There appears to be many different players that could fill the Defensive Midfielder position for Netherlands in 2018, listed below are who I expect to be some of the top candidates.

  • By Josh Mol
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 blind ora

Likely the most underappreciated and overlooked position on the pitch is the position of defensive or holding midfielder.  Defensive midfielders can be seen as rash, aggressive, dirty players, but those who truly understand the sport realize the importance of this position.  It is much easier to appreciate the beauty and skills demonstrated in attacking football, but oftentimes it is the destructive abilities of quality defensive midfielders that gives the truly great offensive players the freedom to focus on the attack.  Even the originator of the attacking style of “total football”, Rinus Michels recognized the need for destructive enforcers on the pitch: “It is an art in itself to compose a starting team, finding the balance between creative players and those with destructive powers, and between defense, construction and attack – never forgetting the quality of the opposition and specific pressures of each match”  The truly great defensive midfielders act as the destructive powers that ends the opponent’s drives and acts as the foundation from which their team’s attack can be built.

There are different kinds of defensive midfielders; there are some who act solely as a defensive shield in front of the backline and there are “box to box” midfielders who possess the necessary skills and stamina to influence the game on the both the defensive and offensive side of the game.   The ideal defensive midfielder would be an expert tackler, an intimidating physical presence, have great stamina, possess excellent tactical and positional awareness, and be an efficient and skilled passer.  The perfect defensive midfielder would help stage the attack and act as an outlet when his teammates needed to offload the ball.

In the 2010 World Cup the Netherlands used a 4-2-3-1 formation and the defensive midfielders were Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel.  Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel played in a physical and aggressive manner that allowed offensive players such as Robin van Persie, Wesley Sneijder, and Arjen Robben freedom to focus the majority of their time and energy on the offensive side of the ball.  This approach nearly led the Netherlands to glory; they narrowly lost the final to Spain 1-0 in extra time.   Although the Netherlands approach was effective, their style was heavily criticized including by Dutch football legend Johan Cruyff.  Johan Cruyff stated, “It hurts me that Holland chose an ugly path to aim for the title.”  Cruyff referred to their style of play as, “ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style.”  This football syle of play and formation continued through the 2012 Euro’s where the Dutch had a disappointing tournament and Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk was forced to resign.

When Louis van Gaal took over the Dutch national team he initially opted to return to the Dutch traditional formation of 4-3-3.  One of the key pieces responsible for this formation change was the emergence of Kevin Strootman.  Kevin Strootman is a highly gifted defensive midfielder that is a true “box to box midfielder” that emulates the traditional Dutch style that celebrates versatility.  Strootman’s importance to the Netherlands was demonstrated when Louis van Gaal announced that Strootman, Robin van Persie, and Arjen Robben were the only three Dutch players guaranteed a spot in the 2014 World Cup.  On March 9, 2014 Strootman suffered a knee injury which would rule him out of the 2014 World Cup.  In response to this injury, Louis van Gaal switched formations from 4-3-3 to a 5-3-2, which was used for the majority of the tournament.  In the 2014 World Cup the defensive midfielder positions were filled by Nigel de Jong, Jonathon de Guzman, Georginio Wijnaldum, Daley Blind, and Jordy Clasie.

Listed below are the players that I see as the likely options for the Defensive Midfielder positions in 2018.

