Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Netherlands v England: The key battles that could decide Euro 2024 semi-final – BBC Sport

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Video caption, Enjoy highlights of England v Netherlands from Euro ’96

  • Author, Emma Smith
  • Role, BBC Sport journalist

For the 23rd time, England and the Netherlands will face-off in a senior men’s international match – and there is more on the line than ever before.

This time they meet in the semi-finals of Euro 2024 – the first time these great football nations have met in a major tournament knockout tie.

Both sides have produced great moments during the tournament, but have also flattered to deceive at times. It leaves us with a fascinating match-up, with individual duels across the pitch and in the coaching dugouts likely to prove decisive.

Here, BBC Sport looks at five key battles which could decide who reaches Sunday’s final in Berlin…

Van Dijk v Kane

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption, Virgil van Dijk and Harry Kane are the respective captains of the Netherlands and England

The battle of the captains will start with the handshake and coin toss, and persist – in all likelihood – throughout the encounter in Dortmund.

Harry Kane has not been at his best at Euro 2024, lacking pace and presence as he appears to struggle with a back injury suffered towards the end of the season with Bayern Munich.

But, as he proved with goals against Denmark and Slovakia, as well as in hitting the bar against Serbia, he is a man who needs only one chance in the box to have a major impact.

Marshalling him will be Virgil van Dijk, who has shown his mastery of the defensive dark arts at Euro 2024. No player has committed more fouls than the 12 by the Dutch skipper, but just one yellow card from five games means he remains available.

With 28 attempted clearances at the tournament so far – the fifth most of any player – Van Dijk is the man doing the Dutch dirty work, and the obstacle Kane must overcome if he is to inspire England to a second successive Euros final.

Gakpo v Walker

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Image caption, Cody Gakpo is joint top scorer at Euro 2024, while Kyle Walker is one of five men to play every minute at the tournament

One of the most pleasant surprises at Euro 2024 has been seeing Cody Gakpo – a fringe player at Liverpool towards the end of the 2023-24 campaign – living up to his undoubted potential.

He is the tournament’s joint top scorer (excluding own goals) on three, and one of only two players on that mark still competing in the Euros. Spain’s Dani Olmo is alongside him, while Jamal Musiala, Ivan Schranz and Georges Mikautadze have fallen by the wayside.

Gakpo has done so by cutting in from the left and terrifying defenders. His fine drive and near-post finish against Romania in the last 16 exemplified that, as did the quarter-final winner against Turkey. Gakpo did not get the final touch, but it was his pressure that forced Mert Muldur to turn the ball into his own net.

The man likely to be tasked by Gareth Southgate to handle Gakpo will be the England manager’s most trusted defensive lieutenant – Kyle Walker.

Just five men have played every minute at Euro 2024 so far and four of them are English – Jordan Pickford, Declan Rice, John Stones and Walker.

Whether at right-back or in central defence, Walker will start against the Dutch – and he will have to deal with Gakpo.

Reijnders v Rice

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Image caption, Declan Rice and Tijjani Reijnders set the passing tempo in midfield for their nations

As well as playing every minute in Germany, Rice has done his best to cover every blade of grass in the country.

The England midfielder has covered the greatest distance – 63.9km – of any player at Euro 2024, and grown in influence on the tournament as it has progressed.

Following the nadir of an under-par performance against Denmark, where every pass seemed to be going astray, Rice has been the reliable midfield metronome in the knockouts.

He has attempted the sixth-highest number of passes (393) of all Euro 2024 players, and the third-highest total from a midfielder – after Toni Kroos and Granit Xhaka – and has done so with an impressive 93.2% passing accuracy.

Rice also plays an essential role as the midfield destroyer, and is fourth in the individual player rankings for balls recovered (35) and tackles made (14).

The battle for the midfield at Signal Iduna Park will be fought between Rice and Tijjani Reijnders, a name perhaps unfamiliar to English audiences but who has been one of the tournament’s most eye-catching players.

The 25-year-old AC Milan midfielder has stepped into the void left by the injured Frenkie de Jong, playing nearly every minute and carrying Netherlands forward from midfield with the ball at his feet.

Comfortable in possession and with a knack for a line-breaking pass – 38 of them at Euro 2024 before the quarter-finals – Reijnders must be reined in for England to have a chance.

Ake v Saka

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Image caption, Bukayo Saka and Nathan Ake will resume the rivalry seen in the Premier League between Arsenal and Manchester City

Whenever Switzerland defender Michel Aebischer sleeps over the next few months, he will dream of Bukayo Saka going past him.

The England forward beat Aebischer again and again in their quarter-final tie – four times in the first half alone, more than any player had beaten another in any Euro 2024 game to that point.

Saka was man of the match by some distance in Dusseldorf, not least for his terrific equaliser, scored when he cut in from the right and fired in off the far post with his left foot.

The Arsenal man has played on the right for England throughout the Euros, including in an unusual wing-back role against the Swiss.

That will leave it up to the left side of the Dutch defence to stop him. Step forward Nathan Ake, who has started all five games in Germany at left-back. Ake has quietly had a fine tournament, continuing his strong season at club level for Manchester City, and will need to be at his best to stop Saka.

The formation battle

Against Switzerland, Southgate changed the 4-2-3-1 deployed in their first four matches to match the Swiss up with a 3-4-2-1.

This included playing Saka and Kieran Trippier as inverted wing-backs, while Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden were dual number 10s.

The experiment was a qualified success. Saka was excellent and England progressed, but Foden struggled to maintain possession and frequently dropped too deep, while the Three Lions struggled to get the ball to Bellingham to allow him to fully influence the match – a recurring problem throughout Euro 2024.

The Dutch also changed their formation for their quarter-final, switching from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. It allowed Xavi Simons to play closer to central striker Memphis Depay, with Reijnders and Jerdy Schouten providing the midfield base.

Whether Southgate persists with the 3-4-2-1 and its marginal improvements in England’s flow, or again chooses to match up strong opponents, could prove decisive as to who makes the final.

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