One defeat and two draws in a week - Frank de Boer would have hoped for a better start to his tenure as Netherlands head coach. But the final fixture in the triple header, Wednesday’s Nations League away match against Italy, silenced at least some of his critics.
There was widespread disappointment one week ago, on Wednesday, 7 October, with both the result and the Netherlands’ performance at a friendly tie against Mexico. The guests controlled much of the game at an empty Johan Cruyff Arena in Amsterdam and handed De Boer a 1-0 defeat on his first match in charge. The new Netherlands coach had chosen to experiment with a different line-up and rest a number of key players in the run-up to two Nations League fixtures, turning his team into easy prey for the solid Mexican side.
De Boer admitted to reporters that the result was “anything but pleasant”, but he added, “This was a practice match. You could give the excuse that not all the best guys played. We know that someone like Frenkie de Jong is very important, and he was missing.” Slightly irritated, De Boer noted: “I don’t think I’m the first national coach to lose on his debut."
Of course, Frenkie de Jong and other top players were included in Sunday’s line-up against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Nations League, but that didn’t seem to make much of a difference. Facing a very compact and defensive side, the Netherlands again performed poorly, despite a string of excellent scoring opportunities late into the game. “Five major chances, surely you’ve got to convert at least one of them,” De Boer commented after the match. The sentiment was shared by his captain, Virgil van Dijk: “The Oranje should be able to win a game like this…”
With Poland holding leaders Italy to another goalless draw, the result in Bosnia didn’t affect the standings in Nations League Group A1: the Netherlands remained runners-up with four points from three matches.
To retain their chances of winning the group and booking a berth to the finals, the Oranje needed at least a draw in Wednesday’s clash against Italy. And that’s what they managed to achieve. The hosts opened the score after 16 minutes, with Lorenzo Pelligrini taking advantage of a major marking error. Nine minutes later, Donny van de Beek equalised from close range in an attack set up by Frenkie de Jong. Both teams created many more scoring opportunities, but the match ended in a one-all draw.
After the disappointment earlier in the week, the result felt like a victory. “Kudos to the coach”, Van Dijk told reporters immediately after the match. “This was a fine achievement, we worked very hard and deserved the point. We know what we’re capable of, but we have to show it.”
Obviously, there was relief on the part of the embattled coach. Again, he had experimented, this time with a 5-3-2 formation. “Drastic measures were necessary, we only had one training session to prepare, but there was no other option.” De Boer said he knew failure would bring massive controversy and more criticism. “But we got the better of the game and this draw against a very strong side will bring us some rest and calm. It means we can talk about football again.”
On Tuesday evening, the Under 21 qualified for next year's European Championships by trouncing Cyprus away 7-0. Because the results in the other groups were favourable, the Netherlands are already assured of participation in the first phase of the European Championships in Hungary and Slovenia, next March.