de jong acNigel de Jong – 29 years old

Nigel de Jong was the son of Jerry de Jong, a former Netherlands International that played as a defender and as a defensive midfielder.  De Jong worked his way up the Ajax youth rankings before ultimately making his debut on Ajax’s first team as a seventeen year old.  De Jong left Ajax after the 2006 season and spent over two seasons in the Bundesliga with Hamburg.  De Jong joined Premier League side Machnester City in January of 2009 and stayed there until August of 2012 when Nigel de Jong transferred to AC Milan.  De Jong was a member of the Manchester City team that won the Premier League title in the 2011-12 season. Nigel de Jong played in 3 of the 4 games the Netherlands played in the 2008 European Championship, and established himself as a first team selection for the Oranje in every major tournament since.  De Jong is remembered for one specific play in the 2010 World Cup; the infamous kick to the chest of Spain International Xabi Alonso.  The criticism for this play and de Jong’s physical play overall was widespread.  De Jong’s game is not defined by offensive skill, but rather his aggressive and physical disruption of the opposition’s offensive attacks.  While many have criticized the physicality of de Jong there is no denying its effectiveness.  Many teams that employ true “box to box” midfielders find themselves susceptible to the counter attack; de Jong’s defensive focus and tenacity allows the top offensive talents to focus primarily on the attack.  De Jong is an efficient passer, gifted in interceptions, and possesses strong spatial awareness.   Nigel de Jong will soon be turning 30; will he still be this gifted enforcer for the Netherlands in four years?

de guz oraJonathan de Guzman – 26 years old

Jonathan de Guzman was born in Canada and as a youngster fell in love with the game of football.  De Guzman wished to pursue a career in football, but that was difficult due to the sport’s lack of popularity in Canada.  At the age of 12 years, de Guzman left Canada to join the Feyenoord youth academy.  In February of 2008, de Guzman received his Dutch citizenship and ultimately chose to represent the Netherlands instead of his native Canada. De Guzman made his first appearance for Feyenoord’s first team on September 15, 2005.  De Guzman’s career was off to a promising start, but ultimately was hampered by injuries in the 2008-09 and 2009-10 seasons.  Following the 2009-10 season de Guzman signed on a free transfer to La Liga side Mallorca.  After a season at Mallorca, de Guzman was sold to Villarreal for the 2011/12 season, and then sent on loan to Swansea City for the following two seasons.  On August 20, 2014, de Guzman transferred to Serie A club Napoli where he signed a four year contract.    In his club career de Guzman has mostly always been an offensive midfielder and preferred a central role.  De Guzman is a skilled offensive player that enjoys the counter attack, is a solid passer, good at maintaining possession, athletic, and highly skilled at taking set pieces.  Although traditionally an offensively minded player, de Guzman has taken more of a defensive role in the Dutch midfield. De Guzman’s main areas of weakness would be his tackling, defensive aggression, and aerial duels.  It’s hard to fault his defensive skill set when he spent the majority of his career focusing on the offensive aspects of the game.  If de Guzman spends more time refining his skills on the defensive end, de Guzman could once again see himself as an option at this position in 2018.

strootman efKevin Strootman – 24 years old

Kevin Strootman began his professional career in Sparta Rotterdam where he stayed until transferring to FC Utrecht in January of 2011.  In June of 2011 Strootman joined Eredivisie giants PSV where he stayed until he joined Serie A side AS Roma in June of 2013.  Strootman made his senior debut for the Netherlands in February 2011 in a game versus Austria.  Although Strootman made the team for the 2012 European Championship he did not play in any of the games.  Strootman quickly made a name for himself as an elite level player and Louis van Gaal quick realized the importance of Strootman for the Oranje.  Prior to the World Cup roster being announced Louis van Gaal declared that Kevin Strootman, Arjen Robben, and Robin van Persie were the only three players guaranteed a spot on the roster for the 2014 World Cup.  This all ended when Kevin Strootman suffered a knee injury on March 9, 2014 which made him miss the 2014 World Cup.  The loss of Kevin Strootman was so significant that in response to this loss Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal was forced to change formations prior to the World Cup.  If Strootman is able to fully recover from this injury and continue his development he will undoubtedly be a key figure moving forward.  Strootman is an elite level box to box midfielder that plays with intelligence, possesses great stamina, has keen positional awareness, is an expert passer, and an undisputed leader.  Strootman has great defensive skills and defensive tenacity paired with an ability to make plays on the offensive end.  The Netherlands missed Kevin Strootman this summer, but will soon have this dynamic playmaker back in an oranje kit.

