It’s still hard to believe that for a team with the history of The Netherlands — three-time World Cup finalist, Euro ‘88 champion — that their recent history doesn’t even include qualification as an automatic. They missed the last World Cup, and 2016’s Euros. The latter was the first European Championships to be expanded to 24 teams, so missing it took some real doing. This was a team that just forgot to develop a generation of players after their 2010 Final appearance against Spain. And while they were able to waddle their way torturously to a semifinal in Brazil, the lack of a next generation to take over from that one meant that they missed out on two major tournaments.
Whether they have the blend right now is still kind of questionable, and going back to the future in having Louis van Gaal as manager probably means we’ll get more of the turgid stuff we got after their upset of Spain in the group stage in Brazil, but needing maybe the most ridiculous Arjen Robben dive (which is saying something) to get past Mexico and a penalty shootout to get past Costa Damn Rica. That penalty shootout included van Gaal subbing his keeper at the end of extra time so that Tim Krul could face the penalties. Which worked, and resulted in van Gaal being up his own ass even more than he already was (which is also saying something).
The Dutch returned to the big time in last year’s Euros, where they looked dynamite playing at home in the group stage, tuning up Ukraine, North Macedonia, and Austria to the combined score of 8-2. But then it was the Czechs in the Round of 16, they completely shat themselves, and were out.
And the problem in that game still looks to be a problem in the upcoming ones. Memphis Depay looked very worthy of signing for Barcelona in the summer of 2021 during that group stage in Amsterdam, scoring two goals and adding two assists. And then he went missing with everyone else when it really mattered, managing just one off-target shot against Czechia. And this Dutch squad hasn’t really moved on from him as one of the strikers in van Gaal’s 3-4-1-2.
Depay is still pretty much a nailed-on starter, and they rotate Vincent Janssen or Steven Bergwijn around him, neither of whom can be counted on for much more than being present. When the chips are down, the Dutch will still look to Depay to be a force, something he’s proven he can’t do against quality competition.
The Dutch’s other source of goals from midfield won’t be around either this time, as Gini Wijnaldum broke his leg for Roma and is out for the tournament. They’ll hope that torch will be taken up by PSV’s Cody Gakpo, who has piled up nine goals and 12 assists in just 13 matches so far in the Eredivisie and very well may be the next big Dutch thing. But as Jozy Altidore proved once and Ricardo Pepi may be proving now, any jackass can pile up numbers in the Dutch league. He’ll probably play just behind the two forwards, and the Dutch will need him to make up for the noise that Depay won’t make in the knockout rounds.
It’s a shame, because the rest of this Dutch squad might be primed for big things. Yeah, Virgil van Dijk has been borderline-woeful for Liverpool at times this season, but this is his first major tourney with the Dutch and, if anything will snap him into his previous imperious form, it’s this. He’s usually flanked by Nathan Ake and Jurrien Timber. Frenkie De Jong anchors the midfield, and there’s an enviable selection of players to partner him in the center be it Davy Klaassen, or Steven Berghuis, or Teun Koopmeiners. Denzel Dumfries, though not a complete regular for Inter, can provide a threat down the right. Daley Blind had tennis balls on his boots but isn’t going to let anyone down on the other side.
But it still feels like it’ll all fall flat at the sharp end. They could easily see England in the Round of 16, who are a lot of things they shouldn’t be, but they can be miserly and not the kind of defense Depay has shown the knack for breaking through. Or they could see a heavily defensive Wales or even Iran. Argentina and France could be waiting in the quarters should they get that far.
And it’s no guarantee in the group, because Group A also has Senegal, Africa’s best team. It was a banner year already for The Lions, as they won AFCON to kick it off and then kneecapped Egypt for a second time on penalties to qualify for this tournament. However, neither was a vintage performance, as they didn’t look all that threatening in any of them and managed one goal from open play in 270 minutes. Their latest round of friendlies saw them draw once again with a Carlos Quieroz-led side, this time Iran.
And this team doesn’t lack offensive talent. Sadio Mane usually leads the line or plays on the left of the front three, opposite Ismail Sarr who’s been on the verge of a big-money move from Watford for what seems like 10 years now. They’re usually accompanied by Boulaye Dia, who is scoring on half his shots for Salernitana in Serie A at the moment. But manager Aliou Cissé likes to keep it close to the vest, and basically counts on his three forwards to conjure something while the rest of the team is focused on turning the field into a trench.
Ecuador has become something of a production line for young talent these days, a lot of which you’ll see in MLS. Or on Brighton in the Premier League, as they boast three of their players, though probably not for long, as Moise Caicedo looks destined for a move to a bigger club for a dumpster full of £100 notes. Ecuador will bring the youngest team out of South America for this, and are kind of the opposite of Senegal in that they like to party (meaning goals, not that). They put four on Uruguay and six on Colombia during qualifying, and were only held scoreless three times in COMNEBOL’s marathon qualifying schedule — and two of those were away to Argentina and Brazil, both of whom they drew at home. Their recent form is a little wonky, as they threw up back-to-back 0-0 draws in friendlies with Japan and Saudi Arabia (better than the USMNT), but those were obviously friendlies. They’ll throw in a fright to one of the Dutch or Senegal at the very least.
Qatar has two advantages that they will hope will make up for the massive talent deficiency. One, they’re at home. Two, while teams will be throwing themselves together the week before the tournament and just hoping for cohesion, this one has been playing together for a while. They were guests in both the 2021 Gold Cup where they looked like a pretty tasty counterattacking side at times, and the 2019 Copa America. They were supposed to play in the 2021 Copa America as well, but before that got a whole lot of silly with scheduling and placement. They’ll have more chemistry than most, and will probably take a point off one of the other three.
Manager most likely to be red-carded: van Gaal is way too focused on making sure everyone can see him holding a binder, so we’ll go with Qatar’s Felix Sanchez. Never trust the bald guy with a beard.
Nov. 20 - Ecuador v. Qatar (11 a.m. EST)
Nov. 21 - Netherlands vs. Senegal (11 a.m. EST)
Nov. 25 - Senegal vs. Qatar (8 a.m. EST), Netherlands v. Ecuador (11 a.m. EST)
Nov. 29 - Ecuador vs. Senegal, Netherlands vs. Qatar (10 a.m. EST)