In the days leading up to the Netherlands’ Euro 2020 matchday two fixture against Austria, there were bucketloads of questions over Frank de Boer’s decision to continue playing three at the back. The fans weren’t happy about it, and the players didn’t seem to be either.
Although the Oranje gave us the most entertaining match of the tournament so far in their opening game – a 3-2 win against Ukraine – the disharmony at the back was there for all to see.
A 2-0 second half lead was thrown away in just four minutes late on, as Andriy Yarmolenko’s 75th minute stunner and Roman Yaremchuk’s 79th minute header levelled the tie before Denzel Dumfries’ late winner.
For the first, admittedly, we should admire the strike first and foremost. But looking deeper, the shoddy defending is apparent. Stefan de Vrij, who was at the heart of the back three on the night, was clumsily pulled out of position in his attempt to press Yarmolenko, while Nathan Ake failed to fill in, thus creating the opportunity for the West Ham winger to cut in and unleash his effort – and what an effort it was.
The second was born out of a lack of leadership, with Yaremchuk all too easily evading the Netherlands’ defensive line from a set piece, getting goal side of his man and heading home.
Such weak mistakes were nowhere to be seen on matchday two as the Oranje brushed aside Austria in a comfortable 2-0 win. De Boer stuck to his guns, they still played three at the back; so what changed?
Quite simply, Matthijs De Ligt.
The Juventus man, who was previously out with a groin injury, was exactly what had been missing from their previous fixture. Throughout their 2-0 win against Das Team, De Ligt was totally aware and alert to every angle, meaning he could organise his back three, cover his colleagues when they stepped forward to press and, most importantly, keep the balance and stability at the back.
Unlike matchday one, when measly, unsuccessful challenges allowed Ukraine opportunities to pull themselves back into the game, De Ligt was a brick wall to anything that came into the box. One notable moment came in the first half, when Christoph Baumgartner forged his way past two or three challenges and unleashed a strike heading for the roof of the net.
What stopped it? De Ligt’s forehead. And the centre back was straight back up on his feet, shielding the ball until Maarten Stekelenburg rushed out to grasp it.
His level of focus and commitment transmitted onto his colleagues throughout and, most tellingly, late on in proceedings.
The Oranje were under pressure as Franco Foda’s side looked to pull a goal back and, while Ukraine found a way through on Sunday, De Ligt ensured that each man was doing his duty – arms out to signal where the back line needed to be and voice belting out to command those around him.
He may be 21, but he is without a doubt a leader on the pitch. His staggering composure, focus and consistent quality throughout the course of 90 minutes make an XI a much better team with him included. When comparing the Netherlands’ 3-2 victory over Ukraine to their 2-0 triumph over Austria on Thursday night, it’s as clear as day.