The numbers game: Netherlands coach Koeman looks to ditch fan favorite 4-3-3 setup at Euro 2024

AMSTERDAM (AP) — Few aficionados in European soccer obsess about numbers the way the Dutch do.

Like 4-3-3. Or 5-3-2. There’s also the traditional 4-4-2, and even 4-2-3-1. But mostly, in their part of the world, it’s all about 4-3-3.

As baffling and bewildering as those digits may look to some, each of them relate to a specific soccer formation. And for Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman, as he hones his squad for the European Championship in Germany, maybe the numbers game has gone too far.

“We in the Netherlands sometimes talk too much about systems,” Koeman told Dutch national broadcaster NOS in a sideline interview before his team — playing 5-3-2 (five defenders, three midfielders, two forwards) — beat Greece 3-0 in Amsterdam in a Euro 2024 qualifier.

The Dutch fixation with the formation of four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards is rooted in the golden age of the small nation’s soccer history.

The 4-3-3 system was the bedrock for the “Clockwork Orange” brand of soccer, led by the mercurial genius of Johan Cruyff that took the Netherlands to two world cup finals in the 1970s and three straight European titles for Ajax from 1971-73. Cruyff starred in the 1974 World Cup, but did not play in 1978.

Most Dutch fans still want their national team to set up that way.

Koeman wanted to, as well. He said as much when he was introduced for his second stint as coach.

“In the Netherlands we try to play — and that is often the most difficult path — good, attractive, attacking soccer,” he said.

But after months in the job, he said before the Greece match in September that he wasn’t seeing the progress he wanted playing 4-3-3 and switched to a system based on five defenders — including two wingbacks who roam up the sides almost like traditional wingers.

Koeman argues that with the likes of Inter Milan defender Denzel Dumfries surging up the right flank, the system of five defenders is an attacking formation while also providing a solid back line.

“We want to be creative,” he said when he announced his 26-man Euro 2024 squad. “It should not be boring soccer and it will not be.”

While the Dutch soccer teams of the ’70s overachieved on the world stage, the nation is also known for falling agonizingly short at the World Cup — it has reached three finals and lost them all.

The country picked up its only major international trophy in — could this be an omen? — West Germany at the 1988 European Championship.

At that tournament, a more traditional 4-4-2 system gave the Dutch a solid defensive and midfield base and striker Marco van Basten provided the attacking sparkle. His volley against the Soviet Union in the final is widely considered to be one of soccer’s greatest goals.

Koeman, a key player in the 1988 tournament, has been chopping and changing — sometimes in the middle of a match — to find the right system for his current batch of players.

The 4-3-3 formation is drilled into youngsters at the famed youth academy of Dutch powerhouse Ajax. But the Amsterdam club has hardly been a shining example of fluent soccer this season, as the four-time European champions lurched from one humiliating defeat to another, at one stage sitting in last place in the Dutch league and ultimately crawling up the standings to end up in fifth place, a whopping 35 points behind champion PSV Eindhoven.

Only two Ajax players are in Koeman’s squad for the June 14-July 14 tournament in Germany — forwards Steven Bergwijn and Brian Brobbey.

Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong is working to be ready on time after a late season ankle injury. Koeman said he expects De Jong to be fit in time for the Netherlands’ opening match against Poland on June 16 in Hamburg, though he didn’t know if he’d be able to play the full 90 minutes.

The Netherlands will play one of the tournament favorites, France, as well as Poland and Austria in Group D.


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