At least when the English fly planes over grounds, they are normally just calling for a manager to be sacked. The Dutch dispense tactical advice instead. “Frank, just 4-3-3,” came the message before the Netherlands’ opener against Ukraine.
Frank de Boer ignored it. Arguably his side have prospered because he ignored it. If Johan Cruyff is responsible for his compatriots’ enduring obsession with 4-3-3, if there is a sense that it is fundamental to the Dutch identity and if there is a belief attacking football stems from the use of wingers, the Netherlands are the top scorers in Euro 2020 without any.
EURO 2020 Netherlands squad: Full team profile
The phrase “wingless wonders” is more associated with Alf Ramsey than De Boer. If there is a common denominator, it is that each can be found at the more pragmatic end of the managerial spectrum, unlike the ideologue Cruyff. De Boer has been influenced more by Louis van Gaal, for whom he played for Ajax, Barcelona and Holland.
The worst elements of De Boer’s management feel parts of Van Gaalism; his Crystal Palace team never scored a Premier League goal and threatened to mimic the static, sideways passing game of his mentor’s Manchester United. And yet, on the international stage, De Boer may have borrowed from the best of Van Gaalism.
The Netherlands eschewed their beloved wingers in the 2014 World Cup and while their goals dried up in the knockout stages, they were the group stage top scorers, getting five of their 10 in an era-ending thrashing of Spain.
In each case, there felt something pragmatic in the switch of system. It reflected an analysis of the strengths of the players available. In 2014, Van Gaal had watched Ronald Koeman’s Feyenoord play 3-5-2 and was persuaded of its merits. Then he had one of the world’s great wingers, in Arjen Robben, but reinvented him by allowing him to orbit around, and run beyond, the main striker Robin van Persie.
Fast forward seven years and De Boer has granted Memphis Depay a similar, freer role, rather than being forced to decide whether to use him off the left or as the lone striker in a 4-3-3. Only Robert Lewandowski has had more shots in Euro 2020 and Depay feels one of three great beneficiaries of the switch in shape.
Another is Gini Wijnaldum, who has been outscored only by Cristiano Ronaldo and who, with only two forwards ahead of him, has more licence to get into the penalty area. Incorporating an extra defender has given more of a platform for a marvellously adaptable footballer to show the predatory instinct he often camouflaged when working for others in Liverpool’s colours. He prospered in a deeper role for Jurgen Klopp but still possesses the knack for perfectly-timed runs into the box.
The third catalyst is Denzel Dumfries, who has allied a remarkable name with attacking ambitions. The wing-back has rendered wingers redundant with two goals and a capacity to get into scoring positions. His cavalier streak may be further evidence of De Boer’s pragmatism: while attackers like Depay and the precocious Donyell Malan can play on the flanks, each is better in the middle and this is not a great generation of natural Dutch wingers. They could have played wingers for wingers’ sake to conform with an inflexible blueprint. Instead, they liberated wing-backs who may not be the most secure full-backs defensively anyway.
There is a final element to the reconfiguration. Even without the injured Virgil van Dijk, the Netherlands have enough fine centre-backs to accommodate a third. In Daley Blind, they have one with the passing range to act as a playmaker at the back.
That said, the Dutch defence scarcely looked dependable in the 3-2 win against Ukraine, when Matthijs de Ligt was missing. A high line may yet cost them against superior opponents. De Boer may yet want to copy Van Gaal by adopting a more conservative approach in the knockout stages. But before then, the Netherlands have added entertainment with the supposedly defensive system, played to the strengths of their major matchwinners and camouflaged weaknesses by ignoring Dutch footballing orthodoxy and (at least some of) the Dutch public.
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