It had to happen at some stage. A nation like Holland wouldn’t keep missing out on tournaments. History taught us so much. The tremendous development of players like Virgil, Memphis, Frenkie and Matthijs will have helped enormously, but it was also the changes made by coach Koeman that helped us reach a higher level.
Despite some negative responses after the 0-0 vs Northern Ireland this Saturday (we could have and should have won it and become the group leader, but hey… I won’t be raining on any parade), the overall feeling was joy and pride and relief.
Ronald Koeman’s first big decision when he was appointed as NT Manager, was to skip the training camps in flash and touristy Noordwijk to the boring woods of Zeist, to the KNVB’s sports centre. He didn’t want to turn the internationals into prisoners so much, but he did want them more “in his control”. So instead of individuals and little cliques, Koeman created a whole squad-vibe, supported by his captain and vice-captains (Virgil, Memphis, Daley, Strootman) and introduced group whatsapps and other group initiatives to help turn our talents into a cohesive team.
He did more.
- Dominate the axis of the pitch
In the run up to the first matches under his management, Koeman was cryptic in his answers. Asked what system he was going to play: “I am not going to tell you. But I won’t call it 4-3-3.” With this comment, he said goodbye to the (Louis van Gaal) mantra, that wingers need to keep the pitch wide and cross balls into the box. Koeman wants a left footed player on the right, and a right footed player on the left. He wants them to come inside and he wants the full backs to keep the width. Koeman knows it’s easier to win games if you dominate the middle of the pitch. He wants his team to keep the ball in the central axis of the field as long as possible. In the EPL, most successful teams stock up their central areas. Pep Guardiola uses the full backs to come centrally to support, while Klopp at Liverpool uses Firmino to drop back and support and two wingers who constantly come to the centre of the park. Ten Hag and Van Bommel play a similar style in the Dutch competition. The number of crosses has diminished significantly as a result. In the EPL we saw 40 crosses per match in the 2008/2009 season, and that has imploded to only 24 on average in last season.
Typical positioning of Oranje in possession. A winger and the #10 (circled) forming a square with the midfielders (in rectangular)
Koeman used to be a fan of the tall #9 striker (Graziano Pelle at Feyenoord and Southampton) but with the mercurial Memphis as an option, Koeman has steered away from aerial attacks and crosses. He uses Depay as striker, with runners Babel, Promes and / or Bergwijn on the wings. All players who can play central striker, winger and #10 in midfield, allowing for maximum flexibility.
In this way, Oranje has more options when playing the minions who come to park the bus and want to force Oranje to the flanks. This was what happened under Hiddink and Blind a lot, when we failed to qualify versus Iceland, Turkey and Bulgaria. They forced us to go wide and use the crosses, which are relatively easy to defend. Under Koeman, we also struggled at times to find the way through, but Oranje always was able to find that solution. The cross is no longer Plan A, but basically Plan B or C when everything else fails…
- Play Forward!
Not long ago, we had a national debate about the question, why is Wijnaldum a key player at Liverpool and mediocre in Oranje? The midfielder who won the CL with Liverpool was at times unrecognisable in the orange jersey. With Daley Blind, Kevin Strootman and Memphis Depay he became the symbol of player who couldn’t lead Oranje to the big tournaments… With the new playing system under Koeman, we might conclude that it wasn’t him/them. It was how they were used. With Wijnaldum, the discussion has been turned around even. In Liverpool, they’re asking “how can we use Gini like Oranje does, so he can decide more games for us?”. Wijnaldum: “That has to do with my new role in Oranje. I have more freedom now.” With Memphis, Blind and Wijnaldum performing much better in Oranje has to do with the build up. Koeman destroyed the Dutch Disease of playing the ball square constantly. In the run up to the World Cup 2018, more than half of the passes in 9 out of 10 games played by Holland were played between central defenders. In one of this first press conferences, Koeman said: “I don’t like to see players playing back to the keeper. Find space up front. Make it hard for the opponent. Let them deal with the issue. When you want to create something, you need to play the forward pass.”
When we are faced with two pressing forwards, Frenkie drops next to the centre backs, keeping the full backs higher on the pitch
Koeman has demanded from his players that they see and recognise where to apply pressure. If the opponent has one player pressing, we need to find the second team mate to come and help and create the man more situation. Do they press with two, than we need a defender to join in.
Koeman’s second principle: find the space behind their last defender. With the introduction of Frenkie de Jong, Koeman starts playing the 4-2-3-1 and manages to find the pass behind the last defender. Now Oranje starts to make an impression in an attacking sense as well.
This is a perfect example, vs Germany. Blind gets the second ball after a pressure moment on the left. In the failed qualification matches, he might have played it square to De Jong. Or he would control the ball first and turn back to his central defender to slowly build up again. But not now.
See how deep Promes is playing, as a make shift right back
Without hesitation he plays the ball hard and low into the feet of Memphis. The holding mid of Germany is too late and is played out. Wijnaldum is already dashing forward, Memphis finds him and Malen is on hand to score.
