The Netherlands vs England – UEFA Nations League Semi-Final Preview

While there was plenty to discuss regarding the clash between Switzerland and Portugal, it is this fixture that is by far the most exciting. Both teams here escaped groups that were seen as a challenge. It’s a surprise for them to even be here, yet they fully deserve it.

Let’s start with The Netherlands. It can be difficult to argue just how important the Dutch have been for football. Their innovations during the early 70s with Total Football, a brand of football which changed how the game was played. Rinus Michels, the manager of Ajax during this revolutionary period, wanted the pitch as small as possible when the opposition had the ball, and to make the pitch as big as possible when his side had the ball. It’s a system that encouraged pressing and movement. Players were coached to cover multiple roles throughout the team. It was an evolution from the famous Hungary side that humiliated England in 1953. It was how football was meant to be played and the achievement of a club with a plan.

Their history on the international front has been fascinating. In 1986, Michels came back to manage the national team, leading them to win their first international tournament, Euro 88. While they had some success during the 90s, reaching the semi-finals at Euro 96, they failed to stay the dominant side they were in the previous decade. Their golden generation, which included many from that famous Ajax side who lifted the Champions League in 1997, failed to win anything on the international front.

The 2010s have been a forgettable decade to the say the least for the Dutch. While they reached the World Cup final in South Africa, they sacrificed 40 years of a Total Football style in favour of kicking Spain, a side who were the embodiment of what Cruyff and Michels taught so long ago. After failing to qualify for the last 3 international tournaments, the Dutch seemed lost. But like the success of the national team in the past, you can always look to Ajax for a boost. With generational talents in Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs De Ligt, it has given them the boost they’ve needed. A solid base to build the rest of the team around, and to find success in the future.

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I’m not Koeman’s biggest fan, but the impact he has made on his national team is hard to argue. He’s built a team that has balance throughout the squad. The experienced and young, the technically gifted and hard-working. But what persists throughout the side is what the Dutch are known for, players who can fill multiple roles. Daily Blind, Memphis Depay, Frenkie De Jong, Quincy Promes. These are players have played in different positions throughout their career. They’ve added fluidity to the side, making them unpredictable in the final third. Koeman has added more unfavoured players to the squad, with Martin De Roon being the most notable. The Atalanta midfielder, while offering zero in the final third, is great defensively and allows the more expressive players to push forward. Koeman has been gifted with by far the most talented players since the end of their golden generation, but he deserves credit for making this group of players function as a team.

The Netherlands were placed in a very tough group, facing the former World Cup winners Germany and current holders France. Both of their opponents have arguably some of the best talents in the world to choose from. While their first game ended in defeat, losing 2-1 to the World Champions, it was their next game against Germany back in the Johan Cruyff Arena that showed they were ready to compete. They humiliated the Germans with an emphatic 3-0 victory. It was the game in which Koeman brought in De Roon, which made a huge difference. He put in 6 tackles and interceptions in this game, giving them a defensive presence in midfield. It allowed Frenkie to play a less restrictive role, constantly looking to get on the ball and keep possession from a dangerous German side. The Netherlands then went on to beat France and showed a lot of fight to come back and earn a valuable point against Germany. It sealed their place in the semi-finals, the most deserving result for a national team which has finally shown the quality they have always been known for.

While Van Dijk, De Ligt, De Jong and Wijnaldum are all going to play a role in this game, Depay is by far the Dutch’s most important player. After his poor stint in England, he moved to Lyon to revive his career and return to the form he showed for PSV. In a Lyon side which includes Fekir, Aouar, Ndombele and Dembele, Depay has emerged as their most important player. He thrives in a role where importance is placed upon him and was the sole reason why Lyon remained competitive at the beginning of the season. His goal contributions were near non-existent after the new year, but his numbers remained high. He leads the line effectively for Koeman. His flexibility as a striker makes him very difficult to deal with. He has the pace the reach those long balls usually played into the channels by the centre-backs, the strength to hold the ball for his teammates and the confidence to take on an entire team on his own. He adds that star quality to a forward line which has lacked it since the retirement of Van Persie. His impact will be hard for England to suppress.

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Let’s move onto their opponents. After their defeat to Iceland in 2016, it highlighted a consistent problem that had been failing England for a long time, being their focus on players over the system. One reason why England won the World Cup back in 1966 was because of the balance in that side. Charlton and Ball were able to produce in the attacking end because they had Manchester United’s defensive midfielder Nobby Stiles protecting the back four. It has been a simple concept of building a team that England have seemingly forgotten how to do since that triumph. The constant debate regarding Lampard and Gerrard in midfield, forcing Scholes out wide and persisting with a 4-4-2 when the system was far outdated, with managers choosing an extra midfielder to help keep possession. England had star power, but managers who seemed too afraid to make the right decisions, that were best for the team. You simply cannot play Gerrard and Lampard together without a defensive midfielder (it made Carrick’s consistent absence baffling)

They made these same mistakes at Euro 2016. While Hodgson has been an important coach in his earlier years, introducing pressing in Sweden, he seemed to succumb to the same pressure as managers in the past have. He played a strange midfield including Alli, Rooney and Dier. An odd choice considering Alli had never played in that position before. His choice to play Sturridge as a winger was even more baffling, a player who has never been a dribbler or creator throughout his career. Hodgson resigned after their embarrassing defeat to Iceland, an end to an era which produced the same mistakes as previous managers.

