If you can’t be good, be lucky. Unfortunately for England, for large swathes of their Nations League semi-final against Netherlands, they were neither. The Dutch were not dramatically better but deserving of their win. Mostly because, as a side, their back four were not handing out gilt-edged chances hand over foot for the entirety of the 120 minutes, and because they had Frenkie de Jong.
The 22-year-old produced a masterclass in midfield excellence. The Ajax midfielder was everything England were not on a chastening evening for Gareth Southgate’s side; the Barcelona-bound schemer as composed and poised as England were ragged and frayed. Much of England’s travails emanated from a midfield - shorn of two of its usual starters in Dele Alli and Jordan Henderson - devoid of the technical competence to match their opponents.
Perhaps Gareth Southgate’s decision to bench all seven players involved in the Champions League final and the resulting lack of midfield quality cost England. However, Southgate’s England have excelled as a meritocracy and the 11 that started had that extra training under their belt. The logic was clear and the stark contrast in midfield quality may not have been so glaring had Ruben Loftus Cheek been available. Despite all of the above England were still in it and almost won it late on – which is testament to what Southgate has built.
The Dutch were in the ascendancy for much of the first half but England were patient in their approach – a team comfortable with what they are. Good but not necessarily elite. Fabian Delph, stationed in the centre of midfield, will have been pleased with their commitment to the basics of football. They sat deep, waited and pounced. Pounced on an error from Europe’s most sought after defender Matthijs de Ligt, whose heavy touch inside his own box was signal for the Manchester United man Marcus Rashford to surge forward, steal the ball and go down under the desperately out-stretched leg of the 19-year-old.
Rashford, in for the benched Harry Kane, dusted himself off to dispatch the penalty, but England were unable to shrug off the sluggishness that marked much of their first-half performance.
The Three Lions went to the interval with the lead, only just and barely deserved. Rashford, the goalscorer and bright throughout was replaced at the interval; Harry Kane on in his stead. And the Tottenham man instantly made England better. That is not a sleight on Rashford but Kane has become the creative hub of this team. He is much more than a goalscorer having come through the ranks at Tottenham as a number 10.
The Netherlands weathered that Kane-induced storm and managed again to wrestle control of the midfield. De Jong - he next season of Barcelona and this season of a complete and utter disregard of the concept of pressure – led the Dutch charge. The introduction of Jesse Lingard for the muted Jadon Sancho failed to get a hold of the central areas as the game was now rolling to De Jong’s rhythm.
The midfield swagger of De Jong became ever-increasingly pronounced but, rather than De Jong, it was his Ajax colleague De Ligt who made up for his first-half misstep, with a thunderous header from a set-piece situation to level the tie. Jordan Henderson entered proceedings; still De Jong probed and poked but it had looked like it might be to no avail when Lingard marched in to slot home. Alas, for those of an English persuasion, VAR decided he had made that march a fraction too soon, ruling his goal out with a digital offside flag. The Dutch had a penalty appeal turned down by VAR and it started to look like England could ride a crest of good fortune when Memphis Depay missed a hugely presentable opportunity in the dying embers of the match after some sloppy play from Harry Maguire.
England had not been good but they had been lucky. That, though, was about to change, when in each half of extra time first John Stones and then Ross Barkley were caught in possession and Holland through a Kyle Walker own goal and a Quincy Promes strike sealed their spot in the final against Portugal in Porto on Sunday.
The Three Lions have made admirable process these last couple of years under Southgate and have a defined way of playing. Unfortunately, as is stands, some of the personnel are not of the required standard to play that way and that standard is Frenkie de Jong.
-- by Marcus Foley