The Netherlands are beginning to resemble a juggernaut no other nation will relish trying to halt. Two goals from Georginio Wijnaldum made the captain Euro 2020’s joint top-scorer on three, as his side ended Group C as emphatic winners.
Frank de Boer’s men have returned a perfect nine points via results of 3-2, 2-0 and now 3-0. The 3-5-2 the head coach switched to before the tournament will no longer be questioned, and common sense suggests that the Oranje will be better again in Sunday’s last-16 tie in Budapest.
From kick-off the vibe in the stadium was heavily feelgood, first because of the Netherlands’ form, and second as this contest was the swansong (and 122nd cap) for the remarkable Goran Pandev. North Macedonia’s captain, though, had to watch as the opening effort flew from the boot of Ryan Gravenberch, a 19-year-old whose inclusion ranked him as the third youngest starter for the Dutch at a major tournament.
Further probing came when Wijnaldum rolled Donyell Malen in along the left but the second of De Boer’s changes failed to find Memphis Depay. Next, the latter’s pass for Wijnaldum was again misdirected before, moments later, Depay fired clear across Stole Dimitrievski’s goal.
Already a pattern of a Netherlands thrust against North Macedonia parry was set. Igor Angelovski’s team hoped to provide an impenetrable shield against the relentless Oranje, then look for the chance of a quick raid. They showed how when Ivan Trichkovski broke free and beat Maarten Stekelenburg, but the No 7 was offside. A second home fright came when Aleksandar Trajkovski’s 20-yard effort smacked off the goalkeeper’s left post.
But now the Netherlands sucker-punched their opponent. From his half Malen tapped the ball right to Depay, who after a few strides returned it to the overlapping former Arsenal graduate. Next followed a second one-two between the pair as the ball went from Malen to Depay who stroked home a left-foot finish for his second of the competition.
The Dutch soon went close to doubling the lead but Dimitrievski blocked Malen’s attempt to play in Denzel Dumfries, whose next act was a maraud along his right corridor that, again, threatened to breach the white-shirted defence. North Macedonia, though, were intent on keeping the Netherlands honest. Arijan Ademi fashioned a run that had him twisting in front of Stekelenburg before Matthijs de Ligt stepped in to hoof the ball clear.
De Boer had bemoaned how ball retention in the previous outing against Austria was not “very Dutch”. While possession might have been better this time – at the close their mark was 56% against 44 – it hardly mattered, as his team were in charge, led by Depay and Gravenberch, who thrummed with invention.
De Boer had been asked in the buildup if he might switch to a 4-3-3 and in the second half he made this change. This new configuration came after Stefan de Vrij, a central defender, was replaced at the break by Jurriën Timber, who went to right-back, while Dumfries was superseded by Steven Berghuis, who was further advanced on the wing.
The head coach saw his tinkering reap dividends as North Macedonia were instantly overrun and went close to crumbling. De Ligt had a header repelled off the goalline by Trichkovksi and then the Dutch scored a second that felt inevitable. Depay had been close to rampant throughout and here he tore another hole in the opponent’s rearguard with a pass that the lurking Wijnaldum stroked home.
This had the Johan Cruyff Arena in raptures, a mood that continued when a slick sequence involving Frenkie De Jong and Depay had the latter’s strike parried by the unfortunate Dimitrievski straight into Wijnaldum’s path, Paris Saint-Germain’s new signing securing a third goal in three outings to draw alongside Cristiano Ronaldo and Patrik Schick at the head of the Golden Boot charts.
With 22 minutes left off went Pandev to a heartening ovation. If this was not the way “the King” wanted to end two decades of national service, his is a CV to warm him in his retirement. The Netherlands may just be creating their own indelible memories, too.