We need to be honest. Before this Derby Of the Lowlands, the stories coming from both camps already seemed to predict what was going to happen.
The Belgium camp (Kevin de Bruyne) clearly wasn’t keen to play these 4 Nation League games after the long season most players had. Questions about the playing calendar, comments about the lack of real necessity of these matches…. And understandable. Belgium as a National Team stands firm. Martinez has been around for years. Our Southern neighbours are a settled team. It’s clear how they play and they already have several tactical systems in their backpack.
Louis van Gaal himself sang the Dutch anthem before the match
So different from the Dutch camp, which has been infused with a sense of urgency by Coach van Gaal who blew up the importance of these games for the Dutch. Not because of the Nations League trophy, but because Van Gaal sees it as the first prep period for the World Cup. And with Van Gaal as a relatively new coach this time, with his ideas of implementing a different system ( 3-4-3 instead of 4-3-3) and the fact that not all positions are certain yet, these 4 Nations League games will be considered as really necessary.
It was noticeable in the match. Yes, Belgium started spritely, they had some threatening attacks, culminating in the rocket smashing onto the upright by left wingback Castagne who repeatedly benefitted from Dumfries swashbuckling runs.
But one they lost Lukaku (Ake fell on his ankle after a Lukaku push… karma is a bitch) and saw a couple of great chances for Oranje, the Belgiums seems to give up. The shoulders dropped, the midfield couldn’t get close to our players and the veteran defenders started to make error after error.
Berghuis should have scored after 15 minutes, facing Mignolet. Memphis got a sweet volley chance, which just missed the goal, while Daley Blind had a good effort on goal after a brilliant Berghuis pass to Memphis who found his former Mancunian team mate on the edge of the box.
Holland could have been 0-3 up by then and all Belgium could do was a De Bruyne free kick on target after a rash Timber foul. Cillesen could easily collect the ball.
Oranje could smell blood. For sure, players like Van Dijk, Blind, De Jong and Memphis will have sensed that this Belgium was second-best in everything. Led by a Frenkie on overdrive, Oranje hunted for that goal.
It was no coincidence that Spurs man Stevie Bergwijn scored the opener. Always moving between the lines, always available, he was found by Frenkie with a short forward pass. The ex PSV forward took a touch to turn and found the goal without looking up: 0-1.
Oranje was almost able to score a second soon after, when the ref pointed to the spot for an alleged handball, but the VAR was able to dispel that notion: the ball hit the defender in the face, not on the arm: no penalty.
The usual question arose: was Holland playing so well, or was Belgium playing so weak. Probably a bit of both. The Dutch tactics Van Gaal came up with for this match worked wonders. Initially, it was Castagne on the left who had the better of Dumfries and after 20 mins or so, Van Gaal instructed the Inter wing back to be less adventurous to quiet the Leicester City man.
With Davy Klaassen on the #10 position, Van Gaal wanted him to make it hard for De Bruyne to dominate the game. The result was a less attacking Klaassen. Instead we got the fighting, duelling, battling and hoovering Klaassen. Never shining brightly, but oh so very important.
Berghuis played next to Frenkie. A bit deeper. But with the freedom to roam and support the attack. As Van Gaal said before the match: “Berghuis is my creative player. He can go wherever he wants.” And thus, we saw a deep lying Berghuis pass some great balls to the forwards – he created Memphis’ 0-2 for instance – or he himself came into scorings positions. The first one, I mentioned. He also had a shooting opportunity which sailed over the bar. His third attempt ended up at the feet of Blind who found his wing back partner Dumfries for the 0-3.
At that point, The Netherlands ruled the roost. Van Dijk and Ake were solid as a rock. Blind played his usual strong passing game, Timber might have put his hat in the ring for the right CB spot, while Frenkie de Jong payed at his regal best.
Memphis and Bergwijn upfront were unplayable for the older Belgium defence. They were constantly on the move, threatening and playing in between the lines. Memphis started slow, but grew into the game and ended up scoring one more in Oranje than a certain Patrick Kluivert. “Robin van Persie, here I come” was the message of the Barca forward.
Van Gaal didn’t see the need to change much. Ake was subbed after 75 minutes due to rhythm issues (the Feyenoord developed talent was informed by Man City that he is allowed to look for a new club… Newcastle United is a strong candidate).
Oranje could have gone further than 0-4. As said, the first half chances could have made it 0-7 and if Holland pushed really hard, they might have gotten more goals in the second half too. But, the friendly vibe between the players probably resulted in Van Dijk putting the foot on the brake, but not before he himself launched a long ball towards the sprinting Blind, who smartly took a position in between right back Meunier and centre back Aldeirwereld. The latter didn’t even see the Ajax man and his smart header was perfectly controlled by Memphis who didn’t hesitate: 0-4.
