The Netherlands started their Euro 2024 Qualifying campaign with a worrying 4-0 loss in France. Michael Nasrallah gives his opinion on the performance and why he is worried about the future of Oranje under Ronald Koeman.

Last month, The Netherlands lost 4-0 to France in their Euro 2024 qualifiers opener. It is true that the Dutch missed some of their star players, mainly Frenkie De Jong, Matthijs De Ligt, and Cody Gakpo but would these three have been able to turn the result around? What should be worrying for the Netherlands, even way more than the result and the performance during that match, is the solid resistance to change and improve the mentality and match preparation. On the 31st of August 2017, a different French team faced a different Netherlands team in an important WC 2018 qualifier. The Dutch had dropped at that time to 36th in the FIFA world rankings. In their last match, they conceded the same number of goals, almost the same number of chances, and were totally dominated even though they finished the match with 11 players, unlike 6 years ago when Kevin Strootman was shown the red card early in the second half.

Even without Arjen Robben, the Netherlands squad today is definitely better than the squad of 2017. With a generation of top-notch defenders and De Jong in midfield, since missing that 2018 world cup, they reached the UEFA Nations League Final, beat the World Champions France, England, Germany twice, Belgium twice, were the only unbeaten team in the 2022 World Cup, reached the semi-final of the UEFA Nations League 2023 and went up to 6th in FIFA ranking. So what conclusions should we draw after the match vs France?

You should set your best possible formation according to the quality of the group of players at your disposal and not the other way around. Louis Van Gaal knew it, was convinced by it, decided on it, and implemented it against the desire of most of his star players. He played the whole WC 2022 qualifiers with a 4-3-3 formation, but as soon as the World Cup started, he deployed a solid 5-3-2 formation in all five matches including the match against Qatar, after he had prepared for it in the Nations League group stage. In the history of the World Cup, the Netherlands played the 5-3-2 formation only in two of them; 2014 and 2022. The results speak for themselves: 12 matches, 8 wins, 4 draws, and zero losses. Thanks to his strong character, his resolute belief in what needs to be done for a better result, and the 5-3-2 formation for the 2014 and 2022 generations of Dutch footballers, the Iron Tulip tied the streak of Luis Felipe Scolari and is now the coach with the longest unbeaten run in World Cups.

When Ronald Koeman took over Oranje for the first time in 2018, he immediately utilized the 5-3-2 formation in the first two friendly matches against England and Portugal. After all, he had an amazing 5-3-2 experience with Feyenoord earlier. Despite a rare win versus European Champions Portugal by 3 goals to nil, he consented to his star players who told him that they don’t like to defend with 5 at the back. Today, one of his first claims was that he will move away from LVG’s 5-3-2; ” In principle, we are going back to the system we played before..” he said. He should think it through more thoroughly. Is this the formation that will ensure better results? some long-awaited trophies? The last digit in the 4-3-3 formation means a striker and 2 wingers; the two wingers are key to this formation’s success. Does the Netherlands have today a top striker? let alone top wingers? On the national teams and club levels, who were the teams that won trophies with the 4-3-3 formation, and who were their players? Today, after the introduction of AI in football, all coaches and team managers have access to all kind of information related to their team’s and players’ performances and micro-performances. So which formation gave the Netherlands the better “Soccermatics” and stats in the past 25 years? They still believe that a 5-3-2 formation is a “defending” formation and a 4-3-3 formation is an attacking, exciting, possession-based style of play. Well, I’ve seen no attacking nor possession against France last month and there was definitely no excitement. I saw a much more predictable Dutch squad with no Frenkie De Jong to move the ball vertically toward the French defense, wingers unable to dribble past their markers, an isolated Depay, a lousy pressing high up the pitch, and an immature Xavi Simons who surely doesn’t prefer to play on the left wing. On the other hand, I saw a much faster and physically stronger French Squad that was at least two steps ahead, enjoying every minute of it and able to threaten the Dutch goal every five minutes or so.

Before the start of the 2006 WC, Marco Van Basten said that his “Oranje” won’t win this World Cup but will be ready to win the Euro 2008; they suffered the same fate in both tournaments. Every decision they take, they claim to have taken for the future; but that “future” remains an illusion and just never comes! Needless to say, the 5-3-2 should not be used against all opponents; but on that day of March 24th 2023, against that French squad, with the injuries and the players at Koeman’s disposal, a 5-3-2 was INDISPENSABLE. How many more disappointments should the Dutch endure before they decide to overcome some of their sensibilities? In how many more decisive matches will the Dutch sacrifice the result for the “bread and butter” of Dutch football? How long will that obsession with the past last? Koeman’s decision to omit Jeremie Frimpong from the squad “because he has doubts about his defending” is just the first indicator of where they might be heading in the next couple of years. The decision to start with Simons Vs France in Paris just because he’s doing well in the Eredivisie is just as worrying.

The Dutch will probably qualify for the Euro 2024 and may reach the final of the UEFA Nations League, but unless there’s a deep and clear understanding by the coaching staff that the choice of formation and tactics highly depends on the quality of the opposition and the players available, the Dutch will remain the world’s greatest “underachievers..and proud of it”.