Netherlands cannot produce a good striker anymore – and that is a big problem

Wout Weghorst of Netherlands in training/Netherlands cannot produce a good striker anymore – and that is a big problem

When you reflect on great Netherlands sides of the past, you think of silky football and world-class strikers. From the legendary Johan Cruyff to Marco van Basten; Patrick Kluivert to Robin van Persie.

It is not just those of us who grew up admiring Dutch football, marvelling at the consistent ability of a small European nation to produce so many wonderful attacking players. It is the Dutch, too. Which is why the country is struggling to love Ronald Koeman’s 2024 vintage.

The Netherlands will travel to Germany as nothing more than an outside bet to reach the latter stages. There is a general mood of pessimism among the public and media alike, with a quarter-final exit the anticipated outcome just as it used to be for England.

Much of that is down to the lack of firepower in attack, where the Burnley and former Manchester United loanee, Wout Weghorst, is - perhaps unfairly - castigated as a symbol of decline.

The 31-year-old, who spent last season on loan at Hoffenheim, has scored some important goals for his country, not least in their narrow World Cup quarter-final defeat to eventual champions Argentina back in 2022. He also scored the winner against the Republic of Ireland that confirmed qualification for the tournament and again in a comfortable 4-0 thrashing of Canada in a friendly, pre-tournament.

But Weghorst is not a typical Dutch striker in the romantic sense of the word, where his main competition comes from Ajax youngster Brian Brobbey. Much is expected of another former Manchester United star in Memphis Depay, but he has struggled with injuries all season and the 30-year-old has just been released by his club Atletico Madrid.

Memphis Depay's form for the Netherlands is a big talking point
Memphis Depay's form for the Netherlands is a big talking point - Getty Images/Luciano Lima

“It’s not very positive, really,” said Willem Vissers, a sports journalist for the respected Volkskrant newspaper. “There are not many people in Holland who think we are going to be successful.

“The most difficult thing is we do not have top attackers. We are famous in the world for our attacking players, from Cruyff to Kluivert, from Van Basten to Van Persie and Robben. They were some of the best in the world in their time and that is something we have lacked for a while.

“When we were successful in tournaments, we always had world-class strikers. Van Basten in 1988, Van Persie and Robben in 2014 and of course Cruyff in the 70s. And we don’t have them now, that is why Dutch people are not so enthusiastic at the moment.

“We don’t know why this is. If we knew we would fix it. Most people think it is to do with the coaching, that young players are not able to be as free anymore; that there are too many restrictions and it is always ‘move the ball, pass the ball, don’t dribble with the ball’. It is down to the youth departments, but we don’t know precisely.”

‘Good players but not great players’

Despite coming close in the 70s, inspired by Cruyff and the invention of Total Football - where players were comfortable on the ball in every position on the pitch - the Netherlands have won only one major tournament.

For those of us whose formative years coincided with that 1988 side of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit and the majestic Van Basten, who was the tournament’s top goalscorer, the Dutch have always been of fascination. The 1988 tournament was also held in Germany, but few are expecting history to repeat itself.

“We have a lot of very good defenders,” explained Vissers. “It is remarkable but we have six, maybe even eight central defenders who are really quite good.”

Vissers also talked up the strength of midfielders Tijjani Reijnders of AC Milan and Joey Veerman, although the late withdrawals from the squad by Frenkie de Jong and Teun Koopmeiners have damaged the group.

While 21-year-old goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen gets a namecheck, there is no avoiding the issues up front, where Depay’s form is a big talking point. Vissers added: “He always seems to be injured before tournaments and does not play as well as he can. It happened in the last Euros and at the World Cup in Qatar as well. It’s the same now, he has had a lot of small injuries.

“He has no rhythm. Koeman has said he has been looking very good and very sharp in training, but also admitted he has said that before and then he got injured again. If Depay is injured, we have a big problem. Brobbey is a big talent but he is only 22 and he also gets injured.

“We have Cody Gakpo, who had a very good season with Liverpool, but we do not have an Mbappe, a Kane or a Lewandowski. We don’t have a real top striker, someone who is in the top five in the world.

Ronald Koeman has a mixed rating with fans
Ronald Koeman has a mixed rating with fans - AP/Julian Stratenschulte

“We have good players but not great ones. Then there is Weghorst. He is not always popular because he is big and clumsy sometimes, not how Dutch people like their strikers, but he has scored some important goals for us.

”He was an amateur player who has worked really hard to get to the top, but he is not a player we like to see who can play football, who can do everything.”

‘Koeman is not as popular as he was’

And then there is the manager himself. Koeman was a wonderful player for the national side and had a successful first spell as international boss, but is viewed with some suspicion after he left that job abruptly for Barcelona back in 2020.

The style of football, which is designed to make the team hard to beat rather than a joy to watch, also grates with public expectations.

“Koeman is not as popular as he was,” explained Vissers. “He is known as a coach who leaves for new things. He left Eindhoven for Valencia, he left the Holland team for Barcelona. He said it was a train he had to jump on. People are always saying, ‘when will the next train come?’ People are a little bit cynical about him.

“He has changed tactics, from 4-3-3 to 5-3-2. [Louis] Van Gaal did the same. It is pragmatic because we don’t have the attacking players. That is the thinking.

“It is not very inspiring for the Dutch, but we are a team that is hard to beat, I think. The team has had some bad periods in games but he thinks this is the best way.

“I think we are a team that might cause problems if we grow into the tournament. We are not overly confident. We are not one of the favourites, they are Germany, England, Spain and Portugal and we are behind that, but we do not lose many games. Anything more than a quarter-final will be a big success.”