With three wins from three, leading for more minutes than any other team in the competition so far and a few compliments in their pockets, the Netherlands have defied all expectations at Euro 2020. Things are far from perfect, but the demons of the switch to a new 3-5-2 formation that saw them barely draw 2-2 against Scotland earlier this month have largely been exorcised.
The decisiveness of Georginio Wijnaldum, Memphis Depay, surprise star of the tournament Denzel Dumfries and emerging attacking talent Donyell Malen have turned the Dutch into one of the standout teams.
Pressing far up field and playing with high full-backs Dumfries and Patrick van Aanholt to support the likes of Depay, Wout Weghorst, Wijnaldum and Frenkie de Jong has allowed them to overwhelm their opponents. Calling on Malen from the bench to partner Depay and threaten defences with blistering runs and smart combinations offers them the luxury option of being able to switch up their attacking style.
With Czech Republic waiting for them in the last 16 and Denmark to come in the quarter-final, they have a chance of going much further than anyone would have expected. But despite the sizeable lift in optimism, there remain some problem areas that leave Netherlands looking vulnerable.
There is still uncertainty among the team about the finer details of the 3-5-2 system, a shape De Boer had only used in one game – his second in charge against Italy – before this month.
"In the end it doesn't matter that much,” he told NOS when asked if they would stick with the 3-5-2 or revert to 4-3-3. “We still play with a full-back who is high up on one side [with the 4-3-3], only now there is a right winger instead of a high full-back on the other side. For me it doesn't need to be a discussion. It's about how you fill it in.”
The coach admitted that his side are too sloppy on the ball and exposed in transition when they give it away while playing with three centre-backs. They have looked more secure in that regard when they have switched to their more traditional 4-3-3, such as in the second half of the 3-0 win against North Macedonia.
That problem is only made worse by the mismatched midfield. Wijnaldum and De Jong have been two of the team’s best players, but De Boer does not have a reliable defensive player to complete the set.
Marten de Roon has been the best choice so far, but he is of little use in the build-up as he gives the ball away and hardly protects the back line when they are defending. There is always too much space between the defence and midfield, and he is always in danger of being booked because of his recklessness. His inclusion has served as defensive cover for the marauding Dumfries, but the resulting skew to the right has left the centre exposed.
De Boer’s trial with Ajax’s rising star Ryan Gravenberch in the final group game only highlighted that the problem is even bigger when De Roon is not there, leaving him with a tough puzzle.
“There are two things at play,” the coach said after the North Macedonia match. “When Georginio Wijnaldum goes deep, Frenkie de Jong is between the lines and Ryan Gravenberch is high up field… then you lack bodies in defensive transition. If you’re also sloppy, then you come up against counter-attacks.”
One solution could be to put Daley Blind in midfield, taking out the weakest member of the defence and putting his reading of the game and excellent passing to better use. The other obvious move would be to start in a 4-3-3, the system the players are used to and which De Boer has been devoted to until recently. However, it seems that the man that was once wedded to the 4-3-3 now has a crush on the 3-5-2.
Although they were hardly tested by Austria, matches against Ukraine and North Macedonia shone a light on the issues in the Dutch team. They will now face a more hardened and stubborn opponent that will surely provide a sterner test for De Boer’s daring experiment.