It’s that typical question, when a coach takes over at a club or nation: “Is the hand of the new coach visible already?”
Well, Ronald Koeman clearly puts a line in the sand lets the past be the past. “That is the only way for us to qualify.” And he did so on the second anniversary of the death of his friend, mentor, former coach and neighbour, Johan Cruyff. During the press conference before the Portugal game, Koeman said: “I miss him a lot. There is not a day that goes by on which I don’t think about him. He’s in my heart.”
But, the heart is not the head. Maybe 3 seconds later, the former Everton coach says that all Cruyff stood for is currently not so relevant for Oranje. Not because Koeman doesn’t want to play the JC style, but simply because there is no alternative. “You have to play according to the abilities you have.”
Any NT coach knows this, you’re totally dependent on your material. As a club coach, if you miss a good left winger, you can sign him. Or several. Not with the national team. “But, what we can have and must have, alway, is the right attitude, mentality and focus. We need team spirit, first and foremost. Look at Iceland. Look at Wales. Greece in 2004. They compensate lack of top quality with mentality, focus and team spirit.”
The first signal Koeman gave to the players, was the move from the loose Hotel Oranje to the more enclosed “East Germany” style camp of Zeist. Most internationals hated the move, prior to experiencing Zeist. They like what they know. But Wijnaldum said it well, after their first week: “It was actually great. In Noordwijk, players go to their room or stroll with their mates on the boulevard. This time, I actually had to hang out more with players I don’t know so well. And it was fun. Now, we just got the room to rest or sleep and the rest of the time, we’re together. We play cards, we play darts. I had my thoughts prior to coming here, but it’s actually really good.”
Koeman had to start somewhere and this is was his first step. “But, we need to see it on the pitch, at the end of the day. A coach is right when he wins and he’s wrong when he loses.”
The first demonstration against England was a losing one. One of the worst international games Oranje played. Solid in the organisation but not creating anything. And sure, Jeroen Zoet should stop that Lingard shot and in that case, we’d have a 0-0 draw vs a strong England. Not that bad.
But 4 days later, a rejuvenated Oranje counters the arrogant Portuguese off the pitch, in 45 minutes. Koeman does see that Oranje is a quick learner. The ex Barcelona libero saw some aspects to hold on to.
Against England and Portugal, Oranje didn’t give away a lot. “Against two top nations, I think that’s positive. Our central defence played really well. You do need to start with the fundaments at the back and I’m positive. We have two more games of course, Slovakia and Italy and I do believe we will see more progress. We have more good players for these positions (Van Beek, Rekik, Bruma, Van der Hoorn) so I’m happy with that.”
Koeman was satisfied with the team discipline. He worked on the training pitch with them and he did see the results in the game. “Tactically, we did well, against England as well by the way. I focused on certain aspects and I saw that come to life in the match. And sure, we still make mistakes, but I am not complaining.”
Matthijs de Ligt was one of the guiding lights vs England and Portugal. With Van Dijk and De Vrij/Ake at his side, he was fantastic. “At that age, he is remarkable. But we have more great talents. The key is to use them properly and allow them to grow.”
Koeman picked seven different players against Portugal but the most important change, was the set up of the team. Against England, it was a 3-4-3 with two wide players, resulting in two midfielders to cover the midfield. The 3-5-2 vs Portugal resulted in three midfielders and these three bossed the game. But individually, the differences were significant as well. Davy Propper has grown tremendously in England, from an elegant attacking mid at PSV to a leader and controlling midfielder at Brighton. Donny van de Beek and Wijnaldum at his side, a bit further up the pitch, all three players who can control the ball under pressure. All capable of one/two touch football and all players with good awareness of what’s around them. Both Tete and Vilhena played very disciplined in their wide roles and Ryan Babel appeared to be much better in holding up play, than Bas Dost. And obviously, the team played more compact and defended and attacked as a whole. With key roles for central defenders De Ligt and Van Dijk in the attacking moves.
Koeman can be highly critical and he wasn’t happy with the lack of response of his team, whenever Sterling of England dropped to midfield to strengthen the England engine room. None of the central defenders pushed up and the two wide backs (Hateboer and Van Aanholt) were playing too high up the park. Koeman adapted the system in the second half, letting Promes drop into midfield and go with two up top (Memphis and Dost), but Holland couldn’t play compact enough to control the game and was constantly one step too late.
After the Portugal game, he was unhappy with the fact that Oranje couldn’t capitalise on the red card for Portugal and create even more.
Koeman watched both games back on video with his analysts and realised that in possession, Holland still can’t impress. “When you’re on the bench you see the game as a coach and as an Oranje fan. I thought we did ok in possession. When I saw the games again on video, I realised we have a lot to improve on that. We need to improve in the football playing, but then again, I am sure we have the right players who will become available (Daley Blind, Frenkie de Jong, Vincent Janssen). We do have time to build on this.”
