fans and regular viewers of European football with excitement about what is to come. The wonderkids from Ajax are being led by a core group of more established performers who need this to be the time for success, or they will be recognised as part of a forgotten generation.
A week following Ajax’s masterclass, in Munich, a Liverpool side featuring the powerful Dutch influence of Virgil Van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum delivered a similarly impressive performance, dispatching Bayern Munich. Van Dijk assisted the opening goal, and powered in a bullet header to regain his side’s lead. It is he in particular who has earned rave reviews on a weekly basis this season, building on his immediate impact at Anfield at the end of last season and establishing himself as one of Europe’s best defenders with consistently dominant displays. Depending on the outcome of his club’s season, he could well be in contention for the Premier League’s player of the year award.
For the national side, Van Dijk is the go-to man: captain, leader and ever-dominant force at the centre of defence. Elsewhere, talented, experienced heads such as Jasper Cillessen in goal, Daley Blind at full back and Ryan Babel and Memphis Depay in attacking areas provide depth and quality, along with a well-balanced feel to the side.
So, with players performing at club level on a consistent basis, how will this success translate to the international stage? In truth, it has been coming. The performance of the Holland national side has been noticeably underwhelming in the last few major tournament cycles, culminating in their absence from the last European Championship and World Cup altogether. This side are hungrier than ever to change that narrative since their most recent failure, having missed out on a trip to Russia last summer. With a cultured blend of teenage exuberance, established experience and defiant character at their core, this is their time to shine.
The character of this side was demonstrated as recently as November when they booked their place at June’s finals in Portugal. 2-0 down in the 85th minute against Germany in Gelsenkirchen, the Dutch were all but done and set to miss out on tournament qualification once again. This time was different. As the game entered stoppage time, a brilliant volleyed goal by Van Dijk sent the Dutch into raptures. Qualification was secured, a historic comeback completed, and confirmation of a Dutch football revolution-cum-throwback complete.
In February 2018, following a succession of failed managerial appointments, the Dutch turned to Ronald Koeman, seemingly as a living continuation of the values of Cruyff and one of his disciples. Koeman played for the legendary manager as the Barcelona “Dream Team” captain and has instilled that attitude synonymous with his master’s values, injecting his side with a new-felt optimism and belief in Dutch principles.
Having overcome not only Germany to reach this stage but the newly-crowned World Champions France also, the Netherlands must take this form into their upcoming games against Belarus, the Germans once again and beyond. In the Nations League semi-final, the Netherlands face Gareth Southgate’s England, who like the Dutch are building for a bright future. It will be a fascinating clash, but this Holland team seem to have a more effective balance of youth and experience and will fancy themselves to swat the Three Lions aside, with the winners facing the victors of hosts Portugal and Switzerland’s game for the chance to be crowned Nations League champions.
Even if success did not come this summer, the plan is evidently for Koeman to bring back the good times and this international break may be the start of a further attack on Europe at next year’s summer tournament. We await to see how this side holds up under the pressure of tournament football, particularly given recent failures. Despite this, the peak of the current Holland side is approaching, and fast.
The Oranje are done feeling blue. This vibrant, youthful bunch are set to take the world by storm, starting with Nations League victory this summer. Watch out Europe, and the rest of the world. The Dutch are back, and back with a vengeance.