The Netherlands last four major tournament performances read – not qualified, not qualified, second round, quarter final. Even factoring in the natural transitional period following the golden generation that almost won a World Cup in 2010, it is a pitiful record for a nation with such a rich footballing history. 

After the rocky journey under Frank de Boer, it was accepted that an experienced and respected figurehead in Louis van Gaal was needed to step in and steady the Oranje ship for the last World Cup. Could they have played more expansively and tried harder to embrace the tactical and stylistic traditions of Johan Cruyff? Of course. Yet it was viewed as a necessary short-term fix that would lay foundations for the long-term benefits.

However, the initial feeling with Ronald Koeman, another Dutch legend returning for another spell in charge of the national team, is that it just feels more of the same. 

With a serious depth of young talent emerging, at the start of a new tournament cycle, with an exciting Nations League semi-final to come and after many years of stagnation, you have to ask – surely this was the moment to embrace change, take a risk and fully launch a new era for the iconic Oranje? 

Instead, based on what we saw in Koeman’s first two games – the Euro 2024 qualifiers against France and Gibraltar – it seems like the KNVB has taken fans back to an era they had already experienced and left behind. It looks like they have opted for safety, just at the moment when bravery was required. 

It is worth highlighting that Koeman, the former Ajax and Barcelona star, did well in his first stint, leading the side to a runners-up spot in the inaugural Nations League. The preparation for these first two games of his second period in charge could also not have gone much worse. He lost Frenkie de Jong, the heart (and arguably the arms and legs) of his team to injury before seeing other key players Matthijs de Ligt and Cody Gakpo fall ill. First assignments can also hardly be more difficult than away to Les Bleus, at present undoubtedly one of the best international sides in the world. Those stating that Koeman needs more time are of course right and it is too early to write him off completely. 

Yet right now there is more concern than optimism. Fans are rarely universally happy when an international squad is announced, but the red flags were justifiably waving over his first squad selection. It hinted that Koeman is wedded to the past and not willing to look to the future. 

Despite their international pedigree, was selecting 33-year-old Daley Blind, who has barely kicked a ball this season, and 32-year-old Gini Wijnaldum, who has only just returned from a significant period injured, a sign Koeman is ready to bring forward that new generation chomping at the bit? Is he willing to properly look beyond just the big clubs, to those more hidden gems in excellent form? The inclusion of Ajax trio Davy Klaasen and Kenneth Taylor (badly out of form) and Brian Brobbey (current benchwarmer) over, for example, the Toulouse pair Branco van den Boomen and Thijs Dallinga suggest the answer is an overwhelming no. Meanwhile, some of the explanations for why certain players were not included were simply headache-inducing. Exhibit A – suggesting Jeremie Frimpong, one of the best right-backs in the Bundesliga this season, was not picked because he cannot defend.  

Based on the 4-0 humbling by France and the struggle against 10-man Gibraltar, tactically it was a mixed bag for Koeman. There were signs of the necessary decisiveness, such as withdrawing the struggling Taylor in the first half against France and making two attacking changes at half-time against Gibraltar. Nonetheless, questions have to be asked about why Taylor started in the first place and why, in the second game, in-form Donyell Mallen did not. Against Les Bleus, a static midfield offered nothing offensively and no protection defensively, whilst playing Jurrien Timber (who has been appearing at centre back for Ajax) at right back and Lutsharel Geertruida at centre back (when he has recently been playing at right back) was again puzzling. 

Moving away from van Gaal’s back 5 system is a positive move and will take time to adjust to. Yet, if you combine the way the Oranje were cut open by France with how lost for ideas they looked when trying to break down Gibraltar, you do not have a particularly appealing concoction. To put the offensive ineptitude into context, Gibraltar are 200th in the FIFA rankings, played for 40 minutes a man down and faced an astonishing 52 shots on goal, which surely must be close to a record. It does not paint a good look for Koeman that his side scored only 3 times, relied on so many crosses into the box and saw their left back be their runaway best player. The lack of depth at centre forward is a problem but not a worthy excuse in this case. 

There are flaws but this is a squad that has real potential, combining experience with an exciting pool of emerging players, from Cody Gakpo to Xavi Simons, Sven Botman and now Mats Wieffer to name but a few. It has one of the world’s best central midfielders in de Jong. Given the right guidance, motivation and opportunity, it is a group that could really flourish. Fans of the Oranje should be feeling optimistic about Euro 2024. Instead, just 14 or so months out from the tournament and there is a risk that any balloon of positive vibes could quickly burst. 

There are problems Koeman needs to solve and questions he needs to answer. Does he have the tactical nous to get the best out of this team? Can he be ruthless with underperforming favourites? Will he be able to spot when to give inexperience a chance and then show the ability to help it develop? The Nations League semi-final in June against Croatia, a pressure match with a possible trophy on the line, should give us a better idea of whether he can provide adequate responses. 

One of the biggest problems with modern football fans is that we have become more reactive than ever before. Jumping to conclusions and opinions without the patience to first gather more evidence. However, such an accusation cannot be levelled against the early Koeman critics. In international football, we have far fewer games to provide our judgement, and to say this was a poor start – from the squad selections to the in-game decisions and tactics – would be an understatement.

Van Gaal steadied the ship. It is the job of Koeman to fully open the sails and take it forward. At first glance, he looks to be steering it to choppier waters. 

Joe Baker (11 Posts)