What can England expect from the Netherlands in the Euro 2024 semi-final?

This is not your father’s Netherlands.

With a transitional squad of players, Ronald Koeman has implemented a functional system that retains only a few of Dutch football’s historic characteristics but which has seen his side reach the semi-finals of Euro 2024 — far further than many of the nation’s prettier teams have managed.

After struggling for consistency in the group stages, Koeman seems to have found a system that works and, as importantly, is one that can be quickly adapted mid-game.

Ahead of their meeting in Dortmund, this is what semi-final opponents England need to be wary of — including back-post crosses, wide centre-backs, and a striker well known to the Premier League…

On paper the Netherlands have been playing with a back four, but in possession Denzel Dumfries pushes forward to become the widest player on the right flank, with the right-winger moving in-field as Koeman’s team morphs into a 3-2-4-1 shape.

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Their attack mainly revolves around finding Cody Gakpo and Dumfries in advantageous situations down the wings, either through Virgil van Dijk’s long passes or by building up through the thirds.

“Naar links! Naar rechts!” is the song that has soundtracked the Netherlands’ tournament, and coincidentally it resembles one of their attacking solutions in the final third.

Despite being on different flanks, there’s a connection between Gakpo and Dumfries. Crosses towards the back post from the Inter Milan defender to the Liverpool forward — or vice versa — is a trademark move for this Netherlands team.

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The Gakpo-Dumfries connection is a useful tool against back-four defences as the Netherlands overload the last line with five players. It also proved useful against Poland and Turkey’s back five.

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In the 2-1 victory against Turkey, Dumfries’ cross towards the back post led to the winner that put the Netherlands through to the semi-finals.

Here, Dumfries has time to play the cross because Turkey’s left wing-back, Ferdi Kadioglu, is caught out of position. The Inter defender plays the ball across goal…

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… and Gakpo’s threat at the back post ultimately forces Mert Muldur to put the ball into his own net.

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Another attacking solution for Koeman’s side is to find Gakpo in one-versus-one situations. The Netherlands achieve that by playing long balls towards the Liverpool forward or finding Xavi Simons between the lines, before the midfielder switches the play to Gakpo.

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In this example, from the Romania win, Jerdy Schouten finds Simons between the lines with the opponent’s right-back unable to commit because of Gakpo’s presence down the left wing.

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Simons then finds Gakpo with Romania’s right-back, Andrei Ratiu, tracking back to defend against the Dutch forward.

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In an isolated one-versus-one, Gakpo dribbles inside and rifles the ball into the near post to give the Netherlands the lead.

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To reach Gakpo in this situation, the Dutch have to find Simons between the lines first, and despite Tijjani Reijnders and Schouten’s best efforts there’s a lingering feeling that Koeman’s side needs to find the No 10s more frequently. Those passes might once have been played by someone else.

After full time against Turkey, a figure walked into the Netherlands changing room, wearing baggy jeans and a bomber jacket, zipped open to reveal a Dutch jersey underneath. He walked around, embracing every member of the team.

It is rare for an outsider to be in a nation’s inner sanctum in moments like this — but this is the injured Frenkie de Jong, who has been the heart of the Netherlands team.

When he was ruled out of the Euros less than a week before the tournament, after failing to overcome an ankle injury, it was an enormous blow. At his best, the 26-year-old is a midfield in one — press resistant, metronomic and progressive-minded.

The question turned to how to replace him — and injuries to the likes of Teun Koopmeiners and Mats Wieffer exacerbated the problem. Koeman’s initial solution was to select the PSV Eindhoven duo of Schouten and Joey Veerman — hoping that their chemistry would allow them to settle quickly, despite a lack of international experience.

This pairing have games that complement each other — Schouten is a ball-winner whose passing-style is more about recycling than incision, while Veerman has arguably the best passing range in the country, though can be vulnerable to opposition pressure.

The fear before the tournament was how these two midfielders would cope when asked to cover large spaces — and after struggling against Poland, this was ruthlessly exploited by Austria in the Netherlands’ final group match. Veerman was substituted after 34 minutes, leaving the pitch in tears, after losing possession with 55 per cent of his touches, and finishing with a passing accuracy of just 47 per cent.

Koeman’s solution? It is impossible to replace De Jong with one player — so he instead found two players who can fulfil half of his roles each. With Veerman dropped, Reijnders has dropped back from No 10 to play alongside Schouten in the double-pivot.

The AC Milan midfielder worked behind the Aldi checkout as an 18-year-old but, seven years on, has just completed an excellent first season at San Siro and was described as being “blessed with light feet” by Koeman in the run-up to the tournament. An upright and elegant player, much more comfortable in wide spaces than the other midfield options, he has replaced De Jong’s carrying ability.


Only Aurelien Tchouameni and Toni Kroos have recorded a higher progressive carrying distance — yards moved towards the opposition goal with the ball at their feet — while, according to Opta, he had also produced the fourth-most line-breaking passes through midfield in the tournament ahead of the quarter-finals. Moving Reijnders back was the key to improving the Netherlands’ press resistance — he has put up these numbers despite being the eighth-most pressured player in the entire tournament.