Southgate’s appointment was an uninspiring choice, to say the least. It seemed like the safest choice for England to make. A coach who failed to take a talented group of players out of the group stages in the European Under-21s Championships, relegation with Middlesborough and lacked any charisma that made the former England international fail to stand out.

England were placed in a safe qualification group, while they never truly stood out, it did give Southgate time to experiment. Nobody knew how the Three Lions were going to line up in Russia until their friendly against Costa Rica. It was the first time England started with a back three and the first time England looked to have a plan. It gave them enough numbers in defence while allowing their attacking players to flourish.

While they never played the same attractive football we saw from Belgium and France, they were efficient and were playing to their strengths. Southgate made a lot of smart decisions to get the best out of the players in his possession. He played a back three containing Maguire, Stones and Walker. All three possess strength and athleticism, allowing them to cover a lot of ground. Walker and Maguire would consistently push up to help give options to the midfielders, and most importantly to make sure that Trippier and Young could push up without the same space they leave at club level. Southgate ensured his side took advantage of set pieces. While simple, set pieces are a chance to score, and with his side still not fully accustomed to the system, they were good opportunities to get a goal. They reached the semi-finals, but some of their weaknesses were exposed. They lacked pace in the side, which meant England lacked bite and couldn’t trouble a Croatia side which contained a lot of older players.

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However, in hindsight, it was a short term solution for the purpose of showing the country what this side can do. They inspired their fans for the first time in 20 years, to give hope for a team that was still growing. Many players who featured heavily in Russia would not remain as key figures for Euro 2020. They needed to evolve and turn into a side which could play a more attractive style of football. Trippier, Young, Lingard and Walker would all not be started with such frequency.

The Nations League was the first time we could see what Southgate had changed since their success in Russia. He changed from a defensive 3-5-2 to a more standard 4-3-3, which enabled his side to attack with more unpredictability down the wide areas. A lot of players benefited from this change. Sterling was placed in a role where he could play to his strengths instead of playing as a second striker. Marcus Rashford was given a more important role in the setup, instead of merely being Kane’s backup. They impressed in their win over Spain and fought hard to come back against Croatia. The future seems clear from Southgate and is looking more positive.

There are still concerns, however. I mentioned how some of the players who featured in the world cup will begin to be faced out, but Southgate hasn’t done that yet. Trippier and Walker are still included in the setup. It’s frustrating when Alexander-Arnold and Wan-Bissaka have been fantastic, but aren’t being given a chance in the XI. While Declan Rice was given a chance, there are so many talented young players who could have a future in the setup. Abraham, Maddison, Mount and Barnes all deserve a chance for their country.

Sterling has been by far England’s best player since the World Cup. He has reached a point where he should be in the conversation for one of the best players in Europe. He’s a great dribbler, intelligent and a solid creator. While he was always promising, it was the arrival of Pep Guardiola that changed Sterling. He took away that overthinking. When he would receive the ball, Sterling would usually take a few touches before making his next move. Pep took that out of his game and made him so much more direct. Sterling is now far less predictable. With Kane still recovering from another injury, England will put their faith in Sterling to help score the goals.

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If The Netherlands wish to progress to the final, they have to win the battle in midfield. England only possesses a couple of players I would consider real central midfielders, being Delph, Henderson and Rice (Dier is better as a centre back). Koeman has one of the top 3 young central midfielders around in De Jong. The now Barcelona midfielder is so versatile in how he can be played. He’s very reminiscent to Luka Modric, in how he is a great creator while being one of the best players at transitioning the ball into the final third. His best performance was in Ajax’s 1-1 draw against Juventus. Allegri attempted to place Bentancur on him to limit his effectiveness. De Jong just kept dropping between the centre backs and dragging Bentancur into places he did not want to go. The Dutchman is an intelligent player and can avoid pressure easily. England tried to stop Spain from building play by aggressively pressing Busquets. While effective on an ageing midfielder, this will not work on De Jong. The Netherlands need to get their maestro on the ball as much as possible if they wish to beat a tough England side.

