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.

 

Future Superstars! – Under 21 Team of the Season 18/19

With everyone making their team of the seasons and discussing which players should take the award of player of the season when it comes to a close, we’ll instead look at  young players across the big leagues in Europe, and make an XI of players who have stood out for their sides. We’ll mainly focus on players in the top 5 leagues, with some obvious inclusions from other leagues, so let’s get started. Important is they have to have been 21 when the season started, so if players who are 22 are here, then you know why.

Goalkeeper – Gianluigi Donnarumma 

There aren’t truly many options for this position, but we’ll go for AC Milan number one Gianluigi Donnarumma. The Italian has went to further establish himself in a Milan side that are still trying to find their feet. While his teammates are inconsistent to say the least, he has remained one of the best players in the side. He is a good distributor, commands his box and has put in some excellent performances for Milan. One of his stand out performances had to be against Genoa. The 20 year old made 8 saves, and had a 93% pass accuracy. His future still seems to be as bright as it was when he broke onto the scene as a 16 year old.

RB – Aaron Wan-Bissaka 

My love for Wan-Bissaka isn’t hidden at this point. The Crystal Palace defender has been the best full back in the Premier League this season. His crazy high 6.2 tackles and interceptions per game, comfortably the highest in the team and the second highest in the league. He has only been dribbled past by less than 10 players in the league, highlighting just how good he is in those one-on-ones, and his anticipation shines. I even highlighted the Englishman last season for his great performances, by putting him in my team of the season for players outside of the top 6, and seeing him succeed is just so gratifying. Wan-Bissaka actually came through the ranks as a winger, which explains why he’s such a good dribbler, completing 1.7 per game. With Manchester United and Bayern Munich looking at right backs, it makes the prospect of Palace keeping him nearly impossible.

CB – Matthijs de Ligt

I cannot imagine anyone arguing with this choice. De Ligt’s transformation from a small kid playing in the Europa League final against Manchester United, to one of the best young defenders the world has ever seen has to go down to hard work and a brilliant mentality. Playing for arguably the best club in Europe for developing young players, it has given him the platform to succeed and show the world what kind of player he is and can be. His performances in the Champions League have been fantastic. He has shown a calmness and maturity that you don’t see from many players of his age. His distribution also needs to be admired, with the 19 year old completing 63 passes per game, with a 88.2% accuracy. It’s an area which many elite clubs are looking to improve, and he showing all of these things at an age where it gives him years to still improve. If Van Dijk’s record remains this summer, I will be very surprised.

CB – Ibrahima Konate

Leipzig have been a recent breeding ground for young defenders, with Upamecano, Mukiele and Bernardo being recent talents to blossom for them. Konate is another prospect to shine for them. He’s already beeing touted for a big move to Arsenal and it’s earned. With Leipzig playing such an offensively minded system, stand out defenders are needed. Konate is both athletic and a great reader of the game, with the Frenchman making 2.3 interceptions per 90. Thanks to their defenders being so high up the pitch, it leaves them vunerable to long balls towards opposition strikers. It makes the importance of aerial dominant defenders important, and Konate fits the bill. The Frenchman has a respectable 67.3% aerial win percentage, showing how he can deal with the threat. His passing could be better, with a defender’s ability on the ball a sought after part of their game. He is still only 19, meaning his future remains very bright. He’s been one of the best defenders in the Bundesliga and has stood out in a side full of promising players.

LB –  Achraf Hakimi

When discussing Real Madrid’s systemic failure this season, it can be aquainted to making bad decisions. Whether it is selling their best player and not replacing him with a player of similar quality, or in Hakimi’s case, letting a player leave who could have definitely had an effect on the side. The Moroccan international has been the boost that Dortmund needed. With constant injury problems related to Schmelzer and Guerreiro, adding a player who could help with giving the side width, and most importantly, moving the ball. Hakimi is an excellent dribbler, and was nearly the opposite of his full back partner, Lukasz Piszczek, who defensive first. It gave Hakimi a lot of responsibility on a side of the pitch that didn’t have the same consistency as the other. He relished this role, and has been one of the most sought after full backs in Europe. His ability to play on both sides makes him so useful to have, but its his dribbling that is so great. He’s completing 2 dribbles per 90, which is great for both a full back and a young player. He is isn’t a stand out creator by any means, but that isn’t his role. He has to get his side far up the pitch, using his athleticism and ability on the ball. He ranks 4th in the squad for passes completed per game. He is essential in Dortmund’s attempts to move up the field, with not many young players in the world being so adept at passing in a possession that rarely sees that quality. A must for this side

RM – Jadon Sancho 

Rumours are already surfacing, linking Jadon Sancho with £100m moves to the Premier League, and I would definitely pay that. Sancho is having a similar break out season that Mbappe had in that final season at Monaco, which saw the Frenchman earn a £170m move to PSG. Sancho is having a similar season to that. The teenager is one of only a handful of players who is in double figures for both goals and assists. He’s turned into a very good dribbler and creator. Sancho was always seen to be a player who destined for great things, but for him to do it this rapidly is just incredible.  His shot numbers stand at a decent 1.6 per 90, but he’s completing a crazy 3.9 dribbles and making 2.6 key passes. Those are top 10 players in the world numbers, and he’s doing it for a title challenging side in a respectable league. His xGP90 is sitting at 0.58, which is roughly a goal contribution every other game. This shows just how promising the young winger is, being able to have such a stamp on a side full of talent in his first true season. His numbers are spectacular, but there’s more to him than that. His maturity, intelligence and his risk taking is what makes him such a desirable prospect, and arguably the break out star of the season.