The Belgium team fought for a consolation goal and after a chalked off attempt for off side, it was Batshuayi who knicked one for Belgium: 1-4.
Obviously, the home fans booed their players off the pitch, whereas the Dutch were glowing with pride. After 25 years, Holland won a Derby of the Low Lands in Belgium. About time.
Van Gaal was particularly happy with the way they played and he was overly positive and complimented his players. “It was a joy to watch. Everything we discussed, everything we worked on and practiced worked out. The midfield positions, the movement of the forwards, the organisation at the back. Every single player was outstanding.” Asked about the key players, he smiled broadly and said: “Stevie Bergwijn! It’s unbelievable. He scored 5 out of the last 8 goals for us. He is so good in what he does. And Frenkie. But Frenkie… he is always good. I also thought Berghuis played a great game. But… they all did.”
Berghuis was not surprised with the way Oranje played: “I am not surprised no, because I know how good we can be. On a day like this, when it all clicks, we can reach this level. I know this. We need to find ways to always get to this level, which is the hard bit. I am not unhappy, far from it, but I do think I should have scored. That is a blemish on this match for me.”
Stevie Bergwijn was asked why he can perform like this in Oranje and not in London. “This coach believes in me. He has a role for me that works for me, I can play my game and I know what I can do. I feel really good here.”
Daley Blind had two assists in this game and created four chances for the team. He was key to Oranje’s attacking game. He opened his press talk by saying: “See? You don’t need to be fast to go deep!” This resulted in some belly laughs among the press. It was not a coincidence that both Dumfries and Blind were present for that third goal. When Berghuis shot on goal, both wing backs were already on the same level as the midfielder, ready to pick up a loose ball.
Daley Blind: “There is always that debate, whether this is a more defensive or offensive system. With Denzel playing higher on the right side, we can mix it up. He can go deep with his speed, I tend to play to the level of the box and try to get on the ball there. We sometimes slow the game down and try to just pass the ball around. This is not because we don’t want to attack. It’s the other way around: we do this, so we can explode into attack. We try to lure the opponent, we maybe put them to sleep a bit only to recognise where the space opens up and then an acceleration of the play gives us the attacking option.”
With the assist on the second Memphis goal, Blind demonstrated that speed is not always key. The moment you leave is key, the direction of the run is key (in between two defenders) and some spacial awareness to know where your team mates are is helpful too. Daley Blind running deep and heading an assist to the striker, is not a footballing situation you’d relate to the 32 year old. With Blind, it’s not about speed, but all about football intelligence.
Louis van Gaal is a happy man. He always speaks of Van Persie, Sneijder and Robben as the three key players he had for the 2014 World Cup. In this Nations League game, it seems the trio of Berghuis, Bergwijn and Depay have taken over these roles. Long may it last.
Jasper Cillesen – 7,5
First half build up passing could have been better. Second half, the Valencia goalie had one horrific build up pass but he also stopped some decent attempts on goal. His distribution improved. It seems Flekken, Bijlow and Cillesen will be slugging it out.
Nathan Ake – 7,5
He had one slip up in the first half, but played strong on the ball and very tight defensively. His starting berth in the team is not far away as a left CB.
Virgil Van Dijk – 7.5
Played like a rock. Supreme in the air. With a nice long pass to pre-assist Memphis’ second goal.
Jurrien Timber – 7
Played good, dribbles easily into midfield. Reads the game well but still has the odd rash challenge, in this match allowing Kevin de Bruyne a free kick from a dangerous spot.
Denzel Dumfries – 6,5
Had to slow his marauding runs a bit to keep track of Castagne. His hard feet resulted in some mediocre crosses from the right (one ball hit hard to Bergwijn at hip height) but always alert and on the front foot to score a goal.
Daley Blind – 8
Faultless game by Blind. Strong in possession, alert without the ball. Excellent distribution and two assists for the Ajax man.
Frenkie de Jong – 8,5
Played like a Roman emperor. Everything was his. Glided past players as if they didn’t exist. Always on the front foot, always driving forward.
Steven Berghuis – 7,5
Had some key passes (for the 0-2 for instance) and some great attempts, although he should have scored at least one. His distance strike resulted in Dumfries 0-3. Was available always, recycled the ball well and was alive constantly. With a goal, he would have scored an 8.
Steven Bergwijn – 8
Constantly on the move, constantly a threat. Always finding pockets of space and the most likely to open the score, which he did with a glorious goal. Ajax’ mission to sign him just got harder.
Memphis Depay – 8
Like Bergwijn, always a threat. Strong on the ball, aware of his team mates. Cool as a cucumber face to face with Mignolet and adding two more to his total tally.