This is why you don’t put too much stock in the group stage

Czech Republic handles the Netherlands easily, 2-0

Dutch fans are sad.
Dutch fans are sad.
Photo: Getty Images

It wasn’t so long ago that the European Championships were kind of perfect, in that it all made sense. Only 16 teams made it, which is just about the same amount of European teams that make the World Cup, so rarely were there true no-hopers in the draw. Four groups of four meant teams couldn’t duck each other, and seeing as how only the top two in each group advanced, every game meant something.

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The expansion to 24 teams in 2016 certainly dulled the group stage, though it has given the round of 16 some unpredictability. Still, with the cushion that four of the six third-place teams will advance, and the diluting of the groups themselves, it’s hard to know how hard teams are really going in the first three games and how much those mean. Think how different the group of death between France, Germany, and Portugal would have looked if one of them was going home after the group stage no matter what (which Germany and Portugal flirted with briefly anyway, but got out of with draws where one would have needed a win in the old format).

The Netherlands were one of the darlings of the group stage, pretty much leathering Ukraine, Austria, and North Macedonia at home — except for a 10-minute spell against Ukraine that saw them give up two goals. After missing the last two major tournaments, if you didn’t think about it too hard, it felt like the Dutch were not only back in tournament soccer, but at the head of the table again.

Whoops.

Being managed by Frank De Boer is never a good start, and Atlanta United fans today must be feeling pretty damn smug. But international soccer can be very weird, given the health and fatigue of the players and different sets of opponents that can have little in common.

In the group stage, none of the Dutch’s opponents ever really tested them, and certainly none of them got right up into the Dutch’s face like the Czech Republic did today. Those clad in orange will point to Matthijs De Ligt’s red card as the turning point, but the Dutch didn’t have a shot on target before that and had been nullified. If the game was turned, it was from even or slightly in the Czechs favor to only more so.

How? As we said in the previews of the tourney, the Czechs are one of the few international teams that want to press high. According to WhoScored.com, the Dutch lost possession in their own half 11 times in their loss today. That happened just four times against North Macedonia. It was five against Austria. It was five against Ukraine as well. The Czechs attempted nine tackles around the Dutch box, evidence of their hunger to win the ball back quickly. Holland’s group opponents managed to combine for just seven over three games. .

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As you can see from this graph under “Chalkboard” and “Tackles Attempted”, the Czechs were intent on shutting down Holland’s left side of Danny Blind and Patrick van Aanholt.

Kill the body, the head will die. Cutting off the Dutch at the back meant the midfield was starved, which meant the forwards didn’t have much to work with. Gini Wijnaldum, pretty much the attacking fulcrum for the Dutch at the head of midfield, had 26 touches all game. He only attempted 16 passes. He didn’t have a shot. Memphis Depay had one shot. Depay had just three touches in the area. Compare that with the 10 he had in the area against North Macedonia.

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De Boer will point to van Aanholt’s miss right before De Ligt’s dismissal, which he will also point to, as things out of his control that sent the Dutch home. But he won’t and shouldn’t get off that clean. Not only did De Boer have this team completely flummoxed by an opponent that bothered to press them and didn’t roll out a red carpet for them to come out of defense, but De Boer froze after the card. He moved van Aanholt to center back, which he’s rarely played. His first sub after going down to 10 men was an attacking winger in Quincy Promes. He didn’t bring on another defender until they were already down to two goals. The defending on the set piece that led to the Czech’s opener would be best described as “day care center when the ice cream truck rolls by.” There was no destroyer in midfield to keep the Czechs from rolling through, which led to their second.

The Dutch looked great in the group stage. That and $3 gets you on the subway.