The competitions have started again. And with a focus on the Dutchies, it’s clear that we are seeing – mostly – pretty decent developments. Yes, Mathijs de Ligt might need a tad more time to get used to Sarri’s new way of playing for Juve. Even Bonucci says in interviews he needs more time himself! And yes, Luuk de Jong hasn’t scored yet (but don’t worry: he will). Cillesen is allowing goals, yes, and maybe he’s not as good as Neuer or Kapa or De Gea but he’s still good enough for Oranje.
It’s all good news. PSV’s forwards, Ajax’ continuous run, AZ’s talents knocking on the door, but also the return to fitness of Danjuma, the goals of Weghorst, the minutes made by Chong and most importantly the key role Frenkie is playing already in this Barcelona. Only Feyenoord is a bit of an up and down team at the moment… Epically beating Porto and then losing horrifically against Fortuna Sittard? But all good lessons for the players and hopefully they’ll find their spine soon.
Frenkie oozes confidence: “We have made a good run with Oranje, but now we really need to win the next two matches as we will make a giant leap forward to qualification. Northern Ireland is the key game, and away against Belarus, well…with all due respect, we really should win that. We will have the upperhand vs Germany and Northern Ireland in terms of 1v1 result and we have it all in our own hands.” Frenkie has a right to be cocky. He started in 10 of Barca’s 11 official matches and the media can’t stop talking him up. He’s seen as a real asset, providing creativity and solutions from midfield and accelerating the game where possible. Some media even claim that the current Barcelona team is struggling to keep up with Frenkie’s game!
“Yes its going well, but I never worried about that. For me, it’s new team mates and a new stadium and a new country and language, but the football for me is always the same. I wouldn’t know how to play differently. Barca signed me with their full brain, as we say in Holland, and they know what they’re getting. And to be honest, we’re not playing that well. We can still do so much better. But a Barca that plays average, always has a Suarez or a Messi to break the deadlock. That bycicle kick of Suarez? He doesn’t it constantly in training. That was meant to happen like this, I can tell you. And I am as surprised by what he does as the fans are, hahaha. We have so much quality, we can always find an opening.”
Oranje is not that far progressed. “Not yet!”, Frenkie smiles. “But we will work towards this. I believe we can play better but if you see how we played partly during the Nations League semi finals and the second half vs Germany… That is the level we need to hold on to. We can still improve and that is a good thing! We all sense there is room to grow.”
The goal is reaching the Euro2020 tournament. “I did play final tournaments in the youth system. It’s really good fun to play at those, but this one is the real deal! It’s a disgrace in a way that The Netherlands missed out twice! I really want to be part of the group that will qualify again.”
Another player who entered the trainings camp for Oranje with his chest out is skipper Virgil van Dijk. “We’re now 8 points ahead of Man City with Liverpool! Who would have thought that so early in the season. Wow! Winning the CL with Liverpool was huge, but winning the title in England will be even bigger. We want to win everything now, the title, the FA Cup, the World Cup for clubs, everything!”
Van Dijk never played a final tournament. Not even in the youth. “Four years ago, I made my debut vs Kazachstan. Boy, what a difference. Things didn’t go so smoothly, to say the least. And if you look at the steps we made since then? It can go quickly and it all is based on the talent coming through. It’s cyclic I think and we’re on a good run now.”
Van Dijk wants to temper the euphoria. “We haven’t won a single thing yet. Yes it’s going well but Thursday, Northern Ireland…it will be tough. Yes, it’s a full Kuip and all this, but I know the Northern Ireland team and I know most of their players and I’m telling you: it will be a tough match! But no matter how you look at it: we want to win and we will qualify because we are ready. We have the players, the technical staff, the history, the fans, we simply belong at that stage.”
Ronald Koeman was asked about this new look Oranje. His analysis. “It all comes in waves. I was also part of a young group in the 1980s that had to be brought in because Oranje was disappointing on all levels. With Vanenburg, Van Basten, Gullit… And we were kids. But we had the pizzazz, we had the courage and some luck. Now, we see another tremendous generation knocking on the doors of the top. Frenkie de Jong, two seasons ago, was not yet a certainty. Virgil was overlooked by most clubs, Dumfries, Ake, Van De Beek… And there is more coming and that is wonderful. I also believe we changed things at club level. Today most clubs have their players 8 hours per day. In the years before, other countries trained harder. Longer. Players were fitter. Today, I think we can compete.”
Asked why Koeman is not open to make changes in his squad (think Weghorst vs Luuk or bringing in Stengs instead of Berghuis), he said: “You have to understand that I have been working with these lads for 1,5 years now and we don’t have a lot of time before matches to fit in new players. There is always that urge to give younger talents chances, but we need to win Thursday. I don’t have time to focus on a young player coming in and getting him into the system. It’s definitely something I long to do, I can also see we have some good players coming through, but I want to do it slowly but surely. I selected Berghuis over Stengs, both left footed forwards, because Steven has the experience within Oranje. He has been part of Oranje for years, on and off. But Stengs is definitely knocking on the door. Koopmeiners too, a player I am following. He has leadership skills, great feet, mentally strong, so yes. And there are more options, I am aware but we will find the right time to start to include these new lads.”
Asked about the Weghorst / Luuk de Jong debate. “Weghorst scores easily and now he has a number of goals while Luuk hasn’t, but I don’t look at that only. I look at what they do without the ball and how they can be of use for the team. As a pinch hitter, I think Luuk offers more. More “gogme”, more smarts and experience. Luuk is great in holding up the ball and finding team mates, with his head or chest or feet. Wout is more a finisher. But you can’t claim Luuk doesn’t know how to score, right? He was Eredivisie top scorer so he knows how to do it.”
Asked about Mo Ihattaren. “It’s clear that he will become a European top player. No doubt. We really want him to play for Oranje, but considering his private situation (Mo’s dad recently died) we have said we would give him time. I am not going to stalk him, particularly not now. He is only 17 years old and he needs to decide on his own time.”
He did have to drop players, as for instance Donny van de Beek is back to full fitness. “I decided to drop a midfielder extra as Davy Propper isn’t fit either. We now have one extra forward. I think it’s legit, as we will be playing opponents who will want us to have the ball. Tonny Vilhena was part of Oranje for years now, so it’s hard on him, but things will keep changing, I’m sure. Players get injured, or we need more midfielders maybe against other opponents. The least fun thing for a team manager is calling players who are loyal and have had contributions to tell them they are not needed. I do look at how polyvalent a player actually is, of course, and with the likes of Donny but also Malen we have players who can play on more than one spot. I think Malen can play on 4 positions… That is rich.”
The Northern Ireland match is seen as a key match and a difficult one.
I think Holland will thrash them: 4-0. The Belarus away game will probably prove to be more difficult… Malen, Memphis, Donny and De Ligt on the score sheet.