A torrential and sustained downpour from mid-afternoon onwards left many players tottering on the Estadio D. Afonso Henrique turf during the opening exchanges of Netherlands’ 3-1 extra-time win over England, which booked a showdown with hosts Portugal in Sunday’s Nations League finale.
Maybe it was the fatigue of 10 gruelling months crashing into early June, but they often skittered in a similar manner to some of the taxi drivers on the sodden ring road near to the ground a couple of hours earlier.
The only man navigating every stuttering twist and turn in all-weather tyres was Frenkie de Jong.
On an evening where the steady drip of errors largely prevented a football match from breaking out – a John Stones error leading to a Kyle Walker own goal felt like a fitting key moment – De Jong was implausibly smooth, sliding into pockets of space he always knew how to find around the base of the Dutch midfield.
Every stride brought craft and purpose, the clear picture picked out of the blur of orange ahead of him.
De Jong showed the idea of him going to Barcelona simply to be Sergio Busquets’ heir is overly simplistic. There is much to the 22-year-old’s game that will allow him to elevate any team and any game from any midfield position over the decade to come.
His €75million switch to Camp Nou is expected to be followed by Matthijs de Ligt fetching Ajax an even greater bounty, but the 19-year-old central defender did something he has managed to avoid for most of this season. He looked his age in Guimaraes.
De Ligt haphazardly let Marten de Roon’s pass run under his foot after the half hour and blundered into Marcus Rashford for a penalty award mercifully free of any VAR head-scratching. The Manchester United forward dispatched coolly before De Ligt was caught haphazardly up field.
3 – Marcus Rashford has scored the last three penalties he’s taken for club and country – two for England (vs Colombia & Netherlands) and one for Manchester United (vs PSG). Steely. pic.twitter.com/Elh9WEbXRy
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) June 6, 2019
Jadon Sancho proved he is far easier to dance around than Virgil van Dijk, and De Ligt was relieved to see Denzel Dumfries launch the shuddering and fair challenge that would ultimately end Rashford’s evening.
England have built impressively upon their run to the semi-finals of the World Cup, with Gareth Southgate’s switch to a 4-3-3 unleashing his side’s attacking potential.
However, after a harum-scarum start to the second half where Jasper Cillessen and Kyle Walker both escaped careless mistakes with their blushes intact, the game started to take on a very Croatia-in-Moscow feel.
A technically superior midfield prodded, pushed and eventually shoved England back, De Jong naturally dictating it all.
De Ligt had missed a free header to conclude his wretched end to the first half. When Memphis Depay floated a corner his way in the 73rd minute, Walker seemed to be enveloped by his opponent’s looming shadow and De Ligt powered home. It was a response that spoke volumes of the youngster’s frequently lauded character.
105 – Frenkie de Jong recorded more passes (105), touches (128), tackles (5) & recoveries (13) than any other player during Netherlands v England. Clockwork. pic.twitter.com/YkEYZrGZBG
— OptaJohan (@OptaJohan) June 6, 2019
England thought they had snatched victory but, after a fractional VAR offside call ruled out Jesse Lingard’s strike, they could at least reflect upon an immaculate pass from Ross Barkley that showed De Jong and company did not have a monopoly on technical midfield quality. It is something Southgate must tease out of his players more often on these occasions.
Admittedly, when Barkley’s assist arrived it was hardly the one he had in mind. Quincy Promes was the beneficiary and his was a lively cameo as the Netherlands won through goals entirely of England’s making.
There would be no De Ligt-style redemption for Stones or Barkley on a night when England showed they still have plenty of road to travel and De Jong carried the entire map in his head throughout.
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