CM – Frenkie De Jong

The Eredivise has had this huge problem with analysing talent. Players can have truly excellent seasons, but thanks to the standard of the league, you have to take it with a grain of salt when looking at their numbers and involvement. This current Ajax team has been trying to break that rule, and no one has done so more than Frenkie De Jong. The Dutchman came off the back of a very good 2017/18 season, and decided to take that to the next level. It’s earned him a £75m move to Barcelona, and will add so much to a side that has been needing a player like him for a long time. De Jong is a true all rounder. He is averaging 3 tackles and interceptions per 90, while also completing 80 passes, creating 1.4 chances and completing 2 dribbles.  These are numbers similar to a peak Modric, who was helplessly embarassed by De Jong. While his numbers in the Eredivise have been outstanding, it’s his performances in the Champions League that have really taken the headlines. He dismantled Real Madrid in their own turf, and when playing Juventus in the Johan Cruyff Stadium, he made it nearly impossible to take him out of the game. Every time Bentancour tried to get near him, De Jong would just drop between the defenders to receive the ball. Since he is such a good dribbler, he can just get the ball and walk right through the opposition defence, with no one able to get a finger on him. He’s attempting 1.8 dribbles in the Champions League per match, and is completing 78% of them. Those are peak Moussa Dembele numbers, a player who was famed for his dribble success rate. De Jong will be a superstar, and has everything to put him down as a potential great.

CM – James Maddison 

Moving back to the Premier League and for the final time, let’s look at James Maddison, who has had a spectacular season. The former Norwich midfielder took the step up the Premier League, and already looks like he belongs here. With Leicester losing Mahrez, they needed a creator and someone to help with moving the ball into the final third, and Maddison has fitted the bill. He is creating more chances than any other player in the league with 3.3 key passes per 90. While Leicester have been inconsistent to say the least, Maddison has put in good performance after good performance. His chance creation is incredible, but his dribbling should not be forgotten here. He’s completing 1.5 dribbles per 90, which is good for a player who has been played behind the striker. He reads the game well and has created a great relationship with Jamie Vardy. He constantly wants to get on the ball and is always looking to make positive moves. The only problem is his shooting. His shot map is a mess to say the least, with Maddison taking shots in bad places. A coach needs to try and wipe that out of his game, and ensure he is not wasting chances like that. The future is bright for Maddison, and could be the real central creator that his country has been looking for.

LM – Joao Felix

I mentioned how some leagues have created this impression of risk, and Liga Nos might be the most infamous. Whenever you see an Oblak or Nelson Semedo, you’ll see a Perez or a Jackson Martinez. It’s a league that doesn’t create the same teams that you see in Holland. The sides are usually good defensively and efficient in attack, which makes attackers especially a huge risk. While there have been many failures, Joao Felix doesn’t look like one. The Benfica attacker has had a great season, breaking the record for youngest player to score a hat trick in the Europa League, and that is only the tip of the iceberg. His best performances have all come as a striker, where he has scored 12 and assisted 6 in 18. His shot numbers aren’t crazy high, but when he’s played, it’s usually been with Seferovic, who’s taking roughly 2.6 shots per game (Felix is at 2.4). There has been more to his game than this. He’s also creating 1.1 chances a game, the fourth highest in the squad. His general anticipation and maturity is what has made him stand out, but I think any move for him this summer would be premature. he doesn’t seem to be showing the same insanity in terms of elite numbers, but there is a top level player here. He just needs to play more games before making the step up. A great start for Joao Felix in his break out season.

ST – Kylian Mbappe

Who else? Mbappe is now in the top 5 players in the world for me. Only Messi and Neymar can be argued to be more perfect attackers than the World Cup winner. He’s taking 4.7 shots per 90, with 3.5 coming in the box. He’s taking more shots in the box than most players are taking in a game. He’s had some stand out performances this season, with his hat trick against Lyon earlier in the season being arguably a career high. While he is arguably at the level of Messi and Neymar, he doesn’t have the same wow factor as they do. This is a complement if you can believe, because it makes him more direct and attack with less patience about it. Going on would be pointless because everyone knows just how good Mbappe is. He is player everyone in the world wants.

ST – Luka Jovic

Last but not least, we’re returning to the Bundesliga for our final player. Jadon Sancho has been on the lips of every Bundesliga viewer, but Jovic has been fantastic. I’ve watched a lot of the young Serb since those 5 goals he scored earlier in the season, and he just keeps impressing me. He’s taking shots in great areas, he’s two footed, good in the air and puts some real power on his shots. A small detail there but it’s great to see someone who looks like they want to break the net whenever they score. His xG contribution per 90 stands at 0.90, which is elite levels for a player who hasn’t had much experience at the top. In hindsight this could have been predicted. His xGP90 was 0.74 last season, showing how in little game time, he was still having an incredible effect on his side. The only thing he needed was a manager who was going to start him every game, and that is what he’s got. Jovic looks to be the next super star striker in Europe, similar to Kane or Aguero. It won’t be long until he’s playing for Europe’s truly elite.