Having thoroughly defeated Belarus in their Euro 2020 qualifications opener, Netherlands were set to welcome a much more difficult opponent in the second round.
Germany didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in their midweek friendly against Serbia, but friendlies are, well, friendlies, and one should never read too much into those results.
Ronald Koeman, in charge of the Dutch team, had to make do without defender Kenny Tete who was out with a hamstring injury.
Jasper Cillessen was in goal. The formidable duo of Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt played in the heart of defence, flanked by Denzel Dumfries and Daley Blind. Georginio Wijnaldum, Marten de Roon and Frenkie de Jong played in the middle of the park, while Memphis Depay, Ryan Babel and Quinsey Promes formed a very flexible attacking line.
Germany coach Joachim Low was able to count on Leroy Sane, who had recovered after suffering a bad tackle in the Serbia game for which Milan Pavkov got his marching orders.
Manuel Neuer stood between the posts. Niklas Sule, Matthias Ginter and Antonio Rudiger formed a line of three at the back. Toni Kroos, Joshua Kimmich and Leon Goretzka played as a midfield trio, flanked by wing-backs Nico Schulz and Thilo Kehrer. The pacey pair of Leroy Sane and Serge Gnabry were tasked with doing the damage upfront.
The First Half
Germany grabbed control of the game early on, and less than two minutes in the two attacking players combined as Sane set Gnabry up for a shot from around the penalty spot, but Cillessen made a fine save. Low had obviously tasked the pair of them with dropping back to pick the ball up and running at the Dutch, and Goretzka would then go up to add some presence upfront.
It wasn’t easy for them, however. Van Dijk and de Ligt are no pushovers, and the experience of Blind also played a part.
In the 10th minute the Dutch hit back. They broke through the left flank and spent a minute in and around the opposition box. They sprang alive with high pressing and it paid off. In the 12th minute, Depay turned beautifully around his marker and earned a free-kick at 30 yards, but his shot went too high to trouble Neuer.
Frenkie de Jong, set to join Barcelona this summer, was the player who Netherlands relied on to pick the ball up deep and organize play, and Germany often applied strong pressure on him through Goretzka. And then, in the 15th minute, they suddenly struck.
Kroos’ good pass found Schulz wide on the left and the wing-back pulled it across the box towards Sane. The Manchester City winger took it with a great first touch out of the reach of de Ligt and beat Cillessen from a tight angle.
Both coaches had set their teams up in highly flexible ways, but it seemed Low’s strategy simply worked better. His players seemed more eager, better positioned to make interceptions and less hesitant on the ball. They weren’t letting their opponents lift their heads.
But as it often happens, just as the Germans were growing comfortable, the Dutch suddenly warned them about dropping their guard with a sudden break. Depay tamed a long pass and Promes threaded the ball in behind where he found Babel rushing into the box free. The Fulham forward blasted on target but Neuer denied him a goal. Promes created an even better chance for Babel a few minutes later with a great cross, but all Babel managed to do from six yards was shoot straight at Neuer.
Then Germany recomposed themselves and regained control. At this point, the quality of Virgil van Dijk seemed to be the biggest problem for them as they sought to increase their lead. Both Sane and Gnabry had moments when they challenged the Liverpool defender, but his incredible composure was too much to overcome for the young forwards.
And once again the unexpected happened. Minute 34 was passing when Gnabry actually managed to escape the block from van Dijk by cutting in from the left. He made the most of Dumfries’ unwise backtracking which cut across van Dijks line of movement and blasted the ball straight into the far top corner, with Cillessen unable to do anything.
Four minutes later, Sane made a great run between the centre-backs to latch onto a pass from Gnabry and took a low shot, but Cillessen managed to stop it this time.
Netherlands tried to get on the ball more and push forward, but the Germans now had them where they wanted them. They dropped slightly deeper, looking to defend more responsibly and take advantage of the abundance of pace upfront.
