Ronald Koeman’s side offer up a rousing performance but England centre-half comes unstuck in Nations League
There was a moment of double-take deep into the second half of a steamy, slightly wild Nations League semi-final at the Estádio D Afonso Henriques. Frenkie de Jong took the ball in his own penalty area facing the Dutch goal and straight away heard the thundering hooves of Fabian Delph at his back, the white shirts sensing a turnover.
De Jong did something surprising. He slowed to a walk, floated left, half-turned, then flipped back the other way. Without looking up, but sure in his movements, he fizzed a hard, flat pass out 40 yards to a free orange shirt, the weight of the day, the breath of Delph, the dying moments of a semi-final, falling away from his shoulders like an evening mist.
In the first half he had done something similar in the centre circle, taking the ball and changing direction three times before deciding which way to move, feet moving at different angles from the average human biped. Some footballers run like thoroughbreds. Some run like carthorses. De Jong is like a footballing unicorn, all magic dust and rainbows and feet that barely leave an imprint. By the final whistle he had touched the ball 108 times, and had a 97% passing accuracy, not so much running the game as elegantly ushering it along.
Fast forward seven minutes from that final whistle and John Stones found himself in the same penalty area, in almost exactly the same position, the ball suddenly at his feet. Stones also turned, also heard the sound of chasing behind him. Stones stopped, lost the ball, fell over and could only watch as Memphis Depay’s shot was palmed out, then forced in by a combination of Quincy Promes and Kyle Walker’s right leg to give Holland a decisive 2-1 lead.
Seventeen minutes later Stones again tried to play out from the back in a tight spot. His pass was intercepted. Depay crossed. The ball was volleyed high into an unguarded net by Promes, England’s defence again reduced to scrambling slapstick by its own attempts to play with patience and craft from the back.
Secondly, and in his defence, Stones has not started a league game since April. He had until that point played quite well. Mistakes do simply happen sometimes. And third, if there are errors playing out from the back this is often a function of the lack of options in front. England’s midfield was flat here, lacking the movement and ease on the ball that makes playing out from the back so much easier.
Gareth Southgate spoke about poor execution afterwards, and he is, of course, right. Those moments do not demonstrate some fatal flaw in England’s gameplan. But those two semi-final defeats in 11 months have brought into relief the distance left to travel. This was always a game of craft versus thrust, speed of thought versus speed of foot.
At times England’s youthful team showed the best of itself going forward. But as against Croatia last summer the points of weakness were also there, most obviously in a midfield that was outmanoeuvred for long periods by a fine Netherlands team defined by the gossamer craft of De Jong.
The progress made to this point has been all about the shift from straight lines to more subtle, varied angles. Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford had left the Dutch backline a little dazed at times. The opening goal came from that pressure. Matthijs de Ligt is never hurried. England hurried him. De Ligt is not careless. England made him careless, or flustered enough to misread a pass from Marten de Roon, the ball squirming under his foot. Rashford came sniping in to pinch it. De Ligt stumbled, stuck out a foot, made contact in the area. Rashford put away the penalty.
England’s energy dissipated as the game wore on. The equaliser, headed in by De Ligt, was deserved, as was the Netherlands victory. In the end England were schooled by a Dutch team who play their game but play it more naturally, for whom this is not a slogan or a set of rules, but a style of football that has been bred deep into the system since Rinus Michels and all that. It felt like the end of a cycle: Southgate will hope it is the beginning of another.