The Netherlands, a country famed for its windmills, distinct lack of hills, various cheeses and fast, flowing, attacking football. A consequence of this brand of top-heavy football is what many nationals have come to call their ‘swiss cheese’ defence. The emergence of golden boy Matthijs de Ligt and the spectacular development of Virgil van Dijk into the world’s leading defender, however, looks set to plug those holes and quash the famous dairy based metaphor.

  • by Ellis Douglas
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After failing to qualify for the World Cup in 2018 there was a collective feeling of anger and disgust amongst the Dutch. Unsurprisingly too, given they also failed to qualify for the 2016 Euros, this was the first time since 1980 that the Oranje would miss back to back major tournaments. Their third place finish in the 2014 World Cup only compounded matters.

Now, however, with all their up and coming starlets alongside Balon D’or favourite van Dijk, qualification should be a dead cert. The towering stopper from Breda has taken the world by storm, winning the Champions League with Liverpool and finishing runners up to Manchester City in the Premier League by a single point. Van Dijk has made defending sexy again.

The Netherlands captain possesses immense levels of poise, an unparalleled leap and expert positioning, amongst stupidly good passing ability for a centre-half. Every ball played into the box seems to have an almost supernatural way of finding itself bouncing off of van Dijk’s forehead, explaining the Dutchman winning an immense 75% of his aerial duels in the league last year. This stat was only bettered by one player, Harry Maguire and his gargantuan dome (78%).

With countless stats about no-one managing to dribble past him, a Champions League medal, one loss in the league and a PFA Player of the Year award to boot, van Dijk announced himself as the best defender in the world last year. Something totally unheard of for a Dutch player.

It’s not only his technical and physical abilities that make him the player he is though. His organisational and leadership skills are second to none, something the Netherlands have been craving for years. A captain with this skill-set, cool head and unquestionable desire, “I want to achieve everything in football,” is also the perfect foil for new kid on the block de Ligt.

Bursting on to the scene at just 17 years old, de Ligt was an instant hit. Marking his senior debut with a goal from a corner – start as you mean to go on, and all that – he went from strength to strength. He went on to become the youngest ever player to start in a major European final in Ajax’s 2017 Europa League heartbreak whilst making his national team debut, albeit a wobbly one, in the same season. The national team clearly knew what was coming.

Like his colossal compatriot van Dijk, de Ligt is also an expert when it comes to using his head, both mentally and physically. With one on his debut, and subsequent headed goals against Feyenoord, Juventus and Spurs, corners are quickly becoming the wonderkid’s party piece. His nine headed shots in the 2018/19 Champions League season, joint highest with Cristiano Ronaldo, more than back this up.

Not only is he an expert offensive header of the ball but his defensive abilities, especially given his youthfulness, are sublime. With his imposing height and broad frame, de Ligt is a formidable opponent for any attacker. Equipped with impeccable timing in his tackles and an extraordinary knack of being in the right place at the right time, it takes something special to get the better of de Ligt.

De Ligt finished his final season in the Eredivisie with the most aerial duels won (126), the most clearances (126) and the most shots blocked (26). These stats are even more impressive when you consider de Ligt was playing in an Ajax team that went on to win the league with a strong focus on possession and ball retention. Parking the bus just isn’t in the Ajax DNA.

On top of his expert defending, like van Dijk, de Ligt is a commanding leader. He received the captain’s armband at Ajax at just 18 years old, the youngest captain in their history. A role that didn’t seem to faze the teenager in the slightest. During his first full season as captain de Ligt led his Ajax side to the semi-finals of the Champions League, only to be cruelly knocked out by a last minute Lucas Moura goal.

His immense talents shone throughout the entire campaign resulting in him earning himself a multi-million euro move to Serie A champions Juventus. The Serie A, where the in/famous catenaccio style was born, is widely renowned as a strongly defence oriented league. What better place for de Ligt to take his game to the next level than at the heart of a Juventus defence alongside Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci, two defensive icons of the modern game? De Ligt himself has been quoted as saying, “For a young player like me, they are both examples to be inspired by.”

After a full season in a top European division for de Ligt and another year chasing the coveted Premier League trophy for van Dijk the two of them will be more than ready to make the 2020 European Championship their own. With other Dutch stars such as Frenkie de Jong and Memphis Depay making names for themselves across Europe, the Netherlands should have a first XI as good as any.

Known for their free flowing, attacking, ‘total’ football the Netherlands will be a more complete team come 2020. With a more bottom-heavy team than ever before (and at 6ft4 and 6ft2, they are seriously heavy) the Oranje should be a very different prospect.

With midfield maestro Wesley Sneijder and lightening inside-forward Arjen Robben both recently hanging up their boots, it is time for van Dijk and de Ligt to make this team their own and change the common perceptions of Dutch football. Bringing a slightly different meaning to the term ‘total football’ the Netherlands defence will be a force to be reckoned with.

To quote a phrase from the great Sir Alex Ferguson, perhaps more fitting than ever in regards to the Dutch national team’s chances at Euro 2020, “Attack wins you games, defence wins you titles.”

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