The home team were sorely missing influence from their midfield. Wijnaldum was hardly to be seen on the pitch, as well as de Jong and de Roon. It may have been down to themselves up to a point, but it mostly looked like Kroos and Kimmich were simply too effective at shutting them out.
The Second Half
Koeman left veteran Babel in the dressing room for the second half and sent on Steven Bergwijn in his place. It must have been some halftime talk from the Dutch manager for his players to respond like they did after the break.
It took them only three minutes to get off the mark as a great cross by Depay saw de Ligt beat Rudiger in the air and direct the ball a hair’s width inside the post. Neuer could only turn and watch it go in.
Sensing the visitors’ vulnerability, Netherlands seased control of the game for a while, but the Germans gradually managed to repel them and defend further away from their goal. Still, it seemed the Dutch had snapped out of the stupor of the first half. They were now winning duels where they had been losing them before, and it was them who seemed the more determined of the teams.
They nearly took Germany by surprise in the 62nd minute as Depay set the ball to take a free-kick from wide right, and Promes surprised everyone by taking it himself and finding Wijnaldum in behind. Neuer made a fine save to deny the Liverpool midfielder even though the flag was up for offside.
But Germany failed utterly in their attempt to stop Depay sixty seconds later. The Lyon forward burst into the box, straight into the crowd, played a one-two with Wijnaldum and put it into the bottom corner.
The pressure Netherlands were exerting on Germany now was even greater. The ball was in their possession for most of the time, and they found it easier than before to play past the opposition lines. Low felt he needed to react and Ilkay Gundogan took to the field to replace Goretzka.
Germany regained some composure again as the game went into the final 15 minutes. They took down the tempo and step by step, they carried the ball up the pitch. The Dutch did break through a couple of times but they couldn’t find a third goal.
In the 82nd minute, Kroos earned a free-kick wide on the left. He took it himself and tried to catch Cillessen off guard, but the the Real Madrid midfielder failed to find the near corner. A minute later, a long pass from the back found Gnabry in behind de Ligt, but the winger was marshaled into a harmless angle by van Dijk and his shot was an easy catch for Cillessen.
With three minutes remaining, Gnabry made way for Marco Reus.
The pace of the game had disappeared completely late on, when Germany suddenly sprang alive. Gundogan threaded the ball nicely for Reus on the left and the Borussia Dortmund man pulled it back for the unmarked Schulz in the middle of the box, and the wing-back slotted into the bottom corner from there to steal a last-minute winner.
Koeman went for all or nothing by sending Luuk de Jong into the fray instead of de Roon as well as ordering van Dijk to stay upfront, but to no avail.
Referee Jesus Gil from Spain allowed only two minutes of injury time, and they soon ran out.
This was a classic example of a game of two halves, and Germany only had more patience in the last stages which enabled them to snatch the points in an otherwise fairly even game. They fully dominated the first 45 minutes and were completely outplayed for most of the second. An exciting contest between two high-quality sides, and it was Germany on the top side of the see-saw when the bell rang, that’s all.
Low’s men have overtaken Netherlands in the Group C table with this win with a game in hand, but it’s Northern Ireland who currently sit at the top with two wins from two games – over Estonia and Belarus.
NETHERLANDS: Cillesen 7, van Dijk 7.5, de Ligt 7, F. de Jong 6.5, Wijnaldum 7, de Roon 5 (90′ L. de Jong N/A), Promes 7, Depay 8, Babel 6.5 (46′ Bergwijn 5).
GERMANY: Neuer 8, Sule 7, Rudiger 7, Ginter 6.5, Kimmich 7, Kroos 7.5, Schulz 7.5, Kehrer 7, Goretzka 7 (70′ Gundogan), Sane 8, Gnabry 7.5 (88′ Reus 7.5).
GOALS: Sane 15′, Gnabry 34′, de Ligt 48′, Depay 63′, Schulz 90′.
YELLOW CARDS: Blind 38′.
REFEREE: Jesus Gil (Spain).
DATE & VENUE: March 24, 2019, Johan Cruijff Arena, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
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