Ajax, Koeman and Learning to Love Memphis: How the Netherlands Got Back on Track

Tom Williams@tomwfootballSpecial to Bleacher ReportJune 6, 2019

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 16: Georginio Wijnaldum of Holland celebrates 1-0 with Marten de Roon of Holland, Matthijs de Ligt of Holland, Frenkie de Jong of Holland, Memphis Depay of Holland, Virgil van Dijk of Holland, Denzel Dumfries of Holland, Daley Blind of Holland  during the  UEFA Nations league match between Holland  v France  at the Feyenoord Stadium on November 16, 2018 in Rotterdam Netherlands (Photo by Peter Lous/Soccrates/Getty Images)
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

Amsterdam, March 2018. Two former international centre-backs sit back in their red dugout seats and try to assess how their respective teams are faring with the tactical systems they are testing out.

In the away dugout sits England manager Gareth Southgate. He has chosen this friendly fixture to premiere an eyebrow-raising 3-5-2 formation in which Kyle Walker has been redeployed as a right-sided centre-back.

His opposite number is Ronald Koeman, who is taking charge of the Netherlands national team for the first time. He, too, opts for a back three, but the experiment proves underwhelming. England dominate proceedings and win 1-0 courtesy of Jesse Lingard's first international goal.

The two teams look to be on very different trajectories. Adopting the same system that Southgate first tried out in Amsterdam, England travel to the World Cup on a wave of positivity and make it all the way to the semi-finals. Koeman's players watch events in Russia from afar, having failed to qualify for a second major tournament in succession.

But a spectacular turnaround in Dutch fortunes means that when Southgate and Koeman shake hands at Estadio D. Afonso Henriques in the Portuguese city of Guimaraes on Thursday ahead of the UEFA Nations League semi-final between their teams, they will do so on an equal footing. The Netherlands' resurgence, which saw them top their Nations League group above France and Germany, has taken even Koeman himself by surprise.

The Netherlands' failure to qualify for last year's World Cup left football in the country at what was seen as a historic low ebb. Newspaper headlines at home and abroad spoke of a "crisis" in the Dutch game.

By the time Koeman took up his role in February last year, Robin van Persie—the Netherlands' all-time leading scorer—was already fading from view on the international scene. With Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben choosing to retire from international football in the aftermath of the World Cup qualifying failure, Koeman found himself in charge of a squad that had suddenly become 332 caps and 118 international goals lighter.

Any changing room would have felt the absence of three such experienced and decorated footballers, but Koeman saw it as an opportunity.

"With the big lads gone, there is space for the younger players to step into that space and show what they are made of," he said in a December 2018 interview with Dutch Soccer Site.

Koeman continued to road-test a back three in friendly games, but he abandoned the system after his side lost 2-1 to world champions France in their opening Nations League group game in September.

The Netherlands' next fixture, at home to Germany in October, was when everything clicked into place. Aligned in a classic Dutch 4-3-3, with Frenkie de Jong running the midfield and Memphis Depay leading the line, Koeman's side took a 30th-minute lead when Virgil van Dijk headed in from close range.

ROTTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - MARCH 21: (L-R) Virgil van Dijk of Holland Celebrates 4-0 with Memphis Depay of Holland, Frenkie de Jong of Holland   during the  EURO Qualifier match between Holland  v Belarus  at the Feyenoord Stadium on March 21, 2019 in Rotte
Soccrates Images/Getty Images

After riding their luck at times in the second half, the Netherlands killed off Germany in the latter stages; Depay smuggled a shot past Manuel Neuer from Quincy Promes' pass before Georginio Wijnaldum waltzed through a dispirited back line to set the seal on a 3-0 success.

Joachim Low's Germany were going through a crisis of their own, having lost six times in 10 matches, but nothing could take the shine off the Netherlands' win. They had not beaten their old rivals since 2002 and had never previously defeated them by a three-goal margin.

"It's like Scotland getting a big win against England—imagine what that does to the mood of Scottish football," said Jan-Hermen de Bruijn, editor-in-chief of Dutch football magazine ELF Voetbal. "The same thing happened to Dutch football. That game changed everything."

As the official UEFA interpreter for the game, De Bruijn was able to keep a close eye on the Netherlands' players during the build-up. He detected within the squad a renewed sense of confidence, which he attributed to the fact that both Ajax and PSV Eindhoven had made positive starts to the season.

PSV had a perfect record in the Eredivisie after eight games, while Ajax had impressed in the UEFA Champions League, breezing past Sturm Graz, Standard Liege and Dynamo Kiev in the qualifying rounds and then gaining a creditable 1-1 draw away to Bayern Munich in the group phase.

