The Netherlands’ breathless 3-2 win over Ukraine was as close to perfect as tournament football gets.
A balmy Sunday evening with all the windows open, two attacking sides both with a compelling narrative, Clive Tyldesley and Ally McCoist on commentary; it really does not get much better than this.
Going into the tournament there were fears that teams would be setting up conservatively due to the added protection of the qualifying spots for the best third-placed sides. While it is too early to say whether these predictions were entirely wide of the mark, any concerns that Frank de Boer’s side would be playing for a draw were put to bed about five minutes into this classic.
Football tactics represent a constant battle between competing philosophies, and against Ukraine De Boer was heavily influenced by the ‘no midfield, just vibes’ school of thought.
He set his charges up in a nominal 3-5-2 with a back three of Jurrien Timber, Stefan de Vrij and Daley Blind. Patrick van Aanholt and Denzel Dumfries were selected as the wing-backs and both pushed extremely high and wide in possession. So far, so normal.
The real intrigue arrived when it became clear how midfielders Georginio Wijnaldum and Martin de Roon would be used. Right from the first whistle both players pushed forward at will, leaving the silky Frenkie de Jong to pull the strings from deep with help from Blind and Timber.
At times, the Dutch had as many as six players disrupting their opponent’s backline, all of whom – aside from Wout Weghorst perhaps – were capable of dropping between the lines to sow panic into Ukraine’s ranks.
This wonderfully mad system was not just great to watch, it also provided us with a timely reminder of just how good Wijnaldum is. For most of his time at Liverpool – but especially this season – Jurgen Klopp’s system necessitated him playing in a fairly reserved midfield role.
Let off his leash while on international duty he was not going to let his chance to attack go to waste. Operating mainly in the right half-space he engaged in some electrifying combinations with Dumfries and caught the eye with several driving runs.
This was not the only area that he went to work, though. Wijnaldum’s heat map showed a significant amount of touches down the left-hand side, as well as in his tried and tested deeper midfield area.
Most impressive of all were his touches in and around the penalty area. It has been a long time since we have seen Wijnaldum operating as a de-facto attacking midfielde,r but that was exactly what he did against Ukraine. In the first half he had a seemingly unstoppable shot well saved and he went one better after the break, showing composure to finish emphatically from just outside the 18-yard box.
Paris Saint-Germain, the club he will be joining after the tournament, will have watched his display with interest. He may have been bought with his Liverpool profile in mind, but against Ukraine he proved he has the potential to return far more than the two league goals he managed this season.