In the next five days, Netherlands will face two European Championship qualifiers which will determine whether the nation is spiraling towards another crisis or whether head coach Ronald Koeman can repair some trust with the fan base.

  • By Michael Bell
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“Welcome. An important period. That is clear,” is how Ronald Koeman started his opening meeting with the Netherlands players on Monday in Zeist. He reiterated how crucial the week is during his press conference on Wednesday too and he is certainly not wrong.

It is not only an important week for the Netherlands chances of qualifying for Euro 2024 but also for Koeman personally, who has been widely criticized so far during his second period in charge of the Dutch national team.

Koeman was largely lauded as a hero during his first spell as he guided the Netherlands to Euro 2020 after the nation failed to reach Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup. He also got them to the Nations League final before ultimately losing out to Portugal in a close final. After years of spiraling under Danny Blind and Guus Hiddink, it was Koeman who restored Oranje to the top again, before he left for his disappointing spell in charge of Barcelona.

The KNVB had hoped that re-appointing Koeman to succeed Louis van Gaal would keep the nation on a steady path and it would be as successful as his previous spell.

So far, that has not been the case at all. Could Koeman be leading them to another failed qualification campaign?

Koeman came in after Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 got them to the World Cup quarter-finals and declared they would be returning to his favoured 4-3-3. His returning game was an embarrassing collapse in Paris in March as France ran out comfortable 4-0 winners.

A terrible 3-0 win over minnows Gibraltar did little to change the mood and Koeman himself admitted he was shocked by what he had seen and vowed to make it right. He had the excuse that some key players were missing such as Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt.

Fast forward to June and the Netherlands had a chance to win a trophy as they found themselves in the Nations League final four. It was being held in the Netherlands and they had Croatia as their opponents. Surely with Frenkie de Jong back, an improved performance was in store? Sadly not…

Netherlands went into the break 1-0 up thanks to Donyell Malen, but Croatia outfought and outplayed them in the second half. A 96th-minute Noa Lang equaliser forced extra time, but Oranje’s defence was shambolic and Croatia ran out 4-2 winners. It could have ended 5 or 6-2.

A third-placed playoff against Italy was next and it was another defeat for Oranje, whose defence was once again horrendous. Two goals were scored by Italy within the first twenty minutes. A comeback was threatened after the break but it ended 3-2 to the Italians. That means in four games under Koeman, Netherlands had conceded 11 goals. The defence that was so tight under Van Gaal was now all over the place.

Koeman could write those matches off as a missed opportunity, but now the big games really come thick and fast. On Thursday, a crucial home tie with Greece is followed by a trip to the Republic of Ireland on Sunday. Two big Euro qualifiers that look winnable on paper, but are also potential banana skins for a nation not playing at the top of their game.

Greece are currently three points ahead of the Netherlands and they will turn up in Eindhoven with nothing to lose. Gus Poyet has restored pride in the nation and it took a Kylian Mbappe penalty for France to defeat them in June. Greece are a tricky side and a defeat for the Netherlands would leave them scrambling and bring flashbacks to the failed Euro 2016 campaign.

Yes, the Netherlands has the playoffs to fall back on this time, but that would be no guarantee and the nations in that would be no easy task for Oranje. Especially, if they find Greece and the Republic of Ireland difficult.

So this week could be do or die for Koeman, who has not got his tactics or selection right since returning as boss. The return to and faith in 4-3-3 seems foolish given Oranje’s defensive struggles and the constant overlooking of Bayer Leverkusen star Jeremie Frimpong has also caused bewilderment amongst the fanbase.

During his first spell, Koeman had an excellent Virgil van Dijk at his disposal, a red-hot Memphis Depay, and Frenkie de Jong coming into his own. All the pieces seemed perfect for him to get results. However, now he has a Van Dijk struggling for form at club level and an attack without a constantly injured Memphis. De Jong remains the talisman but even Koeman admitted that he still needs to find him the perfect partner in the midfield.

The pressure is now on, and if Koeman gets it wrong this week then the calls for him to be sacked will increase and the national team will once again be on the brink of another dark period, like those under Blind and Hiddink.

If Koeman gets it right however, and the Netherlands win both games, then some faith will be restored and the positivity can begin to come back.

The stakes are high and it is a fine line that the Netherlands is treading with confidence in the team so low among supporters. We all hope that Thursday brings us a much-improved performance and a victory that the Netherlands and Koeman sorely need.

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