An aging Netherlands side’s fall from grace was complete when they failed to qualify for last summer’s World Cup. This came in the wake of their failure to reach the 2016 European Championship finals, meaning they had not qualified for two successive major tournaments for the first time since 1986.
The knives were out. The inquiries were in full swing – how could this once great Johann Cruyff-inspired footballing superpower have fallen so far? Afterall, they had finished runners-up at the 2010 World Cup, before then making the semi-finals four years later.
However, a new-look Oranje are very much on the way back under Ronald Koeman. Reinvigorated by some incredibly talented Ajax youngsters who were one kick away from the Champions League final, Netherlands stormed through to the Nations League finals from the toughest of groups, and finally look on course to return to their grandeur of old.
How they qualified
Drawn in a group consisting of reigning world champions France and four-time world champions Germany, nobody gave Netherlands even the remotest hope of reaching the inaugural Nations League finals.
The writing appeared to be on the wall as France got the better of Netherlands in their Group A1 opener in Paris, but the next clash, with Germany, did not go according to the script, as a brilliant Oranje swept aside Germany to win 3-0 in Amsterdam.
France were the next victims of the Dutch renaissance, as they fell to a 2-0 defeat in the Amsterdam ArenA. Nonetheless, the Netherlands had it all to do to qualify, with a tough trip to Germany to come.
The Netherlands fell 2-0 down inside 20 minutes, and another major tournament finals seemed to have eluded them, but two late goals, the equaliser coming in the 90th minute via the head of Virgil van Dijk, sent the Dutch sensationally through, relegating Germany in the process.
There are some exciting new kids on the block at the forefront of coach Koeman’s regeneration of the Oranje, with the Ajax academy coming to the fore once more.
Much has been said about the influence Van Dijk has had at Liverpool this season, with the Liverpool defender popping up with crucial goals in qualification for the Nations League finals for his country too, but now, Van Dijk has a young pretender alongside him many are tipping to be a future captain.
Matthijs de Ligt is already the Ajax skipper at 19, inspiring his side to their first Eredivisie in five seasons, as well as steering Ajax to the semi-finals of the Champions League, a competition where the imposing central defender registered in the top ten defenders for ball recoveries, clearances, blocks and successful passes.
Similarly good with the ball at his feet, Barcelona-bound Frenkie de Jong protects the back-four superbly, and complements Georginio Wijnaldum and Marten de Roon in midfield. De Jong is another Ajax youth protégé who belies his inexperience to show incredible leadership skills.
Then, further forward, with talisman Robin van Persie long retired, born-again Memphis Depay has enjoyed somewhat of a renaissance as a central striker, and has confined his Manchester United struggles to the history books with eight goals in the last year and a half for his country.
One to watch – Donny van de Beek
Another off the relentless Ajax Youth Academy conveyor belt, Donny van de Beek is yet to really burst onto the scene on the international stage, but having helped lead Ajax’s Champions League charge this season, Koeman may not be able to ignore Van de Beek’s talents too much longer.
Adept as a No 10 or anywhere across midfield, Van de Beek has all the physical attributes to compete with the fiercest of competitors, while still possessing the finesse and style to wow audiences the world over.
From attacking midfield, Van de Beek has 17 goals and 13 assists for Ajax in all competitions this season, including the winner against Tottenham in the Champions League semi-final first leg, and the equaliser in Juventus in the quarter-final second leg that put Ajax on course for victory.
Koeman’s midfield three is pretty set, but a Plan B could be to switch the system around and deploy a No 10 behind Memphis Depay, which would suit Van de Beek perfectly.
Real Madrid reportedly see him as an alternative to Paul Pogba should the Manchester United midfielder stay put, with Paris Saint-Germain and a host of Premier League clubs rumoured to be keen. Ajax are understandably reluctant to sell, but an impressive Nations League will raise Van de Beek’s stock yet further.
The manager – Ronald Koeman
Having enjoyed a glittering career as a player, most notably at Barcelona, for whom he scored the winner in the 1992 European Cup final, Koeman made the step up to head coach with aplomb, winning two Eredivisie titles with Ajax and one with PSV before less successful in stints in Portugal and Spain. Then, Koeman tried to crack the Premier League.
Taking over from Mauricio Pochettino, who had guided Southampton to an eighth-placed finish in 2013/14, Koeman’s task was made even more difficult by the sale of several key personnel.
However, Koeman steered Southampton to seventh the following season – Saints’ highest-ever Premier League finish – before taking over at Everton where, despite having spent a considerable amount of money, failed to live up to expectations.
With Netherlands very much in crisis, it surprised many when Koeman took over, but the 56-year-old has overseen incredible progression, having moved on from former stars such as Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Van Persie, and placed great faith in young players to pull the Oranje through.
Koeman’s attack-minded 4-3-3 did not win too many admirers among the pragmatic English football analysts, but it has paid dividends for Netherlands, and with even more youth players coming to the fore, expect Koeman to stick to his guns and give everyone a chance to impress.
Peter McVitie, Dutch football expert for Goal.com and BeneFoot
Seemingly through the worst of a dark era that saw them miss two major tournaments, the glow has returned to Oranje since Ronald Koeman took charge. Strong performances against France and Germany in the Nations League underlined the progress they have made with the benefit of a more cohesive strategy and balanced team approach.
Their dominance in the 2-0 win over the world champions left even Koeman in shock and the resolve to come back from 2-0 down to draw with Germany and seal first place in the group marked an impressive turnaround in just eight months.
The 1-0 defeat to England that started Koeman’s tenure exposed many of the issues hindering the Dutch in their bid to return to relevance on the big stage. Facing the Three Lions just over a year later as they look to continue their bright Nations League campaign will be the ideal test of how far they have come.