daley blindDaley Blind – 24 years old

Four years ago Daley Blind was not good enough to be considered for the 2010 World Cup roster; in fact the majority of Ajax fans did not even consider him good enough to be on the Ajax roster either.  Being booed and jeered by the home crowd was tough for Blind initially: “The most painful feeling is when your own supporters are against you.”  These experiences toughened Blind and motivated him to become a better player.  Daley Blind also endured a tough training regimen which helped strengthen him and add muscle to his slender frame.  Since then Daley Blind has won four league titles with Ajax, was named as Ajax’s player of the year in 2013, and the Dutch player of the year in 2014.  Daley Blind is a leader that plays with intelligence, is a capable defender, and is an excellent passer.  In 2013 Louis van Gaal recognized the talent of Blind and made him his first choice at LB/LWB, even though Blind played as a defensive midfielder for Ajax during the 2013-14 season.   Blind’s passing expertise was evident in the World Cup opener against Spain where the Netherlands won 5 to 1.  Blind was responsible for the pass late in the first half that led to Persie’s phenomenal header and in the second half had an additional assist from a wonderfully placed ball to Robben.  Although Blind has played Left Back it is apparent his natural position is as a defensive midfielder.

wijnaldum 12Georginio Wijnaldum – 23 years old

On April 8, 2007 Wijnaldum became the youngest player to ever play for Feyenoord’s first team; at the time Wijnaldum was only 16 years old.  Wijnaldum stayed at Feyeboord for four seasons before transferring to PSV on June 29, 2011.  Wijnaldum immediately established himself as a first team selection for PSV and was named the captain of PSV for the 2013-14 season following the retirement of Mark van Bommel and the transfer of Kevin Strootman.  Wijnaldum struggled with a back injury for much of the 2013-14 season, but was able to recover in time to play for the Netherlands in the 2014 World Cup.  In his club career Wijnaldum has played primarily as an attacking midfielder or winger.  In the World Cup it was as a defensive midfielder that Wijnaldum was employed.  Although Wijnaldum was not accustomed to playing as a defensive midfielder; he proved to be a very capable box to box midfielder.  Wijnaldum is a highly gifted athlete that is a great dribbler, an effective passer, possesses great pace, and has a high work rate.  Wijnaldum seems best suited to play in an attacking midfielder position, but this summer proved he is fully capable of handling some defensive responsibilities as well.

clasie bJordy Clasie – 23 years old

Jordy Clasie is a product of the Feyenoord youth system and represented the Netherlands at the Under-19 and Under-21 levels.  Clasie spent the 2010-11 season on loan to Excelsior and made his debut for Feyenoord on July 31, 2011.  Clasie quickly established himself as a regular starter for Feyenoord.  Due to his style of play Clasie has been called the “Dutch Xavi.”  Clasie plays with a great deal of tenacity, intelligence, boosts world class vision and passing, is competent in winning the ball, and is skilled in maintaining possession.  If there is one area where Clasie is criticized it is his physicality.  Clasie stands at 1.69 meters (5 ft. 7 in.) and thus does not boast a successful history at aerial duels.  In the past Clasie has been criticized for his strength and his stamina.  Clasie seems destined to one day take his game outside of the Eredivsie and test himself against top level competition.  If Clasie continues to work on his physicality then Clasie has all the tools necessary to excel at the next level.

van dijk celtic aVirgil van Dijk – 23 years old

The former Groningen man joined Celtic F.C. on a transfer on July of 2013.  Van Dijk made an immediate impact and was named the Celtic player of the year.  Van Dijk was part of a defense that went 1,215 minutes without conceding a goal.  Although van Dijk is recognized for his immense talent, he was unable to secure a spot with the Dutch squad in the World Cup in Brazil.  It is widely believed that it was due to the inferior quality of play in the Scottish Premier League that led to van Dijk being excluded from the squad.  Former Netherlands International Giovanni van Bronckhorst had this to say about van Dijk: “Virgil is a very exciting player. I think we are potentially looking at the best central defender in Europe in the next few years.”  Standing at 6’4” (1.93 m) van Dijk is a physically gifted athlete and is exceptional in his aerial defense and on set pieces.  Van Dijk remains composed when handling the ball, is a sound passer, and possesses a dangerous shot from long range.  Van Dijk’s versatility can be seen in the recent game between Celtic F.C. and Maribor.  Van Dirk began the game at his typical position on the backline, but became a centre striker late in the game when Celtic F.C. needed a goal.  Although van Dijk has not played extensively in the defensive midfielder role I believe that if given an opportunity in that position he would prove to be a revelation as he possess the physical tools to be a defensive enforcer and has the skills on the ball to be an asset pushing forward.

