For many days, the overall view was that poor Oranje was having to slug it out with Portugal or even Germany in the first knock-out game. But it seems the football gods are with us… Even better, our march to the finals will actually be not that dreadful, considering Belgium, France and Italy – generally seen as the three favorites – are in the other leg of the draw.
It remains to be seen whether this is a good thing though. Traditionally, Oranje does well vs stronger teams. Remember the group of death(s) in 2006 and 2008? We obliterated the competition (well…) and got in trouble the next knock-out stage. Oranje now also play well versus teams that consider themselves stronger. Once an opponent parks the bus, we will find it tougher to break them down.
But, the stars in the sky might have aligned, it also seems the stars on the pitch have. The vibe in the squad is very good, players who tend to be a bit narcy when they are not the dominant player appear to remain calm ( Berghuis, Koopmeiners) and Frank de Boer is demonstrating day in day out in his interviews and press conferences that he grew as a coach. He’s likeable, he jokes, he laughs and analyses with clarity.
Malen and Memphis have produced some nice interaction. Add the quality, movement and silky touch of Wijnaldum and there is our holy trinity. Frenkie and Gini have a good understanding, as do Stefan de Vrij and Mathijs de Ligt. These two actually became firm friends in Italy and spend a lot of time, with the families together.
The PSV contingent (Malen, Dumfries, Gakpo, Memphis) work well together, as do the AZ and Ajax team mates. Berghuis might well feel at home with the Ajax lads…
I am loath to be too positive and chirpy, but I can see that with the right focus and the right line up / system, Oranje can indeed power forward.
it was quite eventful for Oranje, this past week. The group win was great, Memphis’ signature under a Barca contract clearly gave the mercurial forward a boost, but the loss of Luuk de Jong, who had to exit the camp with a nasty knee injury, means Plan B doesn’t exist anymore. And it also automatically means that Wout Weghorst will be relegated to the pinch hitter role.
Another player we will need firing on all cylinders is Frenkie of course. The player with the most successful dribbles in the Euros until now.
Playmaker, play accelerator, conductor, dreh-und-angelpunkt, we have had so many names already for the midfielder. His passing is usually mentioned as his key strength and this is indeed a highly important aspect of the game. But another aspect might need a bit more spotlight: the dribble. No one dribbles more and better than the Arkel born lad.
Goal.com asked Antoine Griezmann in 2019 which player was the toughest opponent for him and he immediately said: “Ajax’ De Jong! I tried to put him under pressure in the Nations League games with France and it was impossible, I never succeeded. He’s so slick, he just slips past you as if you’re not there.” Not much later, they became team mates.
Four players had 17 dribbles in this Euros, so far. Our Frenkie, Denmark’s Maehle, Switzerland’s Embolo and France’ Mbappe. Frenkie had 13 successful ones, compared to 8 by the others.
This is here is key moment. Holland is under pressure from Austria. Weghorst passes to Wijnaldum, who gets two opponents on his toes. Gini dribbles quickly to the side line, knowing that loss of possession is less dangerous there. De Jong gives him an option, on the side line and he has four Austrians putting pressure on. Sabitzer in front of him, Laimer and Hinteregger are lurking close while Schlager joins in as well. Most player would pass the ball backwards to Dumfries or De Vrij. But that would not solve the problem. We would still be locked in and under pressure. This is a typical ideal pressure moment for Austria.
Frenkie oozes confidence on the ball. He doesn’t panic and the four Austrians are hesitating. De Jong sees the hesitation and decides to use it. He sprints through the pressure with the ball in close control and it fits like a glove. Not only does he alleviate the pressure, he turns defence into attack as he turns the situation in a 6 v 4 situation, what with Daley Blind and Pat van Aanholt immediately breaking out too, joining Frenkie, Weghorst, Memphis and Wijnaldum in attack. This move ends with a failed pass from Van Aanholt to Weghorst.
Another typical moment, also demonstrating the partnership in midfield. Holding mid Marten de Roon has the ball and almost stands still. Wijnaldum drops back and offers an option, leaving a gap in front of the Austrian defence. De Roon points to it, even, and Frenkie runs into that space and receives the ball.
He looks over his shoulder and sees that Laimer is too slow to react, so now Frenkie knows he can turn the player and get into a 1 v 1 situation on the edge of the box. He passes to Memphis whose shot is blocked. Another example where the obvious option would have been to pass the ball back.
The third example is in the North Macedonia match. Obviously, the pressure was off and Oranje was further helped by the offensive tactics of North Macedonia. Their pressure play resulted in space for us. Here is an example.
De Ligt has the ball and is pressured by Elmas. The ball goes to Daley Blind and Pandev is putting pressure on him. De Jong offers Blind an option, and while the ball is traveling, he looks over his shoulder, twice. Once right, once left. Before he has the ball, he knows the Macedonian defence is not pushing forward. He turns, he accelerates and he releases Van Aanholt. Wijnaldum could have done better from that Van Aanholt cross.
This type of play by De Jong makes it hard for opponents to press. A hesitation or a slow reaction and he is off and away. De Jong’s dribbles are as lethal as his passing. He can create something out of nothing. He doesn’t have a lot of assists or goals to his name. His forte is the pre-assist. His accelerations offer space and time to his team mates.
De Jong’s qualities are hard to express in statistics, although Opta Sports was able to somewhat approach it with their carries-stat. This demonstrates the ability to see a gap and the skills to carry the ball forward into that gap. The number of meters you carry the ball with your feet, basically. It’s not a surprise that the wingbacks score hight in this category as they usually have the flank at their disposal, where it is less busy. Carrying the ball forward through the spine is tough. There simply isn’t much space. De Jong is a maestro. He showed it at Ajax, now at Barca and at Oranje. Only Mateo Kovacic and the Spanish Barca colleague Pedri are able to show similar stats. But they tend to carry the ball backwards a lot too.
When Opta filters the stats in terms of carries forward, than Frenkie is the only midfielder amongst defenders.
The most important thing is, that Frenkie is completely convinced of his own playing style.
His response to a comment after the Real Madrid away game in 2019 says it all. Ajax won 1-4 but Frenkie had a difficult moment vs Benzema, when he tried to take on the French striker just outside his own box and lost the ball to the predator. This resulted in a big chance for Madrid.
Sports commentator Van Gelder: “I have a strong heart, but can you please never do that again?”
Frenkie: “No, I disagree. I think I need to do this again, but do it better. I made a good turn, but when I wanted to accelerate I got cramp in my legs and had to try and keep the ball…”
I think I need to do this again but better…. That is his mindset and that is why he can be of great value in the knock-out games. This mix of uninhibitedness and precision is exactly what we need. This puts the fear into our opponents, the knowledge that one little mistake can mean Oranje is thundering forward. De Jong’s dribbles give Oranje time and space, it also gives us a signature style of play.