When Pele and Beckenbauer were great, the world laid their eyes on the Dutch. Now, the Netherlands are back. With De Bruyne and KDB, they’ve got the world’s best young midfielder—and the world’s best young striker. Then there’s the early musings of Christian Benteke and Virgil van Dijk. If they can bring these talents to full flower? They won’t just win the Euros, they’ll be the best team in the world.
For the first time since the tournament format was adapted in 2000, an American team will compete in the EURO 2020 tournament in the summer of 2020. And that’s something that will make a lot of heads turn. It is easy to forget that the Netherlands are not only one of the strongest teams in the world, but also one of the most talented.
Mattis De Ligt made his debut in the Dutch national team in 2017, while Frankie De Jong was called up for the first time the following year. In 2012, Wim Yonk told the Ajax board that they would laugh at the reluctance to invest another 200,000 euros in the club’s academy, because in five years there would be 200 million euros in the bank. Yonca’s promise took a little longer to materialise, but the Eredivisie champions have only surpassed that figure over the past two summers by selling their best young talent, with much of that money coming from the departures of Matteis de Ligt to Juventus and Frenkie de Jong to Barcelona. The talented duo, who led Ajax to an unlikely Champions League semi-final and a last-minute defeat against Tottenham in 2019, will now be crucial to the Netherlands’ chances of winning their first major tournament since their success at the European Championships in 1988. The Netherlands has not reached the final in seven years. They finished second at the 2010 World Cup and third four years later. It has been difficult to rebuild after an era with world-class players like Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, but the Dutch team’s path to the 2019 Nations League final is an encouraging sign. It is now up to the young players to inspire the next generation of Orange, and their quest for Euro glory begins Wednesday with the friendly against Scotland. Speaking of Matteis and Frankie, that’s where it all starts and they know each other very well, Ruben Jongkind, former head of talent development at Ajax, told Sport. Matteis and Frankie are your core, the architects of structure and defense. It is very important to have these two great players on your team.
De Ligt shows world-class potential
As De Ligt lay face down on the pitch after Lucas Moura’s winning goal in the dying seconds of the second Champions League semi-final of 2019 at the Johan Cruyff Arena, a 10-year cycle came to an end for the Ajax captain in Amsterdam. The imposing defender joined the club’s academy at the age of nine and was transferred to Juventus a decade later for a fee of up to £76 million. He is one of the most successful products of the Cruyff Plan, which revamped the academic training system developed and implemented by Yongkind and Yonk after Cruyff returned to the board in 2011. The Velvet Revolution focused on developing an attractive, attacking style of play and preparing young players for the first team, while individual plans influenced by other sports were used to help academy graduates reach their potential. You can’t separate history from the changes we’ve made, says Yongkind. Until he was 15 he played as a central defender, but the problem was that he was mature, meaning big for his age and strong, but he lacked speed of action, such as decision making and agility on the 360 with the ball. To work on these qualities, the Ajax coaches decided to move the young de Ligt to a defensive position in midfield, and they have been training him for several years. He wasn’t running as efficiently or gracefully anymore, so we had to change his movement style, Yongkind added. We were able to offer Matteis the right challenges at the right time. He used to be a little clumsy, so he worked hard to change that with performance coaches. Matthew de Ligt played 36 games in all competitions for Juventus and missed the start of the season with a shoulder injury. He helped create a complete centre-back who is comfortable in ball possession, and Juventus knew what they were getting into when they made De Ligt one of the most expensive defenders of all time. He scored the goal that knocked them out of the quarter-finals of the Champions League a few months earlier, and the Dutchman was the winner of the Golden Boy Award and Ajax’s youngest captain. After winning Serie A in his first season and recovering from a shoulder injury at the start of the season, the 21-year-old has become a regular for Juventus, who are in fourth place after nearly a decade of dominance. He has the potential to become a world class player and Mattijs is already showing that, Jongkind said. He has a permanent place at Juventus at the age of 21, which is great. The absence of Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk will make De Ligt even more important to the Dutch team and their coach Frank de Boer this summer. I am happy with the way he works and I see the Matteis that everyone wants to see, so for me he works very well, De Boer told Sport. At the age of 19 he is already captain of Ajax. He has the character to do it, with Giorgio Chiellini as his mentor, he understands what the club expects from him, on and off the pitch. He plays in every game now, and Juventus may not be at their best, but they always play with intensity.
