Flukes don’t happen that often in women’s soccer. The game has only recently become professionalized, which means countries that got in early gained a head start that’s only now being clawed back: All seven World Cup finals have featured either the U.S. or Germany, and those two nations have won five of six Olympic gold medals.
For years, the European Championship was no different. Germany and Norway entered the most recent tournament two summers ago having won the past 10 editions, including four Germany-Norway finals. Germany alone had won six straight and eight of nine. But something fluky, or at least fluke-like, happened in Euro 2017. Norway went out in the group stage, England and France were drawn together in a quarterfinal, and Germany suffered a shocking quarterfinal upset loss to a Denmark side that hadn’t qualified for a World Cup since 2007. This left the draw wide open for the host nation, the Netherlands, who played their first major tournament in 2009. Their head coach, Sarina Wiegman, had taken over the program just seven months prior, and her squad included just two players older than 28.
The Netherlands won all three of their group stage matches, and in the knockout rounds scored upset wins over Sweden and England before holding off Denmark in a 4-2 win in the final. The six-game Euro winning streak seemed like a fluke at the time, but the Dutch performance at this summer’s World Cup proves it wasn’t. On Wednesday, having won all five of their matches in France thus far, the Oranje will play Sweden with a berth in the World Cup final on the line. Nine of the 11 players who started the Euro 2017 final also started Saturday’s quarterfinal against Italy.
Wiegman—who won an NCAA title at North Carolina playing alongside Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly—has turned out to be an inspired hire. Some coaches, such as the USWNT’s Jill Ellis, will employ a variety of lineups and formations to suit the needs of the moment. Not Wiegman. Over five games in France, Wiegman has used one formation, a 4-3-3, with nine of her 11 starters unchanged and just 16 players seeing the field at all. Ellis has used 21 in the past four games.
This is partially a product of the Netherlands’ lack of depth compared to larger countries with more established women’s soccer traditions. But it’s also the product of the Dutch roster being simultaneously very good, relatively young, and accustomed to playing together. This is, at the very least, a golden generation; at best it’s the next power in women’s soccer.
The stereotype of Dutch soccer is an intricate, free-flowing, positionless game known as “total football,” developed in the 1970s by coach Rinus Michels and star playmaker Johan Cruyff, who played for Michels at Ajax, Barcelona, and the Dutch national team. Like all stereotypes, the playing style has faded into relative inaccuracy over time; in 2014, for instance, the Dutch men finished third in the World Cup playing a counterattacking 5-3-2.
But Wiegman’s 4-3-3 is not only effective but also fun to watch, built around playmaking midfielders and one of the best attacking trios in the world. The tip of the spear is striker Vivianne Miedema, who at just 22 years old is the Netherlands’ all-time leading international goal scorer of any gender. Miedema, midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk, and goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal just won the English top-flight title together at Arsenal. (Arsenal, like the U.S. national team setup, has a women’s team that wins trophies routinely and a men’s team that keeps tying its shoelaces together.)
Miedema is a tremendous all-around center forward, adept at finding space and running off the ball. Thanks to her size and exceptional close control and first touch, she can either hold up play as the Netherlands advance the ball up the field, or maintain possession in a crowded penalty area before laying the ball off to a teammate for the finish.
At 5-foot-9, Miedema is taller than most opposing center backs, and is a deadly finisher on set pieces. Saturday’s 2-0 quarterfinal win over Italy was not a swashbuckling Harlem Globetrotters act, but instead a mirthless slog through oppressive heat. When Miedema broke the scoreless deadlock in the 70th minute, it wasn’t through some intricate passing move: She just got the drop on the Italian center backs on a free kick and outran them for a header.
Out to Miedema’s left is playmaker Lieke Martens. American fans will recognize in Martens’s game elements of Tobin Heath’s tricky dribbling and Rose Lavelle’s audaciously confident passing. Martens also has the distinctive but ineffable swagger of a superstar, toying with defenders in isolation and chipping in long-range shots through traffic. Martens was the breakout star of Euro 2017, scoring three goals and taking home the Golden Ball as player of the tournament.
Before most big international tournaments, Nike releases a sprawling, cinematic extended TV spot featuring the world’s best players. For this year’s World Cup, Nike made Martens the face of that ad, despite outfitting not just the Netherlands but France, Brazil, Australia, England, and the U.S.A., and perhaps dozens of players better known than Martens on the international stage.