van ginkel fMarco van Ginkel – 21 years old

Marco van Ginkel rose through the Vitesse youth ranks before ultimately making his senior appearance for the club on April 9, 2010, when he was seventeen years old.  Van Ginkel quickly impressed and was given the Johan Cruyff award for the 2012-13 season, which is given every year to the best player in the Eredivisie under 21 years old.  On July 3, of 2013, Premier League club Chelsea announced the transfer of van Ginkel from Vitesse.  Chelsea coach Jose Mourinho had this to say in regards to van Ginkel: “Marco is one of the best prospects in European football right now.”  Mourinho continued in his praise of van Ginkel and stated: “I have been following him for a long time.  He has great potential.”  On September 24, 2013 van Ginkel suffered an anterior cruciate ligament injury which halted his ascension up the Chelsea ranks.  Van Ginkel has returned to fitness and is fighting for first team opportunities with Chelsea.  Van Ginkel made his Netherlands first team debut on November 14, 2012 when he came on as a substitute in a friendly versus Germany.  Van Ginkel is the current captain for the Netherlands Under-21 squad.  Van Ginkel is a true box to box midfielder that plays with maturity, remains composed on the ball, possesses superior passing skills, has a dangerous long range shot, and covers a great deal of ground.  Van Ginkel has all the tools necessary to be a future superstar, he just needs regular first team action to continue his development.

hAYE JThom Haye – 19 years old

Thom Haye first made a name for himself when the Netherlands Under-17 team won the European Championship in 2011 and 2012.  In the 2012 European Under-17 Championship reporters selected Thom Haye and Nathan Aké as two of the top ten players to watch.  Players on those teams such as Karim Rekik, Terence Kongolo, Jetro Willems, and Memphis Depay may have seen more first team action at the club level, but this year Haye looks poised to make his mark in the Eredivsie.  Haye is an energetic and gifted box to box midfielder that currently plays for AZ Alkmaar. Current coach of AZ Alkmaar and Dutch football legend, Marco van Basten is said to have been impressed with Haye.

ake bNathan Aké – 19 years old

Nathan Aké is a very important piece for the Oranje moving forward and has already proven that he is a winner.   Aké won the UEFA European Under-17 Championship twice and was the captain of the team the second time.  Aké left Feyenoord to join Chelsea’s youth system in 2011.  On December 26th, 2012 Aké made his premier appearance in the Premier League as a 17 year old when he replaced Juan Mata in the final stages of the game against Norwich City.  Aké was named Chelsea’s young player of the year in the 2012-2013 season.   Aké is currently practicing with Chelsea’s first team and is working hard to capture additional first team action.  Aké is an immensely talented player with true versatility.  Aké is able to fill multiple positions on the pitch including Centre Back, Left Back, and Defensive Midfielder.  Aké is an intelligent player that possesses a great motor, remains composed on the ball, is a talented passer, and is a valuable asset pushing forward.  Although Aké possesses the adequate defensive qualities to be a Centre Back I don’t believe that is where his skill set would be best utilized.  Aké is better suited for the positions of Left Back and Defensive Midfielder where he can utilize his defensive capabilities, but also be an asset in the open field pushing forward.

Josh Mol (12 Posts)

My name is Josh. I am an American with Dutch roots. I have always felt a connection with all things Dutch especially Dutch football. I love the strong rich history of total football and am a loyal supporter of the Oranje. My grandfather was from Rotterdam and for that reason I am also a big Feyenoord supporter. I don’t just love the game for its enjoyment factor, but I also love to study the tactical side of the game. I love watching the future generation and see the unproven players reach their potential.