It wasn’t that long ago that the European Championships were sort of perfect, in the sense that everything made sense. Only 16 teams made it, which is about the same number of European teams that make the World Cup, so there were rarely any true no-hopers in the draw. Four groups of four meant teams couldn’t slip away, and since only the top two in each group advanced, each match meant something.
The expansion to 24 teams in 2016 certainly dulled the group stage, even if it gave the round of 16 some unpredictability. Still, with the cushion that four of the six third-place teams will advance and the dilution of the groups themselves, it’s unclear how hard the teams are really going in the first three games and how much that means. Think how different the group of death between France, Germany and Portugal would have been if one of them returned home after the group stage, no matter what (which Germany and Portugal flirted briefly anyway, but got away with draws where one would have needed a win in the old format).
The Netherlands have been one of the favorites in the group stage, putting Ukraine, Austria and North Macedonia roughly at home – except for a 10-minute stint against the Ukraine who saw them give up two goals. After missing the last two majors, if you didn’t think about it too much, it was as if the Dutch were not only back in the football tournament, but at the top of the table again.
Being managed by Frank De Boer is never a good start, and Atlanta United fans today must be feeling pretty darn smug. But international football can be very strange, considering the health and fatigue of the players and the different groups of opponents who may have little in common.
In the group stage, none of the Dutch opponents have ever really tested them, and certainly none of them have faced the Dutch like the Czech Republic did today. Those wearing orange will point to Matthijs De Ligt’s red card as the turn, but the Dutch had no shot on target before that and were called off. If the game was turned, it was the same or slightly in favor of the Czechs to only more.
Comment? As we said in the previews of the tournament, the Czechs are one of the few international teams who want to push high. According to WhoScored.com, the Dutch lost the ball 11 times in their own half in their loss today. This has only happened four times against North Macedonia. It was five against Austria. It was five against Ukraine too. The Czechs attempted nine tackles around the Dutch area, proof of their thirst for a quick recovery. Opponents of the Netherlands group managed to combine for just seven games in three games. .
As you can see from this graphic under “Chalkboard” and “Tackles Attempted”, the Czechs intended to stop the Dutch left side of Danny Blind and Patrick van Aanholt.
Kill the body, the head will die. Cutting the Dutch at the back meant the midfielder was starving, which meant the attackers had little to work with. Gini Wijnaldum, roughly the offensive pivot of the Dutch at the head of the midfield, touched 26 touches the entire game. He only attempted 16 passes. He didn’t get a shot. Memphis Depay had a blow. Depay only had three hits in the area. Compare that with the 10 he had in the region against North Macedonia.
De Boer will point out the lack of van Aanholt right before De Ligt’s sacking, which he will also point out, as things out of his control that sent the Dutchman home. But it won’t and shouldn’t come out so cleanly. Not only did De Boer completely baffle this team with an opponent who bothered to squeeze them and didn’t roll out a red carpet for them to come out of defense, but De Boer froze after the card. He moved van Aanholt to the center back, which he rarely played. His first sub after going down to 10 men was an offensive winger at Quincy Promes. He didn’t sign another defender until they were already reduced to two goals. The set-piece defense that led to the Czech’s first game would be best described as “a daycare when the ice cream truck passes”. There was no destroyer in the middle of the field to prevent the Czechs from passing, which led to their second.
The Dutch looked great in the group stage. That and $ 3 gets you on the subway.