A ruthless Czech side should consign Ronald de Boer to a deserved exit from his Netherlands job after a 2-0 win on Sunday evening.
It has been clear for some time that Dutch football is not what it was. Players like Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Ruud van Nistelrooy have faced down their age and retired, without ever truly being replaced. That was perhaps the last hurrah of traditional excellence from the country.
Of course, it is not terminal. Teams can lose golden generations one decade only to be surprised by another a few years later. There are enough young, talented players wanted across Europe that augurs well. No side, whether club or country, can sustain excellence indefinitely, because that is simply not how the world works. Nonetheless, the players and managers are far from blameless.
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For De Boer, it was probably a mistake to set up with three or five defenders, depending on how you look at that particular set-up. The Czechs had a single focal point as a striker, and that left a spare central defender, and meant that the side’s wing backs - their best attacking outlets - were not properly used. A sensible option would have been to swap to four at the back, and advance at least one of the wide players in order to supplement the attack and help gain a foothold in defence. De Boer was unable to institute that change, and he was unable to make any other fundamental alteration throughout the course of the game.
De Boer should not really have been given the chance to lead this team into the Euros. He did well enough at Ajax, but with the relative lack of competition in that country’s Eredivisie, he would inevitably have to prove his talents on a more demanding stage. Everywhere else he has gone, he has failed. At Inter Milan he managed to register five victories in 14 games. At Crystal Palace he infamously stuck around for just five games in total. At Atlanta United, well, it doesn’t matter - what you do at Atlanta United should have absolutely no bearing on whether you are appointed manager of one of the traditionally biggest forces in world football. Indeed, the demands should be even greater if there is a rebuilding job to carry out.
De Boer brought his unimpressive record with him when he took over at the Netherlands last year. A heavy defeat to Turkey in the World Cup qualifiers and a draw at home to Scotland, hints at problems that when they come up against real quality, they struggle. The group stages might have given observers some optimism, but they now have to be seen in the context of this last-16 disappointment.
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Wins over Ukraine and Austria, and then against North Macedonia, are far from poor results, but every one of those teams should have been beaten. For all their problems, De Boer has at his disposal a superior squad than most this summer. The indictment of the side is just what happened as soon as the pressure was really on, and what happened as soon as they faced an examination of their spirit and discipline.
Aged just 21, Matthijs De Ligt has made his mark at Juventus with some exceptionally mature performances, but inconsistency and mistakes show that he is still just 21. There is an excellent player on his way, but an almost inevitable error gave the Netherlands and De Boer a test. To hold on, to reorganise and be ruthless with anything that would come their way in the following minutes. Instead they failed to reshape sensibly, and they gave too much space for their opponents to attack.
Of course we should see this game as one that the Netherlands lost, first and foremost. But we can't ignore the Czech Republic. The fundamental numbers might suggest that Patrik Schick is in a purple patch that will not survive the next few months of league football - but so what? Right now he is exceptionally decisive and impressive. For his side and country, that is all that will matter at this tournament.
The Czechs next play Denmark on Saturday 3 July. The Danes have been similarly impressive despite a patchy squad and their own uniquely tough circumstances. But this is a chance for both sides to show who can take the chances when they are offered up, and if they have the nous and confidence to start forcing their own desires and ambitions on a game.
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