As the final whistle blew in Amsterdam, Virgil van Dijk raised his face to the sky and pumped his arms with joy and apparent relief. In the circumstances, his emotional reaction was a surprise. There had not been much suspense about the result or the fact that the Netherlands would definitely be going to the Euros. The Nations League-era qualifiers, with 24 teams going to the finals via a maze of playoff backdoors, don’t produce many nail-biters in the latter stages of the groups.
But then you remembered that Van Dijk, who didn’t come up through one of the big Dutch clubs and so has always been something of an outsider in his homeland, has lately been criticised by pundits such as Marco van Basten for not being enough of a leader. Well, now he has led the team to the Euros, so Van Basten will have to back off until next summer at least. It’s a results game.
Not that this stopped the Dutch media from complaining to coach Ronald Koeman that they hadn’t won by enough goals. “It’s true that we are disappointed about the ‘short’ result,” Koeman said, “we had much more opportunities to score more ... But one is creating chances to score, the second is scoring goals.”
Stephen Kenny suggested there hadn’t been all that much in it. “I wouldn’t see it as backs to the wall myself,” he said, pointing to his players’ courage in possession and work rate against the ball. In his view they had just lacked the “creativity in the final third to break down a really top class defence”. Ireland had even been “in the ascendancy” before the Dutch goal, which was scored in the 12th minute.
Kenny usually sees the defeats as close. After the 2-1 defeat to Scotland in September 2022, he said: “We had a lot of very good play and it’s down to margins because we didn’t take our chances when we should have. After the 2-0 defeat to Greece last month: “We have fallen down on the fine margins.” Before Saturday’s defeat: “I risk repeating myself but games against teams of [the Netherlands’] calibre have been on the fine margins.”
When we look back on the campaign just completed, we have to admit that the margins haven’t been fine. “Fine margins” is Brian Kerr’s team missing out on qualification after drawing all the games against rival teams and losing to a Thierry Henry wondergoal. “Fine margins” is Giovanni Trapattoni’s team losing out in the play-off to Henry’s handball four years later.
This is not a story of fine margins. This is six defeats out of six against the three other contender sides in the group. That makes it Ireland’s worst performance in any qualifying campaign since 1962, when they lost four games out of four in a three-team group. Thirty-one qualifying campaigns since then, and this one was the worst.
It’s true that Ireland did start Saturday’s game reasonably well. Around 11 minutes I wrote in my notes, “Ireland structure keeping NL penned in.” Then the crowd cheered and I looked up at the pitch to see a straight pass go right through the Irish defence. Two Irish players ran into each other and suddenly Wout Weghorst was charging towards goal with the ball at his feet. With no defender close enough to challenge, Weghorst had time to set his sights carefully and blast it into the near top corner. He cannot have scored many of this type of goal in his career.
How had this unfortunate situation arisen? What had happened was that while I had been admiring Ireland’s pressing structure, the Dutch defenders had been figuring out how it worked. One of them identified a potential weak spot, and tested it with a little surprise attack. Ireland’s defence proceeded to collapse like a door lifted off its hinges.
The right-sided centre back Stefan de Vrij was the Dutch hingebreaker. Kenny talked later of “creativity in the final third”, but De Vrij’s play for the goal showed how, in today’s game, the decisive moments of creativity are just as likely to happen in the defensive third. The goal was all about De Vrij thinking two steps ahead.
Glancing up the pitch to confirm that Jason Knight was coming to press him, he took a pass from Van Dijk and quickly played it up the right touchline for Xavi Simons, who was in turn pressed by Liam Scales. While this was happening, De Vrij was backing off 10 or 15 metres, taking a deeper position to receive the return pass from Simons.
Knight continued to close down De Vrij, the angle of his run suggesting he expected his opponent to pass back inside towards Van Dijk. But De Vrij surprised him by taking the ball the other direction with the outside of his right foot, stepping neatly around Knight, whose momentum now took him out of the game, and moving forward into the open midfield.
Because of the way De Vrij had initially stepped back, the gap between Knight and Josh Cullen in the next Irish line had grown too big for Cullen to rush forward and challenge De Vrij. Instead the Irish defensive midfielder stopped dead – his control of the space around him suddenly reduced to that of a training cone.
De Vrij hit a straight ball past Cullen and Denzel Dumfries ran across the pass to create confusion. Nathan Collins rushed to challenge Weghorst on halfway, but the big Dutch striker spun the other direction, levering Collins out of the way as the ball ran through. That was when Ryan Manning collided with Collins to neutralise the last elements of the Irish defence.
The goal obviously involved an element of farce, but it had been created by the anticipation and know-how of De Vrij, a 31-year-old playing his 10th season in Serie A, where he has represented Inter and Lazio.
De Vrij is not an obvious talent like Van Dijk, who is bigger, stronger and faster than nearly every opponent he meets. Instead, De Vrij is a learner – a perfectionist who has been known to hire specialist tactical coaches to sit with him and go through footage of his games, working to understand the small details that end up making a big difference.
A few minutes later Knight received a pass facing towards his own goal and tried to spin left, only to find De Vrij had again read his intention and had already stepped in to take the ball. It must have been demoralising for Knight to feel that De Vrij knew what he was going to do before he knew himself. Knight chased back and the move ended with him fouling Cody Gakpo on the edge of Ireland’s box.
The play illustrated that Knight does not lack hunger, desire or willingness to work. Soon after, he would prevent a likely goal with another last-ditch tackle to block Daley Blind’s shot from the edge of the box. But eagerness to run isn’t enough to win these games on its own.
The real story of the group is that Ireland have been outwitted again and again, by De Vrij, by Aurélien Tchouaméni, by Koeman, by Gus Poyet, by Petros Mantalas, by Benjamin Pavard.
In six games against the proper teams, we scored one goal from a corner and one penalty (which we won following a corner). Our opponents have been too clever for us, not the odd time, but every time.
Unlike the manager, most of these players will be back for the World Cup 2026 qualifiers. Most of them are young, which means they have time to learn. But learning isn’t something that just happens of its own accord, like getting taller. It’s an active process.
Whoever the next Ireland manager turns out to be, much will depend on whether this coming generation of Irish players have the combination of ambition and humility to keep working on themselves, to keep improving like De Vrij. Maybe then there will come a day when Ireland are the dealer and not the mark.