If England wishes to come out victorious, they have to focus on the wide areas. The Dutch usually start Dumfries and Blind as their fullbacks. It’s an area where England can exploit. They have a lot of pace in the team, with Sterling, Rashford and Sancho offering a threat against their defenders. Blind has never been quick throughout his career and Dumfries has been exposed for being positionally poor. He is great as an attacking outlet, but space can be found behind him. It’s why Sterling could be so important. Not many fullbacks in Europe have been able to deal with the winger. He is the key to unlocking the backline.

While England will be a threat, I think the Dutch will be the side to progress. Their weaknesses aren’t nearly as obvious as England’s. The Three Lions are likely to play without Kane. He has been so important for his country, offering a great range of passing and a forward who can do nearly anything. While Rashford has improved a lot this season, he isn’t nearly as his good as his teammate. The Netherlands are in incredible form right now and seem unstoppable.

 

Portugal vs Switzerland – UEFA Nations League 2019 Semi-Final Preview

With my focus recently being on improving teams throughout Europe and bringing attention to players who have had stand out seasons, it can be easy to forget that the UEFA Nations League games were taking place this week. I have been a massive advocate for the idea of the Nations League. they have brought purpose to those pesky international breaks that would stop the flow of the club football, at a time where looking away from your television was impossible. UEFA seemed to introduce this new competition to give hope to smaller nations in qualifying for Euro 2020 and future tournaments. I’ve spoken to many fans regarding the Nations League, and a majority are very supportive of it. While slightly confusing, it has added a reason to care about these breaks. The standards of the games have increased because these teams are playing for something, instead of just preparation. We’ll be previewing the two big semi-final games and the final, to see which team will come out with the trophy, starting with Euro 2016 winners Portugal and a solid Switzerland side.

Starting with Portugal, who will go into this tie as the favourites. Their World Cup outing wasn’t as impressive as many hoped. While they progressed to the Round of 16 unbeaten, they only managed to win a single game. They were beaten by a poor Uruguay side thanks to a brilliant performance by Edinson Cavani but it was a tournament that ended with more questions than answers for Portugal. They’ve had to continuously rely on their older players in defence with the lack of defensive prospects coming through their youth set-up. While that is an issue that Fernando Santos cannot do much about, it is his team selection in attack where my issues begin to surface. He was playing players in the wrong positions throughout the tournament. Bruno Fernandes, one of the best young attacking midfielders around, was forced out onto the left side. After one game, in which he was poor, he went on to not start a game for Portugal in Russia again. Gonzalo Guedes was another to suffer thanks to Santos. He had a fantastic season prior to the World Cup, playing on the left of a 4-4-2. However, he was playing up front with Ronaldo for his national team. I can understand why he was playing there. He was there to do the off the ball work that Ronaldo has never done throughout his career. He had to sacrifice his own game for the sake of the team, and he suffered for it.

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In the end, Portugal’s issues always seem to come back to their biggest strength, Cristiano Ronaldo. We’ve seen the sacrifices Juventus have had to make to accommodate one of the best talents of his generation. Dybala looks to be leaving the club after Ronaldo’s arrival and Juventus have generally looked worse this season. When you have Ronaldo, all of your chance creation is solely for him. You begin crossing the ball more and playing a less attractive, but more effective style of football. Portugal needs to start thinking about the future of this side once their greatest ever player retires.

They have already briefly shown what life could be like without Ronaldo. In their 3-2 victory over Poland earlier in the season, they played a 4-1-4-1, with Andre Silva leading the line. They generally played with a lot of speed, with a lot of quick exchanges between players. They had a lot of pace in players like Rafa Silva and Cancelo while having technically superb players in Bernardo Silva and Ruben Neves to keep possession while under pressure. A team should never rely on individuals, and it’s a stage Portugal need to move past. However, with the inclusion of Sousa from Braga, replacing Andre Silva in the squad, it paints a picture of a side who are looking more at the short term, instead of choosing players who will have a future for the national side.

Portugal’s biggest threat in the game, excluding Ronaldo, has to be Bernardo Silva. While the race for the PFA player of the year was primarily between Raheem Sterling and Virgil Van Dijk, Bernardo Silva was the best player in the Premier League. He went from a good winger into a fantastic central midfielder. He filled that De Bruyne-shaped gap that was left while adding more defensive work and a player who leads the press for his side. While I think he great on the ball, it’s his engine that is most impressive. During their title-defining 2-1 victory over Liverpool, Bernardo Silva was everywhere. He covered 13.7 kilometres, at that point a record for most distance covered by a player last season. He was halting Liverpool constantly, through interceptions and smartly placed fouls. Bernardo is one of my favourite players in the league. A midfielder who possess such intelligence and ability, yet is comfortable in doing all the off the ball work that one of the most demanding systems require. His chance creation for Portugal has been key. He ranks top of the team for key passes with 2.3 in the Nations League. Portugal will constantly get him on the ball. Silva is fantastic at retaining the ball and helps them transition the ball. He has even been showing the same work rate and defensive work he offers for his club. Silva is third in the side for tackles per game with 1.7. While Portugal are most likely include Ronaldo in these games, Bernardo will remain vital for his side in defence and attack.

