Total Dutch collapse: leaderless Netherlands outmuscled by Czechs

Farewell then, the Netherlands 2021. Never mind total football: this was a total collapse. And not just a simple collapse, but an abject, jaw-dropping collapse, the kind of collapse you can see happening in front of you in real time, like a slow-motion car crash.

Thrown by the second half dismissal of Matthijs de Ligt, a Dutch team that came romping out of the blocks in Budapest, all regal vim and pep, was transformed at a stroke into a sagging orange soufflé.

The Czechs were hugely deserved victors. What a likeable, clever, well-organised team they are. They have a quarter-final to savour now. But let us linger, for a moment on the Dutch, and the spectacle of a genuine collapse, a panic-fright. Welcome to the anatomy of a bottling.

It takes something to reach this stage of a tournament, and then produce this kind of mid-air stall. But between the 54th and 68th minutes the Netherlands simply unravelled in Budapest, as a balanced goalless game transformed into a world of stumbles, flaps and panics.

De Ligt can be a cumbersome footballer. He often seems to find himself scrambling, scrabbling, grabbing shirts. With 54 minutes gone Patrik Schick wriggled around him as the ball was played through. De Ligt stumbled, slipped, then couldn’t turn quickly enough.

It was there, laid out in those individual shutter frames, that De Ligt sensed the moment getting away from him. Thighs pumping, hands scrambling for a hold, he fell on the ball, hooking it with his arm.

It was an absurd thing to do in the time of VAR. A yellow card was flourished, then upgraded to a straight red after a check of the screen. Schick had a clear goalscoring chance had De Ligt not handled, with the intent to cheat an opponent who had got the better of him.

De Ligt left the pitch distraught. For a £67m defender, he has such an obvious weakness in his basic athleticism, a footballer who looks utterly commanding, as long as you don’t ask him to turn around very quickly.

Down to 10 men, the Dutch basically collapsed. Nobody spoke, nobody gathered the team. Nobody barked orders. Instead they simply shrank from the moment. There is no rule that states teams that are one man down must out of necessity defend desperately, paddling instantly for dear life. But that was exactly what Holland did, a team confounded by adversity.

The Dutch were trapped, unable to make a pass, unable to move upfield through the thick, muscular white wall in front of them. Nobody wanted the ball. There was no safe place, nowhere to rest.

Finally something horrible happened. Infected with that white noise, Maarten Stekelenburg fumbled a low cross just past his own post. Behind him the Czech fans, already gripped with a shared wave of noise, roared and jeered and summoned out of the air what was so clearly about to happen.

And from a free-kick shortly after, the Czechs duly scored. It was a well-executed, oddly humiliating goal as Tomas Kalas nodded the ball back across the six-yard box, the white shirts playing a kind of beach volleyball in the ruins of a stricken Dutch defence. From there it was butted in neatly by Tomas Holes.

A word on Holes, who had a wonderful game. In the opening exchanges he played so deep in midfield the Czechs were basically a five-man backline. It was rugged, awkward, well-drilled, and it drew the early sting from the Dutch attacks.

There had been has been a careless, joyful kind of potency about Frank de Boer’s team coming into this game, although the Netherlands had yet to play a team that might punish them. The streets of Budapest had been crammed with a bobbing, yodelling, gleeful morass of orange before the game. And they began like a team running on that sense of euphoria.

Memphis Depay had his first little twirl and surge with four minutes gone. His role in this Dutch team is a forward position best described as roving goal-fun runner or advanced skill gadabout. Here, though, he twinkled then faded.

For a while Frenkie de Jong threatened to run the game. De Jong is such a joy to watch, a gambolling sprite, a reed who bends in the wind, barely disturbing he lay of the grass. At times, in full flow, he almost looks like a parody of Dutchness, a Total Football replicant forged in some high-end gene lab outside Amsterdam.

But the Czechs were far from passive, covering and tackling with zest and then launching their own counters. Tomas Soucek followed De Jong for a while, closing his space, shutting off his angles. Side by side they looked like a study in human variety: the slender princeling and his muscle-bound retainer. But Soucek is a footballer of real craft too, and he succeeded in cutting that supply. De Jong faded. The Dutch went to half-time looking a little rattled.

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Then came that gloriously painful collapse, a collapse that could be read in the faces, the panicked passes, the bafflement of De Boer, who seemed to reach some kind of end point of his own here.

With 10 minutes left the Netherlands again failed to deal with a high ball, which was nodded back into the run of Holes, transformed suddenly into a barrel-chested, bullocking figure. His touch found Schick unmarked, who tucked the ball home with a pleasing severity. The Czechs applied pressure and found an opponent who simply gave way like a weak stud wall.


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