Return of the Netherlands

To think, only four years ago Louis Van Gaal was lauded for his managerial excellence. And quite rightly, too. He had just led the Netherlands to third place at the 2014 World Cup, leaving Manchester United fans salivating at the prospect of what he could do at Old Trafford with Robin van Persie. Along with fellow veteran forward Arjen Robben, van Persie had set the tournament alight in Brazil and, with a young defence ready to blossom, it seemed the Dutch would remain in the upper echelons of international football.

Except it didn’t pan out that way. Robben and van Persie got older, and the youthful talent surrounding them did not live up the expectations set upon them. The Dutch failed to qualify for Euro 2016, their first absence from the tournament in 32 years. Two years later they could not even make it to the qualifying play-offs for the World Cup, just four years after their semi-final appearance, and eight years after they took Spain to extra time in the final.

In truth, their qualification campaign for the tournament in Russia was not so bad. The Dutch racked up six wins in a group that featured eventual champions France, and their tally of 19 points was equal to that of play-off contenders Greece, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Meanwhile, runners up Croatia only accumulated 20 points with Iceland and Ukraine as their biggest challengers. In fact, then manager Dick Advocaat won six of his seven matches in charge of the Dutch before his departure at the tail end of 2017, when he was replaced by Ronald Koeman.

That quiet resurgence has been brought to public attention following a famous 3-0 win over Germany on Saturday night, when goals from Virgil Van Dijk, Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum put Die Oranje above their opponents in their Nations League group. Moreover, the match highlighted the progress that the three goalscorers have made in the past year.

Van Dijk became the most expensive defender in history when he completed a move from Southampton to Liverpool in January, and his performances at club level have led to discussions of him living up to that price tag as one of the top defenders in world football. Remarkably, the 27-year old has just 22 international caps, 35 fewer than compatriot Daley Blind, who is only a year older.

Liverpool teammate Wijnaldum has enjoyed a fine start to the season in which he has only missed 20 minutes of his club’s Premier League and Champions League matches. The midfielder rounded off the scoring against Germany with his first goal in 11 appearances for his country. Memphis Depay, meanwhile, has also benefitted from regular football at club level. The Lyon striker has become one of the top forwards in Ligue 1 following a transfer from Manchester United in January 2017. So far this season he has made eight starts for the club, only one fewer than he managed in his final 12 months in England. A switch to centre forward at national level has seen him score seven times in his last 11 appearances.

Furthermore, only one member of the Dutch squad that faced the Germans is aged over 30. Alongside the experienced Van Dijk and Blind, Koeman named 22-year-old Mattijs de Ligt and Denzel Dumfries, who was making his international debut at just 19. Both ply their trade in the Eredivisie for Ajax and PSV respectively, and they only have to look across to their fellow defenders to see where their talents could take them.

Lessons should be learned from events four years ago, and mistakes should not be repeated. Then a blend of experience and youth failed to develop as hoped, and current starlets such as de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong still have work to do if they are to emulate Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Wesley Sneijder. Die Oranje’s form has stuttered this year, and the victory over Germany was only their third in seven matches. However, should their experienced players continue to perform as their apprentices develop, it will not be long until the Dutch are back where they belong. The future’s bright for Die Oranje.