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Their opponents, however, are no walk in the park. Switzerland is a nation who have surfaced as one of the best teams in Europe throughout the decade. They rank 8th in the FIFA world rankings and looking at the talent in their squad, are likely to improve. Their showing in the World Cup was solid, but nothing exceptional. They finished 2nd in a difficult group containing Brazil, Serbia and Costa Rica. While they weren’t the best to watch, they were solid in defence and were efficient in attack. Their defeat to Sweden in the round of 16, however, showed their weaknesses. They lack many players with pace and relied heavily upon Shaqiri. Since he was playing out on the right wing, he was left isolated throughout their defeat. While he did create 4 chances, he failed to get a single shot on target. Petkovic regularly deployed Behrami and Xhaka together. Both lack energy and drive in midfield. While Xhaka is an elite passer and Behrami puts in a lot of defensive work, they cannot play together without someone who can play that box to box role.

While they did struggle to reach their potential in Russia, their Nations League qualifying campaign was a massive success. They scored 14 goals in 4 games, 9 more than they managed at the World Cup. There are a handful of reasons for why they saw such an improvement. Starting with their midfield, Behrami was replaced by Borussia Monchengladbach midfielder Denis Zakaria. The young midfielder still gave that defensive presence in the midfielder, as his former teammate did, while adding that little bit extra in the final third. He was creating 1.3 chances per game, while also taking 1.8 shots. He was making those runs into the box, to help give his teammates extra options. Xhaka still remains to be the player who keeps things ticking in midfield, completing 90 passes per game, but he has been given a partner who is able to cover the distance in midfield while also aiding in attack.

The Shaqiri problem was also resolved, simply by moving him into attacking midfield. This fixed two major problems. Shaqiri wasn’t left so isolated anymore and neither was Seferovic. He’s now taking more shots, creating more chances and is getting on the ball more than he has ever been before for his country. It also makes Switzerland less predictable. Shaqiri will drift across the pitch to involve himself in the game, and it has made his side more difficult to deal with. Shaqiri has taken his game to another level and will key in this semi-final.

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Their midfield and attack have both improved, but their defence also deserves a mention. Petkovic has changed his personnel, with Lichsteiner and Djourou being replaced by the likes of Elvedi and Mbabu. They still remain solid at the back. Akanji and Elvedi are great passers, while Mbabu and Rodriguez are full backs who are able to cover large areas of the pitch, while also helping their team on the attacking front. While their defenders aren’t on the same level as the likes of France or Netherlands, they could form a very good defensive unit with time on their side.

While Shaqiri and Xhaka have already been mentioned when looking at key players for the side, Haris Seferovic will be important. The forward has struggled to establish himself at the top level, playing for Fiorentina, Real Sociedad, Eintracht Frankfurt and now Benfica, where he has arguably been the most successful. In 29 appearances in Liga NOS, he has scored 23 goals and assisted 5. In a season in which has seen Jonas struggle for minutes, Seferovic stepped up for Benfica. While he did impress at club level, it was during the Nations League group stages where he arguably put in his best performances. He scored 5 goals, including a hat trick against Belgium. He’s good at finding space in the box, which was perfect against a Belgium side which aren’t exactly organised. He links up with Shaqiri well and he’s taking 3.5 shots per game, a solid number for a striker. He excels when the team are using him as the focal point. Petkovic has gotten the best out of the striker and will need him if Switzerland hopes to progress to the final.

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If Portugal wish to reach the final, they will need to take advantage of two things. The first being Granit Xhaka. He is a great passer of the ball but lacks the mobility to be an effective central midfielder. He is poor defensively, with teams throughout the Premier League noticing how bad he is at tracking runners. I’d personally deploy Bernardo Silva in midfield to deal with Xhaka. He can keep pressure on him, while his intelligent movement will help him find space behind the Arsenal midfielder.

If Switzerland want to progress to the final, they will need to target the centre backs. Shaqiri and Seferovic need to be smart and look to drag the defenders in areas they will feel most uncomfortable. One of Pepe or Fonte will play, who are both over 33. Diego Costa had a fantastic game against Portugal last summer, with Pepe unable to deal with him. Seferovic needs to look at what Costa was doing, and try and replicate the damage the Spaniard was causing.

It’ll be a close game, but I think Switzerland will progress. While Portugal have a lot of talented players, their reliance on Ronaldo and their weakness at the back can leave them to be both predictable and vulnerable. The Swiss have balance throughout the side, and Petkovic has taken the steps in the right direction for transitioning this side to its next generation. This could be the tournament where the rest of Europe sees this.