Martens was held scoreless during the group stage in France, but in the round of 16 she got on the scoreboard in awesome fashion with a no-look backheel one-timer that went through a Japanese defender’s legs. Martens added a 90th-minute game-winner from the penalty spot, but her audacious finish in the first half will go down as the most memorable goal of the game, if not the entire tournament.
Right winger Shanice van de Sanden rounds out the Dutch attacking trio. At 5-foot-6, van de Sanden is the smallest of the three starting Dutch forwards, and also the most direct and fastest. She’s also the only player on the Dutch team to play for European powerhouse Olympique Lyonnais, and the only player in the tournament to show up for the group stage with her hair dyed in a leopard print pattern.
Like Martens, van de Sanden is fond of dragbacks, stepovers, and nutmegs, but she’s at her best when a teammate plays her into space, where she can outrun just about any fullback she’ll come up against. Those few she can’t outrun, she’ll throw a shoulder and power through.
THERE SHE IS!— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 15, 2019
Vivianne Miedema heads in a great cross from Van de Sanden for her first career #FIFAWWC goal and her 59th for the Dutch - tying the national team record at just 22 years old. pic.twitter.com/lsW8MAsT9V
Along with her set lineup and formation, Wiegman follows pretty much the same substitution pattern every game too. Two of her usual subs are a pair of 22-year-old attackers, Jill Roord and Lineth Beerensteyn. Beerensteyn is a pacey winger like van de Sanden and has come off the bench in all five games, four times in a direct swap for van de Sanden.
Having that like-for-like substitution as part of the game plan makes the Dutch incredibly dangerous late in games. Knowing she only has to play 60 or 70 minutes, van de Sanden is free to go all-out the entire time she’s on the pitch. After van de Sanden spends an hour or more running at, sprinting past, turning around, bumping, shoving, and bull-rushing an opposing left back, that defender then has to turn around and spend the game’s most critical moments chasing a 22-year-old with fresh legs. Six of the Netherlands’ 10 goals in France, including three game-winners, have come after Beerensteyn’s introduction.
The Dutch attackers play with incredible audacity and the chemistry of a group that’s been through the crucible with almost no roster turnover the past three years. That continuity helps in dead ball situations, though it’s only part of the puzzle. Midfielders van de Donk and Sherida Spitse are good on the dead ball, and in addition to Miedema, defenders Dominique Bloodworth, Stefanie van der Gragt, and 6-footer Anouk Dekker make inviting targets from corners and free kicks. All three have scored from set pieces this tournament. In fact, the Dutch have scored six times off the dead ball from just 46 fouls suffered, and none of the four goals the Dutch have scored in the knockout round have come from open play.
It might seem unusual that a team with so much attacking talent relies on set pieces in crunch time, but the ability to attack in different ways is how the Netherlands keep advancing. And there’s no doubt the Dutch have been lucky, not only because of their last-minute winners against New Zealand and Japan, but also because of the way the draw has opened up once again.
The Dutch came into this tournament ranked eighth in FIFA’s world rankings. Three of the top four countries—the U.S., England, and France—ended up on the other side of the knockout bracket, as did no. 6 Australia. No. 2 Germany got knocked out one round before a potential semifinal matchup. It’s hardly been a cakewalk, as the Dutch have beaten Japan and Canada, and if they make the final it will be at the expense of the Sweden side that knocked Germany out of this World Cup and the USA out of the 2016 Olympics. But the path to the final is easier than it could have been.
If the Dutch make it that far, they’d be a tough out, but even if not, they’re building a foundation for a European powerhouse. Already, expectations are on the rise.
“At the Euros, no one expected a lot from us, and once we started winning our country stood behind us and we got in that flow. When we came here, in Holland everyone said we would be world champions and that gave us a lot of pressure,” Miedema told reporters at Monday’s press conference.
The Netherlands, a nation of 17 million, doesn’t have the population base to sustain a player pool as big as the one in the U.S., Japan, Germany, or Brazil. Even England has more than three times as many residents as the Netherlands. But those 17 million Dutch are going berserk for this team, and the players in this squad are set to compete for years to come. Martens, van de Sanden, Bloodworth, van der Gragt, Beerensteyn, van de Donk, and Roord are all 27 or younger, which means this core—perhaps this exact same starting lineup—ought to be considered among the favorites for the next Olympics (particularly because France and Germany failed to qualify), European championships, and World Cup. Flukes don’t happen often in women’s soccer, and this Netherlands team is proof.