De Jong has great influence on Barça
Frenkie de Jong played 37 times in La Liga last season, scoring three goals and providing four assists. In De Jong, de Boer has secured another important player, whose normally impeccable form the club are struggling to keep up with. The 24-year-old midfielder has shown his undoubted talent and versatility this season, playing in a variety of positions in Ronald Koeman’s team. His best appearance for Barcelona was in the Copa del Rey final, where he scored a goal and provided two assists. Koeman has openly said that he and Lionel Messi are big fans of the Dutchman, and De Boer has also spoken to the former Dutch coach about De Jong’s influence. I have spoken to Ronald and Frankie is playing fantastic, said De Boer. Anyone can see that he is now a very big influence in the Barcelona team. Of course Messi still has a big influence, but you can already see how important De Jong is in the team and the players recognise that, and it’s also a compliment to Ronaldo for giving him that confidence. He has played three different roles, sometimes as a central defender and has done an excellent job, he has played as a controlling midfielder and most recently when Sergio Busquets played, he has played as an attacking right midfielder. De Boer, who understands what it means to represent Barcelona as he himself left Ajax to go to the Nou Camp, added: Frankie is involved in chances and goals, so I’m glad he has all those qualities and is practically multi-functional. I’m very happy for him, but it’s also good for our team that if there’s any doubt, I can always put him in a position he already had at Barcelona. He’s having great results at the moment and we hope he can keep that form for us.
He has incredible genetic talent
De Jong’s road to stardom is slightly different to that of his friend and teammate de Ligt: In his youth he was neglected because he was very skinny. He wasn’t even on Ajax’s list of the best 100 Dutch talents, given to Cruyff, Jongk and Jongkind in 2011. De Jong got his chance at Willem II and made his debut two days before his 18th birthday. Birthday in the Eredivisie – despite concerns about his size. Ajax made the late decision to sign the midfielder when director of football Marc Overmars was desperate to have him, despite little interest from other top European clubs, and Jongkind made an immediate impression. The wait is over – follow our report from Euro 2020 I’ve never seen such physical values, it’s just incredible, he said. He was the best in terms of explosiveness, and because he has such good ball control, combined with his physicality, he creates a lot of time for himself to make better decisions on the field. He was really great. It came in a new culture that we created by selecting elements from other sports – athletics, triathlon, American football, judo. We have recruited world-class coaches and athletes to create an elite sports environment, which has led to many players turning professional at a young age. Jongkind, who now works with Jongk at FC Volendam, has continued to follow the midfielder’s development. De Jong has incredible genetic talent, he added. Plus, he’s still very young, and you certainly can’t expect players like him to play flawlessly every game.
A rough diamond spotted by Bergkamp
Donny van de Beek joined Manchester United for £40million last summer, but made just four appearances in the Premier League. And then there’s Donny van de Beek. Former Ajax player and Dutch world star Dennis Bergkamp, who was considered a future first-team player at the age of 11, has also been snatched away from the Dutch club for a significant sum. Van de Beek was expected to complete the triumvirate of former Ajax players that would lead the Dutch team to the European Championships, but his career has stalled after a switch to Manchester United, although de Boer has a place in the team. At the age of 11 he was already a Bergkamp, says Jongkind. I worked one-on-one with Donnie on his movement, and Bergkamp told me then – I remember where it was and what field – he said: Donnie, he has great potential, he has first team potential, I can see him seeing the spaces already. Dennis realized this early on – it was a rough diamond that needed a lot of polishing. He’s developed a lot technically because Yonk has always used him as a six, but we said he needed to develop as an eight as well, to improve his attacking skills and recognise where he can get into the penalty area, how he can create space for someone else. A little more dynamism was needed, because he is very good at the passing game, but for his development it was better to play at other positions. When he started playing with the rest of the team in the later years of the academy, between the ages of 15 and 18, he really started to develop. Jongkind believes the creative midfielder can overcome his recent setback. I think he will do well and eventually adjust, he added. Development is coming in leaps and bounds and he’s still a long way from his optimal performance age of 27/28, so give him some more time.