Nigel de Jong – the Netherlands’ unsung hero

“There’s nothing normal about it. Arjen Robben was voted man of the match, but I disagreed,” said Louis van Gaal after the Netherlands beat Australia 3-2 last week. “I thought it was Nigel de Jong.”

The 62-year-old coach had a point. After an excellent display against Spain in the first game, De Jong had put in another magnificent performance against the Socceroos and was a rock in the group decider with Chile.

Subtlety is one word those whose memories and attitudes towards him are plagued by that fly-kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso in the 2010 final or that harrowing leg break of Hatem Ben Arfa later that year would never associate with De Jong. However, it is suitable in describing his current style. He is effective and extremely important but also very quiet, which is why his role in the 5-1 demolition of Spain and the 3-2 victory over Australia has been gravely understated.

While he is still a hard tackler and a physical player, he is not nearly as destructive, dirty or negative as many believe. The AC Milan player has played 329 games since his last red card almost eight years ago.

De Jong is not as extravagant, blistering or inspiring as the front trio of Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, but nevertheless his importance to the team is severe.

No matter what style of play the Oranje wish to adopt, De Jong can and does play a crucial role. If they set out to play deep and play on the counter attack, his influence off the ball is vital as he sits in front of the backline like a rock, disrupting the opponents’ attacks as they stride deep into Oranje territory.

His proactive style and good bursts of acceleration allows him to apply a lot of pressure on opponents in the midfield and, when coupled with his excellent positioning and reading of the game, allows him to prevent them from building any momentum in the middle of the park.

Against Spain, he tracked Xavi and Sergio Busquets remarkably well throughout the match, forcing them back and ensuring their forward passing options were limited.

De Jong is, in the best possible sense, a real warrior in the midfield. His conviction and fight in front of the defence is remarkable as he marauds the centre of the park, counting anything that lands in it his own.

When the opponent advances, De Jong springs into action, covering the nearest passing option and looking to force them back.

He is intelligent in his play, sensible and quiet.

De Jong also acts as a captain to the defence and midfield, constantly communicating, pointing out players who need to be tracked to the youngsters Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi.

Two years ago, De Jong was paired in the holding midfield role with Mark van Bommel in Euro 2012 as they sat deep and tried to destroy every opponent. Now, his partnership with Jonathan de Guzman gives him a lot more freedom in the midfield to roam the entire width of the pitch and also push up to support the attackers, a vital part of his and the team’s game as it prevents there being a vast hole in between the two parts of the team which opponents can build attacks on and dominate games.

On the ball, the 29-year-old’s movement and passing allows the Netherlands to circulate possession, dropping back to play it to one of the centre-backs, move it on to Daley Blind or Daryl Janmaat to drive on or he’ll switch it up with a long diagonal pass to Robben or Van Persie in space to speed up attacks.

His all-round game is excellent. His passing is accurate and smart, his tackles are strong but effective, he has great stamina, acceleration and anticipation of the game and even though he isn’t particularly tall (he stands at 5’8″), he is very strong and commanding in the air.

As the Netherlands lined up against Chile with a completely different team to that which they played with in the previous two games, De Jong’s role became even more crucial.

Starting in midfield alongside Georginio Wijnaldum, an inexperienced but energetic midfielder and with Dirk Kuijt beside him as a left wing-back and with Daley Blind in at centre-back, De Jong needed to be at his defensive best. He dropped quite deep to bolster the backline and put in a solid display and rarely gave the ball away as the Oranje held off the South Americans.

De Jong’s importance to the Netherlands midfield has been huge and as they continue to exceed expectation and look to progress, it will only increase.

Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie will continue to make the headlines and rack up the goals, but one man’s influence is just as key – Nigel de Jong.

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