Ronald Koeman creates clarity as Netherlands rediscover their mojo | Arthur Renard

Oranje manager has overseen the team’s revival and his squad face England in the Nations League with a new sense of unity

It has been only a year since the Netherlands and England last met but to Ronald Koeman it must feel like an age. At the time, he had just been installed as his national team’s manager after an unsatisfying stint at Everton. His main task was to bring back the old days after the country missed out on the previous two major tournaments.

On the evidence of his first game – a 1-0 home defeat by England – glory was not about to return any time soon. The verdict in the Guardian made for uncomfortable reading for Oranje fans who had seen their side beaten by England on home soil for the first time since 1969. “We saw here why this is regarded as the worst Dutch side for a long time,” Daniel Taylor wrote, adding that “a win against this lot cannot be considered the prize it once was”.

Things now look very different. Victory for Gareth Southgate’s side on Thursday could be considered very much a prize and not only because it would deliver a place in the Nations League final. In a short time the Netherlands have rediscovered their mojo.

The former internationals Ronald de Boer and Pierre van Hooijdonk see a variety of factors behind the resurgence and agree the development of the squad has been the most important. “In several key positions certain players have made huge steps in the last year,” says De Boer, who won 67 Netherlands caps. “Frenkie de Jong continued to improve at Ajax, Matthijs de Ligt became even more mature, Memphis Depay starred for Lyon and Virgil van Dijk and Georginio Wijnaldum further developed at Liverpool.”

Van Hooijdonk, who got 46 caps, singles out two high performers. “When Frenkie de Jong made his debut earlier this season the team started to play better football. They were able to base their game on possession again. It’s refreshing to see how he can accelerate the speed of the game. His presence also has a positive impact on other players – you can see it with Wijnaldum, for instance, who is now able to play in a more attacking role.”

The former Celtic and Nottingham Forest striker also points to Depay’s creative spark. “Koeman has given him a lot of responsibility with a free role in his starting XI. Against Germany he was perhaps too much out of his position as a striker but after the game Koeman said: ‘That’s how Memphis plays.’ Koeman has offered him the possibility to grow into this role and Depay has responded really well.”

It has been a good year for Dutch football all round. Apart from the Netherlands qualifying for the Nations League finals, Ajax reached the Champions League semi-finals. That has benefited the national team, according to De Boer. Ajax played their quarter- and semi-finals after the most recent international break but beating Dynamo Kyiv in qualifying, drawing twice with Bayern Munich in the group and then defeating Real Madrid had a positive impact, he says.

Frenkie de Jong (left) and Matthijs de Ligt have gained valuable experience playing in the Champions League, which benefits the Netherlands.
Frenkie de Jong (left) and Matthijs de Ligt have gained valuable experience playing in the Champions League, which benefits the Netherlands. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images

“Some players gained a lot of confidence and they took that with them to the Dutch squad. The European games of Ajax, and also those of PSV [who faced Barcelona, Internazionale and Tottenham in their Champions League group], have been really valuable in terms of experience.” Van Hooijdonk agrees: “Players like De Ligt and De Jong have proved they can perform at the same level as they have done for Ajax. That is very impressive at their age. Donny van de Beek also had a very strong season and is knocking on Koeman’s door.”

Koeman’s impact needs to be recognised as well. “I think the players are mainly responsible, but Koeman plays a very important part too,” De Boer says. “He has struck the right chord with his players. He has kids himself of the same age as many of the players – which helps him understand them – but at the same time he has a certain authority as a coach.”

An important factor in the growing togetherness was the Dutch Football Association’s decision to move the team’s training camp to its own headquarters in Zeist, a switch similar to when the English FA opened St George’s Park in 2012. “It’s an advantage now all the facilities are centred in one place,” De Boer says. “Before they had to take a bus from hotel to training ground; now everything is in close reach, like pitches and gym.”

Van Hooijdonk notes that the relocation coincided with a new approach within the national setup: “It was back to basics and they started to build again. Agreements were made and Koeman created clarity. Since then, there has not been a single incident. There is a really good atmosphere in the squad – all the players really want to be and stay there. In a short amount of time the national team has grown much closer to the nation again.”

Since that defeat by England, the Netherlands have recorded impressive results, especially in the Nations League, in which they topped a group that also included Germany and France. Van Hooijdonk admits there has been an element of luck and that there remains a missing link. “There is still no creative player in the team such as Rafael van der Vaart or Robin van Persie,” he says.

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Perhaps that player can be found in the next generation. According to De Boer there are exciting youngsters coming through. “The Ajax under-17 team is really exceptional. You saw that when Holland Under-17s won the Euros recently. That was even without two star players, Ryan Gravenberch and Mohammed Ihattaren. It’s a matter of generations. Sometimes a good generation ends and you have to wait for the next one to step up.”

De Boer reckons the Netherlands may peak in three years. “Everyone is at a very good age by then. So perhaps we can achieve something at the 2022 World Cup.”

It is a bold ambition – shared by England – and not one anyone could have imagined a year ago.

Arthur Renard

The GuardianTramp

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