The late, great Johan Cruyff once said: sometimes something needs to happen before something happens… This Oranje does make things happen by playing the forward pass. Possession has become a means again, not the end.
- Defend Space
Koeman: “We need to build a consistent core of players. I don’t change a lot because we never have a lot of time to build a dynamic. All we do now is just add some details about the opponent and off we go!”.
We conceded a goal against Belarus. Koeman: “We are suddenly faced with a situation of two defenders against three attackers! Maybe the others think Virgil van Dijk can deal with everything!”
And then he sums up the list of errors: Joel Veltman not pressing the ball so the cross can be played in easily. De Jong doesn’t track his runner. Blind doesn’t squeeze in time, and as a result Van Dijk and De Ligt are facing 3 opponents. The Dutch NT doesn’t make couples on the pitch, in a manmarking manner. We defend the spaces. Compactness is a key word for Koeman. The distances between our players should be max 10 t0 12 meters. With this, we can always give backing to team mates and offer options in possession. Everything he wants, was forgotten in that one situation vs Belarus.
- Do what you can to win!
Wijnaldum: “Koeman explains what we need to do to win the game. And if we can’t make it happen in the first half, he will explain calmly in the break what we need to do to win. This group absorbs all this very well.”
The little note assistant Lodeweges used in the away game vs Germany has reached epic proportions. We were 2-1 down in Germany and in the final stage of the game, Van Dijk is directed forward to operate as second striker for Oranje. Just before time, it’s a cross by Vilhena which reaches Van Dijk and he scores the 2-2 securing our spot in the finals of the Nations League.
Koeman also directed Frenkie de Jong to play as third central defender in that Germany match, allowing or more control.
In the home game vs Germany for the Euro qualification, we see more shots of Lodeweges with notes in his hand. In this match, we play a 4-2-3-1 again, but Koeman adapts defensively. Koeman mirrors the German 3-5-2 by using Promes as a wingback. Oranje fights back from trailing 0-2 to 2-2 but loses in the dying minutes.
The “Germany System” with Promes as wingback
Not that long ago, Dutch NT coached would be heavily criticised for abandoning the Dutch 4-3-3 system. The Dutch NT needed to play to their strengths, people said. Van Gaal got massive complaints from the football world when he played with three centre backs at the World Cup 2014. Koeman didn’t seem to care about all these sentiments, went his own way, and got the results. Koeman is also not the type – as opposed to Van Gaal – to be very open to the press what he is doing. He deflects questions about tactics and uses so-called kitchen tile one-liners to explain things to the media. He always plays tactics down and says those discussions are not so important. His motto: if I don’t start the conversation, I won’t get any hassle from it.
- Focus on the turn-around
Virgil van Dijk: “At some stage, space opens up and we have lads up front with speed who can benefit from this. And we do.”
A quick look to the stats show us that Oranje is deadly in ball possession. We have dynamic forwards, with legs and lungs and similar players in midfield (Van de Beek, Wijnaldum!) who can bridge any distance to the goal easily. This kind of counter goals were long considered an inferior way to win games. We usually blame Portugal and Germany (in the past century) for using these tactics. Today, victories vs Germany and Portugal (…) have silenced the criticasters.
|Opponent||Goal scorer||Number of Passes|
|Northern Ireland||Memphis Depay||3|
|Northern Ireland||Luuk de Jong||8|
|Northern Ireland||Memphis Depay||1|
|Germany||Frenkie de Jong||6|
|England||Matthijs de Ligt||1|
|Germany||Matthijs de Ligt||2|
|Belarus||Virgil van Dijk||1|
|Germany||Virgil van Dijk||0|
|Germany||Virgil van Dijk||0|
|Portugal||Virgil van Dijk||2|
In the run up to the Northern Ireland game, Koeman says this: “We want to score quick and start well. We are even better when we can play compact, with a goal to the good. Our counter attacks are super dangerous.” So, under Koeman we play dominant first, to counter-attack later. Our forwards feel most comfortable when they have space in front of them, and turn-around experts Wijnaldum and De Roon also feel best with space in front. And playing compact doesn’t mean playing defensive. You can press high, and be compact still. But when that doesn’t work, the players will drop back on their own half. And then the team requires patience to wait for the right moment to pounce.
In the small spaces of the modern game, the counter attack is an essential weapon. Even Man City, Barcelona, Bayern and Liverpool play like this, with France winning the World Cup in this style.
The turn around vs Germany, with De Roon playing the forward pass
Like any NT manager before him, Ronald Koeman benefits from the work done by the club coaches. Van Dijk and Wijnaldum feel at home in this style, because Klopp works the exact same way. De Ligt, Blind and De Jong will always try and find the solution by playing forward, because Ten Hag demands this at Ajax. Bergwijn will fortify our midfield and make way for Dumfries, because Van Bommel wants this from them at PSV. Babel, Promes and De Roon will help balance the team because these players learned to be a team player.
Koeman’s biggest strength, is that he has developed a playing style utilising the strength of his players.
So, one more game. A match in which Virgil will not be present due to personal circumstances. Gini Wijnaldum will be the captain and Koeman promised a completely new system / approach…