Euro 2020 has seen the return of the thoughtful, neurotic, generous and style-oriented Netherlands national team after a nine-year hiatus from the competition, with their opening game on Sunday evening resulting in a 3-2 win over Ukraine (see image on right).
Today, we will take a deep dive into the history of Dutch squad numbers at the Euros as well as how the predictable pattern in their assignment sometimes produced a surprise or two, and eventually broke free.
Euro 1988 will eternally be remembered as Marco van Basten’s coming of age; however, he wasn’t in coach Rinus Michels’ original plan. His first choice number 9 was 23-year-old John Bosman, while van Basten, who was assigned the 12 jersey, would serve as his backup.
The bondscoach would stay loyal to Totaalvoetbal’s principles together with the Dutch’s 3-3-1-3 system, utilising players who could easily interchange positions and cover up empty spaces anywhere on the field. Squad numbers where nominally assigned according to roles, with only a couple of oddities like the appointment of number 5 to youngster Aron Winter (who didn’t play at all) instead of Sjaak Troost, also 3 was given to Troost himself rather than Rijkaard, who out of personal preference chose 17.
Nevertheless, this was 1988, not the 1970’s. The original Total Football was long gone with the players that gave it life like Johan Cruijff, Rob Rensenbrink and Johan Neeskens. This was a new breed of talented competitors, so Michels had to adapt to them. The day after their initial loss to the Soviet Union, the coach decided to shake things up by switching to what he referred to as a ‘Dutch 4-3-3’, but played more as a versatile 4-4-1-1, along with giving the go-ahead to van Basten and Erwin Koeman. The rest, like they say, is history: The new system and starting eleven remained untouched en-route to winning the championship, the Dutch’s first trophy in a major competition.
The disastrous 1996 finals campaign will be remembered for the ugly side of Dutch neuroticism: a squad divided by internal competition coupled with some personal feuds, a lack of a clear vision on tactics or opponents, along with the friction between squad members and coach Guus Hiddink. This chaos was reflected in the use of a different starting eleven for each one of their matches.
Frank de Boer was set to be the first-choice left-back – the number 5 shirt in the Dutch 3-3-1-3 system, but he had to withdraw due to injury and was replaced by Jaap Stam. This marked the only time Stam had such a rare number, as he essentially played the number 3 role for his club. Curiously, he didn’t play at all in that shirt, as the duties required for the number 5 were more suited to Wiston Bogarde, who started in all four matches, played the full 90 minutes in each as well as 30 extra in the quarter-final loss to France.
Here’s the Netherlands all-time first eleven in the Euros for each number*:
1. Edwin van der Sar – 16 appearances (plus 2 on the bench)
2. Michael Reiziger – 10 appearances (plus 4 on the bench)
3. Jaap Stam – 10 appearances
4. Ronald Koeman – 9 appearances
5. Giovanni van Bronckhorst – 8 appearances (plus 2 on the bench)
6. Berry van Aerle, Phillip Cocu – 5 appearances
7. Gerald Vanenburg, Dennis Bergkamp, Phillip Cocu – 5 appearances
8. Edgar Davids – 12 appearances
9. Patrick Kluivert – 9 appearances (plus 5 on the bench)
10. Dennis Bergkamp, Ruud Gullit – 9 appearances
11. Arjen Robben – 5 appearances (plus 2 on the bench)
*It’s unusual to look at the list without iconoclasts such as Johan Cruijff, but back in their day the competition was a mini-tournament with players only appearing in a handful of matches.
Back There and Out
After their relatively successful 1998 World Cup, Euro 2000 saw more cohesion as well as unity in the squad under coach Frank Rijkaard. However, the road (of friendly matches) to the widely considered greatest Euro of all-time, proved to be a mediocre one for the Dutch. The led pressure of being co-hosts along with a group stage draw including world champions France and a Czech Republic team that went undefeated in qualifying, led to a number managerial decisions by Rijkaard to “play not to lose”. The Oranje, the KNVB, moreover their supporters wouldn’t allow for an embarrassment on their home turf; at least not until their questionable decisions in the infamous penalty shoot-out against Italy in the semi-finals.
The often adventurous and cerebral bondscoach had no option, but to adopt the safety net provided by a conservatively deployed 4-3-2-1 system, utilizing the traditional number 11 (Linksbuiten) and 10 (Schaduwspits) of the Dutch 4-3-3 as inside forwards, thus pushing down their number 7 (Rechtsbuiten) to a more central role in midfield. The latter spot was initially thought for Ronald de Boer, a natural in this position, but he was demoted to the bench before the tournament as he was not 100 percent fit. As a consequence, Phillip Cocu got the number 7 shirt. On paper, Clarence Seedorf would be the holding midfielder; a role where he was fairly decent at given his work rate, but in which he could not make the most of his skillset, meaning he switched with Cocu.
This conservative scheme endured only about 57 minutes. By the third group match, the better chemistry developed between the players saw the system fully evolve into a very fluid version of the Dutch 4-3-3 (much like a modern 4-2-3-1, with the exception of inverted wingers), while the starting lineup remained the same for the rest of the tournament, minus the semi-final absence of Arthur Numan due to injury.
Euro 2000 marked Aron Winter’s record fourth and final European Championship for the Netherlands, making him one of only five players to make the squad in at least three Euros with a different shirt number in each tournament:
1988: #5 (on the bench the whole tournament); 1992: #15; 1996: #12; 2000: #20
Frank de Boer
1992: #17; 2000: #4; 2004: #15 (and he would have been #5 in 1996 but for injury)
1996: #20# 2000: #7; 2004: #6
1996: #4; 2000: #6; 2004: #20
2004: #4; 2008: #14; 2012: #5
The Future From Above
Times have changed and football has evolved, the sport is at its athletic all-time best. This new era has seen the Dutch adapt their nominally assigned roles to the modern game. Initially, wingers changed flanks, number 11 to the right and 7 to the left, yet defence, midfield and forward number appointments remained the same through the mid 2010s. This led up to the past few years, with veterans and key players being granted by the KNVB the option to choose their preferred number regardless of their role on the pitch or starter status.
In this sense, this year’s Euro will see Nathan Aké, who is considered a rising star and replaced Virgil van Dijk, wear the number 4. Furthermore, Matthijs de Ligt almost exclusively wore 3 during qualifying and friendlies and will wear it again. By contrast, Frenkie de Jong, one the world’s most versatile central midfielders, will invariably sport his preferred number 21 despite being a starter. The backbone provided by these players, coupled with the imagination of players like Memphis Depay or Georginio Wijnaldum, who will be consistently using the 10 and 8 shirts respectively regardless of their playing position, could provide the cornerstone for a new Oranje Revolution.