Reijnders’ progressive-mindedness has also freed up Schouten to do what he does best. He was nicknamed “the washing machine” by the late Sinisa Mihajlovic, then coaching him at Bologna, for his ability to get through dirty work — but that name was later revised to “the professor”. He replaces De Jong’s defensive clout, and is particularly gifted at interceptions — though one line-breaking pass to Simons in the build-up to Gakpo’s opener against Romania demonstrated his growing confidence.

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Schouten has not been dispossessed a single time this tournament, while against Romania he and Reijnders were virtually perfect in the first 30 minutes; between them they completed all 50 of their attempted passes.

England have two options: either flood the centre of the pitch in order to stop Reijnders breaking the chains, or go completely the other way, and attempt to spread play to take advantage of a midfield which is still not super athletic.

Of course, there are ways that the Dutch defence can help their midfield out in this regard. After Austria, a poor defensive performance, one of the lasting feelings was that they had set up too deep, and were defending too passively, increasing the spaces that Schouten and Veerman had needed to cover.

“Sometimes the communication between our centre-backs and midfield needs to be better,” Koeman admitted before the knockouts. Stefan de Vrij and Van Dijk have led a notably higher line in recent matches — look at this position in the closing moments of the quarter-final win.

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Nevertheless, some defensive vulnerabilities remain. Jules Kounde and Ousmane Dembele doubling up on Nathan Ake got the better of the Netherlands’ defence in the second half against France, Austria’s off-ball movement manipulated their back line on all three goals in the 3-2 defeat in the group stage, and defending set pieces has been an issue.

The Netherlands conceded from an in-swinging corner at the near post against Poland in their first game, and on the second phase of a corner against Turkey in the quarter-finals. In terms of expected goals (xG) conceded per 100 set pieces — which allows us to level the playing field when comparing across teams — their rate of 6.1 is the sixth worst out of all teams at Euro 2024.

England need to keep an eye on Ake roaming into midfield and his underlapping runs. After Switzerland’s wide centre-backs, Ricardo Rodriguez and Fabian Schar, caused England problems in the second half and extra time of their quarter-final encounter, it’s one of the attacking solutions Koeman could use.

Ake is comfortable in terms of pushing up to provide an additional attacking option against low blocks.

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From there he is able to make underlapping or overlapping runs with the opponent’s back five fixated on Simons and Gakpo. In this example, against Poland in the group stage, Schouten plays the ball wide…

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… and Ake makes an underlapping run between Poland’s right wing-back and centre-back, who are stretched because of the positioning of Simons and Gakpo. Simons finds him…

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… but Gakpo fails to convert Ake’s cutback.

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Later in that game, Koeman tweaked his approach on the ball with Ake and Dumfries occupying narrow positions to attack the spaces outside of Poland’s midfield three as Donyell Malen and Jeremie Frimpong provided the width.

Here, De Vrij plays the ball to Reijnders…

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… which attracts Jakub Moder and creates space for Ake to attack. Reijnders finds the Dutch centre-back…

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… and Ake’s pass into the penalty area finds its way to Wout Weghorst, who scores the winner.

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This problem-solving has been a trademark of the Dutch tournament. Koeman’s Plan A has only rarely worked from the opening moments of the game — but in every match, he has made changes that have improved his side.

The Plan A of Plan Bs? Bring on the 6ft 6in (197cm) Weghorst. A giant banner of the Burnley striker flies in the Dutch end before every game, a cult hero status bestowed by the number of big moments he finds himself involved in, despite being known as something of a punchline within the Premier League.

Memphis Depay has struggled at points this tournament, with calls for him to be dropped for Weghorst throughout the group stages. Koeman has never seriously considered it, with Depay one of his favourites, but he has shown a willingness to get Weghorst involved early — bringing him on at half time against Turkey.



Memphis Depay vs Wout Weghorst: The striker debate which cuts to the heart of Dutch football

“I think every team needs ‘Dutch qualities’ and also ‘English qualities’ that make the team stronger,” Koeman said pre-tournament. “It is an option (to start Weghorst). We will see what is best for the team and not the best for the player.”

With Weghorst on, the Netherlands do play a far more attritional style — but one that feeds into their personnel. With Dumfries overlapping on the right, plus Simons and Depay’s cross-delivering ability, Weghorst will always receive service. He scored against Poland, and almost did the same at the far post against Turkey.

Weghorst also allows them to skip parts of their build-up play, particularly if the midfield are under pressure, by corralling the ball as a target man and bringing the Dutch No 10s into play (particularly if the right-winger drifts inwards so Dumfries can overlap).

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It seems to be rubbing off on everyone. Look at Depay’s role in the winning goal of the quarter-final — giving Kaan Ayhan a tiny nudge to knock him off balance, creating space for Gakpo to force an own goal at the back post.

Koeman’s use of ‘English qualities’ was not necessarily a compliment — but against England, he may rely on them to get his nation through.

(Header photo: Marcel ter Bals/DeFodi Images/DeFodi via Getty Images)

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