"Ajax were winning games in a way that looked like Dutch football from some time ago: with dominating, attacking football, skilful football," De Bruijn told Bleacher Report.

"PSV had lost to Barcelona [4-0 in the Champions League], but they'd played well for the first 75 minutes. Ajax and, to a lesser extent, PSV had shown that in international games, Dutch teams weren't automatically pushovers."

As Ajax advanced unbeaten through the Champions League group stage and continued to rack up thumping wins in the Eredivisie, the idea took hold that classic, proactive Dutch-style football might still have a place at the very highest level. In Van Dijk's eyes, Ajax's run to the Champions League semi-finals "put Ajax and Dutch football back on the map."

Frenkie de Jong of Ajax and Denzel Dumfries of PSV
Frenkie de Jong of Ajax and Denzel Dumfries of PSVVI-Images/Getty Images

Confirmation that the Netherlands were back arrived in mid-November, when France were beaten 2-0 in Rotterdam, with Wijnaldum breaking the deadlock shortly before half-time and Depay adding a second with a delightful stoppage-time Panenka. Had it not been for France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, the visitors might have taken a battering.

Three days later, in Gelsenkirchen, Koeman's men showed there was steel to go with the silk. Trailing 2-0 to Germany with five minutes remaining, the Netherlands hit back through Promes before emergency striker Van Dijk volleyed home an equaliser in added time to send his side to the finals.

Just as with Ajax, the poster boys for the new-look Netherlands team are the preternaturally gifted duo of the 19-year-old centre-back Matthijs de Ligt and the 22-year-old De Jong. But not all Koeman's players are youthful newcomers.

Of the eight players who started all four of the Netherlands' Nations League group games, De Ligt and De Jong are the only ones aged under 25. Goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen is 30, Liverpool pair Van Dijk and Wijnaldum (who have brought their own Champions League-generated momentum to the squad) are 27 and 28, respectively, while Daley Blind is 29, Depay 25 and the rejuvenated Ryan Babel 32.

The artistry that runs throughout the team is offset by the industry supplied by players such as PSV right-back Denzel Dumfries, who made his debut in the 3-0 win over Germany, and Atalanta midfielder Marten de Roon.

No player symbolises the Netherlands' transformation better than Depay. Dismissed as a flop after his disappointing spell at Manchester United and occasionally mocked for his prodigious Instagram output, the Lyon forward has benefited from the lack of competition for places at centre-forward to become a roving attacking figurehead for the national team.

"Depay loves to be made [to feel] important and Ronald Koeman has done that," explained De Bruijn.

"He man-managed Depay from the first moment in a very special way: travelling to Lyon several times and spending time with him, giving him self-confidence and convincing the other players that when he loses the ball in a silly way, they have to do extra work to win it back. In almost every game, he's repaid them by scoring goals."

Koeman revealed to Dutch Soccer Site that having children of Depay's age has changed his view of the former PSV player's activities on social media. "I see the Instagram clips and think, oh well...That cigar wasn't needed for me, but at the same time, I think, 'So what?'" he said. "If Memphis enjoys doing those little clips: fine. Let him."

Depay, who has scored eight goals in 12 games under Koeman, provided an image that encapsulated the Netherlands' renaissance when he was pictured being swamped by beaming team-mates while celebrating his impudent penalty against France in November.

(L-R) Memphis Depay of Holland, Holland coach Ronald Koeman during the UEFA EURO 2020 qualifier group C qualifying match between The Netherlands and Germany at the Johan Cruijff Arena on March 24, 2019 in Amsterdam, The Netherlands(Photo by VI Images via
VI-Images/Getty Images

Koeman credits the move to the Royal Dutch Football Association's new, more intimate training base in Zeist, east of Utrecht, with helping to facilitate "more bonding" within the squad. Whereas previous Dutch squads have been riven by personality clashes, the current cohort seems to be a more cohesive unit.

When Germany claimed a measure of revenge for their Nations League relegation by beating the Netherlands 3-2 in Euro 2020 qualifying in March, there was no handwringing in the Dutch sports press. Koeman held his hands up after the game and admitted that, after once again seeing his team come from 2-0 down to level against Germany, he should have shut up shop and settled for a point.

Having finished the season with five goals in 12 games for Ajax, Donny van de Beek is pushing hard for a starting spot in Portugal, with Koeman saying the blond midfielder is "knocking on the door...much louder than before."

But in the main, the former Everton manager has indicated that he intends to keep faith with the men who proved themselves during the group phase, which helps to explain why players such as Wout Weghorst, the prolific Wolfsburg striker who scored 17 goals in the Bundesliga, failed to make the final cut.

Southgate might not have things all his own way when Koeman next crosses his path. The Dutch have rediscovered their soul.

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