LYON, France — When the United States and Netherlands left the Stade de Lyon after the Women’s World Cup final, each team had the feel of being a winner in its own way – even if only one of them could go home with a trophy.
Granted, Dutch players won’t see the 2-0 defeat to the United States as a victory, but what they did win was the respect from a global audience, and from those in America, with some predicting a heavy scoreline in favor of the defending champions.
After Netherlands’ semifinal victory over Sweden, midfielder Danielle van de Donk stated that she didn’t think the United States thought that the Dutch were very good. And while the U.S. players will not have underestimated them, it would be accurate to suggest that some, not all, didn’t rate the Dutch.
To be fair, American fans had reason to be confident. Netherlands have been less than convincing in some of their matches leading to the final, failing to find that swagger and energy that saw them claim a shock European title two years ago in front of their home fans.
But these were the European champions, and despite never really hitting top gear in the tournament, they had match-winners that were able to propel them into the final.
Vivianne Miedema, four years older and four years more experienced than the teenager who had the weight of a nation on her shoulders in Canada, played with more confidence and showed why she is now rated as one of the best in the world. The midfield three of Sherida Spitse, Jackie Groenen and van de Donk once again proved a handful for opposition during the competition, while keeper Sari van Veenendaal went on to win the Golden Glove.
The moments of brilliance, however, tended to even out due to some sub-par performances against Italy, albeit in the heat of Valenciennes, and their semifinal win over Sweden, which had fans praying to the gods that the game would not enter extra time after an uneventful encounter that saw little from either side.
Add all this up, and there were some that felt the U.S. would coast in the final. So van de Donk was right: some really didn’t think the Dutch were very good.
But when you reach a final in just your second Women’s World Cup, you tend to win a lot of fans as the underdogs. The Dutch caused the U.S. problems towards the end of the first half, and all of a sudden, the Oranje were showing why they were European Champions.
It wasn’t enough, of course, and while they were unable to win their first World Cup for men or women, they and their fans had won the hearts of the viewing public. After the final, van de Donk said she was “proud” of her team and the Netherlands, and that pride will have no doubt stemmed from proving a few people wrong. They’d lost the match, but they had won respect.
So what now for the Dutch?
Well, 5.1 million people in Netherlands watched the defeat to the U.S., which equates to a share of 88 percent of those watching TV at that time (what were the other 12 percent watching?). That figure brought the total figure of people who watched the tournament in the country to over 23 million, highlighting that there is considerable interest in Sarina Wiegman’s side.
One thing Wiegman will need to address is the form of some of her star players. Shanice van de Sanden did not look at her dynamic best, and Lieke Martens was replaced on a few occasions after failing to hit the heights of 2017 (and while dealing with a nagging injury).
But a few tweaks, including Wiegman perhaps giving her forwards a little more freedom to express themselves – much like they did in 2017 – could be the catalyst for more success for the Oranje.
The squad has largely stayed consistent since the EURO 2017 triumph, and few are at the age that would see them removed from consideration for the 2021 EUROs in England, where they will of course defend their title.
But it’s defensively that the Netherlands may need to look at what options they have. For the most part, they are a solid, reliable unit, but there can be errors that creep in. The penalty that Stefanie van der Gragt gave away to Alex Morgan in the final was soft, but it was also a rash high boot, while Rose Lavelle was allowed to travel a long way before unleashing her left-foot effort to make it 2-0.
No player in the Dutch squad had a tournament to forget, but despite making the final, few lit the tournament up like their opponents, with numerous members of the U.S. receiving plaudits for their performances.
The Dutch need to find that swagger, that quick transitional player that terrified teams at their home EUROs. They need to rekindle that high press that completely stumped the likes of England, and that connection between the midfield three that can open up a defense like a knife through butter.
The Dutch are still arguably the best Europe has to offer, despite France and England being tipped to fair better than them at this tournament. But they need to go back to what they do best: playing without restrictions, and frightening the life out of the opposition with their combination of speed, technique and ruthlessness in front of goal.