Ruthless Cody Gakpo shows Netherlands’ route to Euro 2024 glory

Ruthless Cody Gakpo shows Netherlands’ route to Euro 2024 glory

For the first time in 16 years, the Netherlands have made it through to a European Championship quarter-final. For a nation which has won the Euros before, it has been an extraordinary period of underperformance in the competition, including one outright failure to qualify at all.

Given this run of non-achievement came on the back of five successive super-impressive outings between 1988 and 2004 – champions, semis, quarters, semis, semis – it makes their return now to the last eight all the more welcome, all the more important and all the more surprising.

Welcome, because of their history, their support, their colour, the nostalgia they bring and more. Important, for the nation itself: Dutch football hasn’t had a tremendous time with manager turnover, the failure to reach the 2018 World Cup and the relative lack of sustained progress at club level in continental competitions.

And surprising because… to be blunt, this isn’t a vintage group of Dutch players. There are some tremendously talented individuals, but they had yet to show they are a great team and a handful of star operators are either playing not fully sharp or missing entirely. Not to mention the fact they only finished third in their group stage.

But despite all that, or perhaps in part because of it and the way the Euro 2024 draw has opened up, they are through: 3-0 winners over Romania in a fairly one-sided match in Munich which showed both the promise of the Oranje and the improvements they still have to make to go the distance – but also where Ronald Koeman has got it right.

Namely, on this occasion, fixing the biggest problems in the centre of midfield by restoring Tijjani Reijnders to the double pivot. Also, by freeing the right flank somewhat more to get Denzel Dumfries into areas he can cause issues. But mostly, by having Xavi Simons and Cody Gakpo in close proximity to each other: the two Dutch attackers who have been consistently dangerous and looking closest to their best levels in Germany.

The same cannot be said for Memphis Depay, the focal front man still struggling with his first touch, his sharpness on the turn and, most of all, his finishing. Still getting up to speed after barely playing at club level the past four months, Depay looked ever more exasperated as he put a free kick wide, failed to reach a Dumfries ball into the six-yard box and only got studs to what should have been a simple finish from even closer to goal.

For Gakpo, there was yet again no such issue with his finishing.

Gakpo scored and assisted in a convincing win (AP)

It’s two tournaments in a row now he has hit three goals for his country, after a signature move this time around: cutting in off the left, beating a man, burying a finish inside the near post.

That gave the Dutch the lead, the settling of any nerves and the reason to keep feeding him with regularity. Gakpo did score again, ruled offside by half the width of his shin that time by the semi-automated technology, but he again holds parity for the Golden Boot with Georges Mikautadze and co.

His link play with Simons was at times simply too much for Romania to cope with, even if it was fairly basic in form – and not exploited as often as it might be. The young PSG star is clearly on a crusade to net himself: the exuberance and inexperience of that desperation was on show at times with his decision-making, but often he earned the right to spurn those chances after good work off the ball, clever footwork and picking up smart positions.

That said, he failed to free Gakpo for another chance because he wanted to shoot, and was left frustrated for the same reason in reverse shortly after.

The combination works but Koeman and his coaching staff must make sure it is a symbiotic one, not one of forced convenience when it suits either one.

Romania did have their chances. They were bold to start and brave throughout, even if opportunities to counter did not come along often enough. Dennis Man’s fierce strike over the bar when cutting in on his left foot was one such occasion in the first half, shortly before putting another wide from closer range.

But their breakaways faded after the break and their prospects even more so after yet more good work from Gakpo.

Donyell Malen came on at half time and scored twice (AFP/Getty)

Beating two down the left channel, he kept the ball in play when others had given it up and just found the energy to toe-poke a pass to sub Donyell Malen, who had an open goal to knock into from three yards. With the last kick of the game, Malen added his second with a brilliant driving solo run and finish, which had the bizarre sight of goalkeeper Florin Nita kicking a shoe out of his way seconds beforehand, apparently left behind by a pitch invader.

A convincing win for the Dutch, even if not against anything approaching a superpower or any kind of constant attacking threat. That might matter far less, though, than Koeman finding a few answers that worked and seeing those vital starters show form and confidence ahead of a much bigger test next time out.

The Oranje are back where they belong, in the latter stages of the Euros – and might have found the keys to go even further.