The Euro Diaries: Hope springs

We may only be two matches into Euro 2020, but I’m starting to believe this team could do something special.

When, before the tournament started, somebody asked me whether I thought the Netherlands could win it, my answer was short and simple: no.

That remained the case after the Ukraine game. While we had played good football at times and showed real spirit to win, we looked very shaky.

Now though, following the second round of matches, while I still wouldn’t bet on us lifting the trophy in a few weeks, I’m not ruling it out.

One of the reasons for that is the nature of our 2-0 victory over Austria. Sure, it wasn’t spectacular, but it was very, very solid.

After taking an early lead through Memphis Depay’s penalty, there was never really a point where we didn’t look like winning.

That was admittedly in part due to Austria being poor, but our three central defenders didn’t put a foot wrong either. Stefan de Vrij was as solid as ever, Matthijs de Ligt looked back to his best after returning from injury, and Daley Blind was fantastic with the ball at his feet.

What I liked, in particular, was Frank de Boer’s decision to put De Ligt in the middle and De Vrij on the right. With the former having a bit more pace and the latter better on the ball, it makes a lot of sense.

The back three were helped out by the midfield, with Frenkie de Jong and Gini Wijnaldum both bloody brilliant, easing the pressure on us a lot with their ability to keep the ball.

The Barcelona man was a sheer joy to watch. There are few betters sites in football than him gliding past players, which he did on five occasions against Austria. He also made two interceptions and three tackles. It was quite simply a complete display.

Our captain meanwhile worked as hard as anyone and was a real threat, although he was a bit wasteful with the ball towards the end. Still, he’s looking the best he’s looked in an Oranje shirt for a long time.

Defensively, the rest of the players also did their jobs, pressing and tracking back well on the whole. We did still look a bit vulnerable in the transition, but not nearly as much as in the first game.

Like I said, we weren’t as thrilling going forward, but it’s a worthy trade-off. Why? Because to win a major tournament, being defensively solid is far more important. If you don’t give away many major chances and have players that you can rely on to create a few, you’ve got a good shot of winning.

Against Austria, the Dutch did just that, which is very encouraging indeed.

I haven’t just watched us win two matches against fairly average sides – no offence – and decided that we’re good enough to win the Euro 2020 though. No, there’s another, perhaps bigger reason that I’m suddenly feeling pretty confident.

It was known before the tournament that if we could top our group, we could end up with a pretty easy route to the semi-finals, but that wasn’t something I was getting particularly excited about.

It was by no means a guarantee that we’d be good enough to finish top ahead of Ukraine, we could well end up facing the team that finished third in the Group of Death, and even if we didn’t, I wasn’t too confident that we could beat Turkey or Denmark in the quarter-finals.

However, we’ve been better than I expected to top the group with ease, we’ve got a good chance of avoiding Group F altogether, Turkey and Denmark haven’t been the dangerous dark horses that many expected, and besides, Wales are guaranteed to be on our side of the draw rather than the former.

A lot can change, but at the time of writing, we’re most likely to face Croatia in the R16 and Denmark in the QF going by odds alone. That’s a nice route.

What’s more, the top sides really aren’t looking that good. Asides from us, only Belgium and Italy have won both games. Germany and Portugal have lost to big sides, while Spain, England and France have been held by smaller nations and haven’t really deserved to beat them.

They may improve, but right now, I’d say we’d have a chance against all of the above sides, and we may not even have to face any of them until late on in the competition.

So, that’s why I’m feeling rather good about our chances right now. Am I crazy? Maybe, but hey, a bit of hope never hurts. Okay, that’s not true at all, it’s the hope that kills you after all, but I can’t help it.

PS: Shout out to @SatsMundin from my Twitter timeline who is the only person making any sense of the permutations right now.

Next up is a bit of a strange game, given we’re already guaranteed to win the group, against North Macedonia.

There will be a real temptation for De Boer to rest his key players for the upcoming matches, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea.

In 2008, Marco van Basten did just that, and we went out the next round. Afterwards, the players spoke of how, having not played for a week or so, they’d lost their rhythm.

Two years later, Bert van Marwijk had to make the same decision at the World Cup and decided to play his first-choice team. As I’m sure you’re aware, things went pretty well in that tournament.

Mind you, I would like to see Donyell Malen and Ryan Gravenberch play. The PSV man made an immediate impact against Austria, setting up Denzel Dumfries, while this is the perfect risk-free chance to try out Gravenberch.

I don’t think Marten de Roon and Wout Weghorst – especially the Wolfsburg striker – have been terrible by any means, but there is some room for improvement in both areas. Maybe the younger alternatives wouldn’t be better, but there’s no harm in seeing for sure.

However De Boer lines the side up, I won’t be attacking him, and I don’t think anyone else should either. He has led us to two wins and his widely criticised decision to switch formations is being very much justified.

All in all, things are looking bright right now. Bright oranje. Long may it continue.

Finley Crebolder

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