U21: Netherlands 3-2 Germany: Dutch start the Euros with a hard fought victory

If the expectations of  this Netherlands team were great heading into this Under 21 European Championship, they just grew even greater thanks to their 3-2 victory over Germany in their first game of the tournament. Cor Pot’s men showed how strong, technically impressive and entertaining they can be as they picked up all three points against their old rivals, but they also made it clear that they can grind out a result even when they are at their mentally weakest.

In a sense we saw the very best and the very worst of this Netherlands team in the 90 minutes. At times they were creative, fluid, enticing and effective, other times they were weak, defensively vulnerable and sloppy. Luckily for the Jong Oranje though, there were more moments of brilliance than there were moments of dreadfulness.

The Netherlands made their intentions in this game clear immediately as they threatened from the early stages of the match, putting the Germans under a lot of pressure with Luuk de Jong, Ola John and Georginio Wijnaldum pushing high up the pitch.

The quality of the Dutch squad is undeniable and was obvious as soon as the squad was named for the tournament, but the big worry was how they would gel together as a team. Even Cor Pot insisted this was going to be his real test as coach of these prospects: “It is my job to create a team from [this squad],” he said, and the early stages of this game suggested he has done so with aplomb.

Photo credit: Eredivisie Live

For mtany fans of the Eredivisie, the thought of seeing Kevin Strootman, Adam Maher and Marco van Ginkel in the same midfield has been merely a fantasy throughout the last campaign, but we must thank Cor Pot for making it a reality.

Jordy Clasie was the midfielder expected to start alongside Strootman and Maher as it was theorised that this would make for the most balanced combination of the strong and exciting midfield. However, Pot seemingly couldn’t justify leaving the Netherlands Young Player of the Year out of the squad and opted to include Van Ginkel.

It worked perfectly. As individuals they are exceptional talents, and as a team they were superb. The understanding, balance, fluidity and movement of the trio were crucial in Holland’s dominance of the first period.

They brought the defence and the attack together, ensuring there was harmony in this group of starlets. At one end, when Stefan de Vrij decided he wanted to burst forward in typical Dutch centre-back style, Marco van Ginkel would immediately move back and join Bruno Martins Indi in the back line. At the other end, Luuk de Jong would drop deep to receive the ball and Kevin Strootman would instantly burst forward to fill in the space, ready to receive a key pass.

It was in this manner the Dutch created the first goalscoring opportunity as De Jong slid into a deeper role and sent Strootman into the box in acres of space with a neat pass. The PSV midfielder then cut back for 19-year-old Maher, whose effort was saved by Bernd Leno.

That wouldn’t be the only time Maher threatened though, he was one of the Netherlands’ main sources of creativity and danger and it was he who opened the scoring after 24 minutes with a thunderous strike from outside the box after a corner. Five minutes later, the goalscorer turned creator again with a magnificent pass which split the German defence and almost sent De Jong through on goal.

That chance came to nothing, but within eight minutes, the lead would be doubled. Georginio Wijnaldum picked the ball up on the right side and cut in before embarking on a wonderful run, beating three players and then firing towards goal. His shot looked to have been saved by Leno, but the Bayer Leverkusen goalkeeper could only delay the inevitable as it bounced over the line, despite the shot stopper’s best efforts.

Brimming with confidence, the Dutch kept moving the ball around and attacking as their dominance increased. However, it was made much easier for them from Germany, whose midfield was rather static and their defence very unorganised. Crucially, their star player, Lewis Holtby, had put in a flat first 45 minutes, restricted by the poor side around him.

Netherlands go 2-0 up [Photo credit: Eredivisie Live]

As the half-time whistle blew, Pot’s team were cruising, but that would change in the first minute of the second period. De Vrij was caught in possession outside his box by substitute Kevin Volland whose fantastic through ball sent Holtby through on goal. Jeroen Zoet was quick off his line, but as the Tottenham Hotspur player knocked the ball forward, the PSV shot stopper lunged in and brought him down, giving the referee no option but to point to the spot and wave the yellow card.

Sebastian Rudy stepped up and converted the penalty and suddenly the game had changed.

Germany looked more confident and had suddenly sparked into life. The Netherlands, however, were evidently stunned and seemed very nervous.

From then on, Germany began to take control of the game and create more chances. They almost pulled level when De Vrij failed to shut down Volland outside the box and the Hoffenheim forward unleashed a shot, but it was kept out by the post.

It was the second time the Feyenoord captain had been exposed and he would be once again in this game and it would prove to be a crucial moment. In the 84th minute, Holtby collected the ball on the left side and ran square across the edge of the area. De Vrij was the first defender on him but got on the wrong side and was left chasing him across the line. The former Schalke star picked his moment perfectly, smashing it into the bottom corner to tie score.

It was a disaster for the Netherlands. A valiant comeback from Germany. But it wouldn’t be the end.

Holland began to fight back with just minutes to spare, desperate to regain the lead they had stupidly thrown away. Substitute Leroy Fer, brought on immediately after the equaliser, met a corner with a header but could only watch as it flew past the post.

The tension was high. The game had been as dramatic as one could imagine, and it was about to reach its peak.

As the 90th minute approached, Van Ginkel burst forward and brought down a pass with a fantastic first touch but it was well defended and knocked out for another corner. The ball was whipped in and Fer was there once again, charging in like a machine and jumping like an NBA star and meeting it  with a bullet header to put it beyond Leno for the winner.

The final whistle shortly followed and an important three points were secured for the Netherlands Under 21s.

It was hard fought (harder than it should have been), but a win nonetheless. Now, a victory over Russia on Sunday will see Pot’s team go through to the semi-final.

If the defensive issues are resolved, then there’s no reason why the Jong Oranje can’t be confident of going on to win this tournament. This team of players are particularly exciting and talented and Pot has arguably the best squad in the tournament at his disposal.

“After the penalty and the yellow card we became nervous,” the coach said after the game. But the fact that they remained resilient and strong enough to restore their lead so late in the match against such a strong opponent will boost the confidence and mental strength of this side. That nervousness shouldn’t reappear in this competition.

They took the lead during a period of excellence and fluidity, they threw it away due to their own mental fragility and regained it through their hunger and desire to win.

It was a strong performance and, even if they don’t win the tournament, it is clear that this generation of Dutch youngsters have a remarkably bright future ahead of them. Made up of sickeningly talented individuals, it appears they can form a good team together too. Good news for Cor Pot, better news for Louis van Gaal.

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