FOkay then, Holland 2021. Never mind total football: this was a total meltdown. And not just a simple collapse, but an abject and staggering collapse, the kind of collapse you can see happening in front of you in real time, like a slow-motion car accident.
Launched by the dismissal of Matthijs de Ligt in the second half, a Dutch team that ran from the blocks in Budapest, all majestic and lively, transformed at a stroke into a flabby orange souffle.
The Czechs were immensely deserved victors. What a nice, smart and well organized team it is. They have quarterfinals to savor now. But let’s stop, for a moment, at the Dutch and the spectacle of a real collapse, a panic. Welcome to the anatomy of bottling.
It takes something to get to this stage of a tournament and then produce this kind of loss in the air. But between the 54th and 68th minutes, the Netherlands simply fell apart in Budapest, as a balanced scoreless game morphed into a world of stumbling, flapping and panic.
De Ligt can be a cumbersome footballer. He often appears to find himself struggling, scrabbling, grabbing shirts. In the 54th minute, Patrik Schick moved around him while the ball was in play. De Ligt tripped, slipped, and then couldn’t turn around fast enough.
It was there, arranged in those individual frames of the shutters, that de Ligt felt the moment drift away from him. Thighs moving, hands struggling to grasp, he landed on the ball and hooked it with his arm.
It was absurd to do it in the VAR era. A yellow card was flourished, then upgraded to a straight red after reviewing the screen. Schick had a clear scoring opportunity if De Ligt didn’t handle himself, intending to fool an opponent who had beaten him.
De Ligt left the field in anguish. For a £ 67 million defender, he has such an obvious weakness in his basic athleticism, a footballer who seems utterly bossy, as long as he doesn’t ask him to turn around too fast.
Up to ten men, the Dutch basically collapsed. No one spoke, no one gathered the team. No one yelled orders. Instead, they simply shrugged off the moment. There is no rule that teams one man less must desperately defend themselves out of necessity, instantly rowing for their lives. But that was exactly what the Netherlands did, a team confused by adversity.
The Dutch were trapped, unable to make a pass, unable to move upfield through the thick, muscular white wall in front of them. Nobody wanted the ball. There was no safe place, no place to rest.
Finally something horrible happened. Infected with that white noise, Maarten Stekelenburg threw a low cross just past his own post. Behind him, the Czech home crowd, already caught in a shared wave of noise, roared and booed and summoned from the air what was so clearly about to happen.
And from a free kick shortly after, the Czechs duly scored. It was a well-executed and oddly humiliating goal as Tomas Kalas nodded the ball back across the six-yard box, the white shirts playing some kind of beach volleyball in the ruins of a beaten Dutch defense. From there, Tomas Holes tucked it in neatly.
A few words about Holes, he had a wonderful game. In the early exchanges he played so deep in midfield that the Czechs were basically a five-man baseline. It was bumpy, uncomfortable, well pierced, and drew the initial sting of the Dutch attacks.
There has been a kind of careless and gleeful power to Frank de Boer’s team’s arrival at this game, although the Netherlands still had to play a team that could punish them. The streets of Budapest had been crammed with a cheery orange swamp before the game. And they started as a team with that feeling of euphoria.
Memphis Depay had its first little turn and wave with four minutes left. His role on this Dutch team is a forward position that is best described as a fun, errant running back or advanced skill gadabout. Here, however, it blinked and then vanished.
For a time, Frenkie de Jong threatened to run the game. It is a pleasure to see De Jong, a leaping goblin, a reed that bends in the wind, barely disturbing his lying on the grass. At times, in full flow, it almost seems like a parody of the Dutch, a replicant of Total Football forged in some high-end genetic laboratory outside of Amsterdam.
But the Czechs were far from passive, covering and attacking with enthusiasm and then launching their own counterattacks. Tomas Soucek followed De Jong for a while, closing his space, closing his angles. Side by side, they looked like a study in human variety: the slim prince and his muscular retainer. But Soucek is also a true craftsman footballer, and he managed to cut off that supply. De Jong fainted. The Dutch went into halftime looking a bit nervous.
Then came that gloriously painful collapse, a collapse you could read on faces, the panic passes, the de Boer bewilderment, which seemed to come to some kind of an end point of its own here.
With 10 minutes remaining, the Netherlands again failed to tackle a high ball, which was sent back into Holes’ run, suddenly transformed into a barrel-chested bull figure. His touch found Schick unmarked, who hit the ball with pleasant sternness. The Czechs applied pressure and found an opponent who simply gave way like a weak stud wall.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism