It’s almost a curse to be the in-form team heading into the knockout rounds of an international tournament.
By the end of the Euro 2020 group stage, the Netherlands was the nation everyone was keeping a close eye on. After three games, the Oranje had collected a maximum nine points, scored eight goals – the most of any team at the competition – and rarely looked fazed by their trio of opponents.
The exciting young core to their team was thriving, and with only the Czech Republic (who’d finished third in Group D) to beat, it was almost a foregone conclusion that they would reach the quarter-finals, and finally go deep in a tournament.
But fate – and a well-organised opposition – had other ideas. The Netherlands started the game at a frenetic tempo, pressing high up the pitch, pinning the Czech Republic back into their own penalty area and using the pace out wide to whip some tantalising crosses into the box.
At that stage, there were no signs of a catastrophe on the horizon. But then, the game all became a bit stodgy. In fact, it was a performance which England fans have seen hundreds of times, and they know how it always ends.
That fast start was replaced by a ponderous, aimless movement of the ball around the midfield. The forwards became isolated, and chances were at a premium. Worryingly, with all this domination of possession, there was a lack of control over the game.
The Czechs grew into the first half, causing a couple of scares to the Dutch backline, while showing they could engineer opportunities from wide areas. Plus, their height from set pieces made them a constant threat.
Not a team who you want to challenge to a brawl, then. Fortunately though, this Oranje side is blessed with bags of talent, and on 51 minutes, they should have gone ahead. Donyell Malen blitzed through the defence with lightning pace and found himself in on goal with just the keeper to beat.
Instead of slotting home, he gave Tomas Vaclik the slightest of opportunities to make a save, by attempting to knock the ball around the Sevilla man. The Czech Republic’s number one denied the youngster, and in that moment, the pendulum swung.
Patrik Schick burst into life, putting pressure on a panicking Matthijs de Ligt, who missed his kick and slipped to the ground. In his desperate attempts to rescue possession, the Juventus star sneakily tapped the ball out of the forward’s path with his hand, and earned a yellow card.
This is a VAR world that we’re living in though, and the all-seeing eye spotted just how serious this offence was. By denying a goalscoring opportunity with such a devious act, the referee had no choice but to reverse his decision and give De Ligt his marching orders.
From the nation’s hero to the villain. De Ligt trudged off the pitch, aware of the magnitude of the crime he’d just committed. It was naive. It was clearly poorly thought through, and it was costly. Cruel, but costly. And for the Dutch, it spelled disaster.
From that moment on, there was only one winner. While De Ligt will undoubtedly take the blame for this 2-0 loss and subsequent Euro 2020 exit, the fault could have been passed to a number of fallen stars.
Malen shouldn’t have given the Czech Republic a prayer when one-on-on. Daley Blind and Stefan de Vrij didn’t step up in De Ligt’s absence. The usually unflappable Frenkie de Jong completely lost his head and got swept up by the occasion.
Memphis Depay and Georginio Wijnaldum offered nothing when their experience was most needed in such a high-stakes situation. Front to back, it was a nightmare afternoon for all involved. The only saving grace for Holland fans – and this is the thinnest of silver linings – is that they were never going to win the tournament anyway.
With coach Frank de Boer at the helm, they lacked a genuine plan (let alone a Plan B), there was no balance to the side, and the tactical decisions spoke to a manager operating at a level above his ability. It was always the case that once the Netherlands came up against a well-drilled, organised and stubborn opponent, they’d crumble.
Admittedly, no one expected it to be against Czech Republic. Still, that’s knockout football for you. Take anything for granted, and you will be punished. Learn some lessons, the rest of Europe’s giants.