Holland isn’t the only nation to have to rebuild significantly. Germany had to do it from 2000 onwards. Portugal had a failed World Cup in Brazil and ended up winning the Euros. England was played off the pitch vs Germany recently and made drastic changes. “I think we’re at that same juncture. We need to make changes, we did, and now we need to build on this. I’m not satisfied, but I’m optimistic. We will keep on working on the 3-4-3 and the 5-3-2. Against lesser countries, we need to play 3-4-3, against the Germanies, Spains, and Frances of this world, we need to adapt.”
An analysis of the different players Ronald Koeman used.
Cillesen vs Zoet
Jeroen Zoet repeatedly voiced his frustration how he – as a regular- was bypassed by Cillesen, a benchwarmer. Cillesen got his change against Portugal and was one of the key players, with six saves and in particular the stretched reflex on a C Ronaldo header. Zoet was less tested by England but he did allow a goal that seemed very stoppable. Lingards shot from outside of the box passed Zoet by 1,5 yards. Any goalie should stop that shot. Of the 7 goals Zoet conceded in Oranje, 5 were from outside the box…
Tete vs Hateboer
In Koeman’s system, the wingbacks need to cover the whole flank. Enter Hateboer, who impressed at Atalanta with this style of playing. Tete is always seen as the typical defender and has always been seen as a weaker offensive back vs Karsdorp, Janmaat and now Hateboer. But the stats say differently. Tete had 5 assists and 1 goal for Lyon whereas Hateboer only had 1 assist and zero goals in the Serie A. Both backs were both playing well for Oranje, with Hateboer winning more duels and Tete being more precise in his passing. With Karsdorp and Janmaat also in the running, we’ll have options here.
Ake vs De Vrij
Even though there was not to cheer about re: the England game, the back three played very well. De Vrij is probably more complete and more experienced than Ake, but Ake does have to left foot. De Vrij and Ake won all their personal duels vs England and Portugal respectively. De Vrij intercepted more than Ake and his passing accuracy was very high (92% vs 80% for Ake).
Van Aanholt vs Vilhena
Vilhena is normally a midfielder although used by Gio as a left back every now and then. Koeman picked up on this and Vilhena played a perfect first half vs Portugal. Van Aanholt has tremendous legs and lungs and also knows how to score. Having Vilhena as another alternative (Kongolo, Willems, Pieters, Daley Blind) will be a plus, as the Feyenoord youngster might just have more in his locker in terms of positioning play and ball control over Van Aanholt.
Strootman vs Propper
It remains a mystery. Strootman is a leader in Roma’s midfield. He’s seen as a key player and has been for 7 seasons in the Italian capital. But in Oranje, we hardly see that player. Strootman has excuses of course, for the England match… No midfielder would have impressed in the set up Koeman chose, as England created a man more constantly. But Strootman does seem to slow the game down and does go for the obvious pass. His first touch needs a lot of work. Propper on the other hand is a real gifted technician, with good vision for the forward pass. He was constantly open, his first touch impeccable and his head always up.
Van de Beek vs Dost
This is not a fair comparison as they played in different roles of course. But with an extra midfielder instead of a striker, the positioning was much better. Dost’s problem is that Oranje doesn’t play to his strength. He’s a classical centre forward, needing service. Whenever Dost drops back to midfield, he’s arguing with the ball. With Van de Beek, Koeman gets what he wants: dynamic movement between the lines and a player coming into the area instead of a player statically waiting there. Donny’s runs even got us our first goal vs Portugal, when his failed attempt was turned into an assist by Memphis.
Babel vs Promes
When you can’t play dominant football but want to use the turn-around to counter, you need speed. Ryan Babel, not having played in the jersey for eight years, does have that versatility. He’s fast, strong in the duels and can score, with his left and right and with his head. Babel’s relationship with Memphis is developing well and he was key in blocking Portugal’s build up. Promes and Memphis weren’t as helpful in that part of the game and Promes – key for Spartak Moscow – was never able to impress in Oranje, in the two recent friendlies.
Yes, these were conclusions based on two friendlies and particularly Promes, Hateboer, Ake and Van Aanholt will surely have more value for us in the future. With the likes of Daley Blind, Steven Bergwijn, Frenkie de Jong, Jetro Willems, Calvin Stengs and Vincent Janssen on the fringes, this Oranje can only become stronger and better.
I personally am still a fan of Adam Maher. He got lost at PSV and is currently playing relegation football with FC Twente, but with the right club/coach, I think Maher might surprise us all still.
And if we do need a strong central striker in games vs lesser opponents, lets not forget the qualities of ( a fit) Robin van Persie.