Near the end of this month the Netherlands will begin their latest international tournament cycle, leading to Euro 2024 next summer. And, just like they did during qualification for Euro 2020 and again for Word Cup 2022, they are doing it with a new manager in the dugout. In a sense, post Louis van Gaal they are starting from square one. Again.

The new man at the helm is Ronald Koeman, who has come full circle after previously being tempted away in 2020 to an ultimately futile spell at Barcelona. He has several puzzles to solve, with a team in transition and questions already being asked about why several in-form but inexperienced players were left out of his first squad for the matches against France and Gibraltar.

Yet there is one major selection decision that many have overlooked. And it is, perhaps surprisingly, about the one truly world class player Koeman has at his disposal – Virgil van Dijk.

The Liverpool centre half has been pivotal for the Oranje since his debut in 2015. The chasm left by his absence from Euro 2020 was obvious, as was the significance of his return for the last World Cup, as the Netherlands ended up a mere a penalty shoot-out away from the semi-finals. If you were to name a list of the game’s best current centre halves then van Dijk would still be on it. He is no longer at his peak but most international sides would still take him in an instance. 

So then why is it that Koeman should no longer guarantee him a starting place? 

Time to build around Matthijs de Ligt

After not developing as expected at Juventus, Matthijs de Ligt is back looking like someone who could become the best centre back in the world again since his move to Bayern Munich, a big opportunity that he has grasped with both hands. He is putting in supreme and confident displays, such as in the Champions League defeat of PSG (for evidence, just take a look at his 2nd leg goal-line clearance). The concerns over whether he could play in a back three also look like they have been answered whilst playing for the German Champions. And at only 23 years old, he is only going to keep improving. 

For the Oranje, de Ligt has drifted in and out due to form, injury, tactics – and van Dijk. His best position under van Gaal and Frank de Boer was in the centre of a back three but the role was taken by his captain. Meanwhile, it was evident he needed time to adjust to playing to the right or left in that set-up, where mobile players Jurrien Timber and Nathan Aké were more naturally suited. 

Undoubtedly, form dictates that he now deserves an opportunity for a sustained period in the team. Playing alongside van Dijk in a back four sounds great in theory but in practice would not work – their lack of pace and mobility together would get exposed by the best teams, whilst the fact both prefer to play to the left would leave the pairing unbalanced. At Bayern, de Ligt often plays on the left in a back three, yet to do that for the Oranje would mean pushing out Aké, the standout Dutch defender this past year. 

For a long time, the shoes of van Dijk looked too big for de Ligt to fill. That no longer looks the case. There has arguably never been a better time to give him the opportunity to step up and become the defensive leader for his country that many have long predicted he would be.

Strength in depth needs an opportunity to prove itself

Does Koeman build the most experienced squad possible for Euro 2024 and risk further blunting the progression of a talented pool of players? Or does he invest in them now through Euro qualification and the Nations League Semi-Finals, developing a strong, youthful side for the next five years that could still do very well next summer anyway?

Famed for free-flowing attacking football, at present one of the greatest areas of depth for the Oranje is in fact the defence. 

It is truly baffling that Koeman has overlooked Sven Botman, like de Ligt only 23. He has been one of the best defenders in probably the best domestic league right now playing for Newcastle United but has still not received an international cap. The aforementioned Aké has become a mainstay for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, was exceptional at the World Cup and should remain one of the first names on the team sheet. At Ajax, Timber has had a challenging season but is clearly a wonderful, potentially world-class, talent. 

Similarly to Botman, there is a group of Under-21 internationals who surely should soon receive full international honours. One of the breakthrough Eredivisie performers this season has been Lutsharel Geertruida, who has been key to Feyenoord’s title charge playing at centre back. In Germany, Micky van de Ven continues to impress with Wolfsburg, after being included in van Gaal’s preliminary World Cup squad. A torn ankle ligament has ruined Sepp van den Berg’s loan spell at Schalke but there is a reason Jürgen Klopp was so keen to sign him from PEC Zwolle when just 17. And on the south-coast of England, Jan Paul van Hecke is gradually getting more game time with Brighton & Hove Albion after successful loan spells and is another to keep an eye on. There are further names that could be added to this list.

If the Netherlands had limited options, it would be totally fair to continue to build the defence around van Dijk. Yet that evidently is not the case.

The inevitability of time

During the Euros next summer, van Dijk will turn 33. Time catches up with all players, no matter their quality. And, whilst he could still feasibly play at the top level for a few more seasons yet, it has to be questioned whether the Netherlands should continue to rely on a player whose international finishing line is looming ever larger. 

Can Koeman trust that van Dijk can stay injury free? Will he be sharp enough for tournament football if he starts to get rotated more by Liverpool? What if he becomes unavailable and Koeman does not have a sufficiently prepared replacement ready to step into the breach?  In total, the former Groningen man has missed 56 matches across the last two and a half seasons due to injury or illness. A substantial number of those were due to a nasty challenge he could do nothing about but it still raises scrutiny over the miles on his clock and what his body has been through. With today’s intense football calendar, the chances of the muscular injuries he has experienced recently coming back with a vengeance are high. 

This is not all to argue that van Dijk cannot have a role to play for the Netherlands up to and including Euro 2024. Someone of his quality, leadership and experience can still be vital as a squad player. He can be an intelligently used option on the pitch and an invaluable presence off it. 

Virgil van Dijk remains world-class, despite some inconsistent form this season. Whether that means he remains essential for the Netherlands is however open to debate. 

Joe Baker (14 Posts)