The Netherlands women’s national team, the thinking went, would go as far in the 2019 World Cup as its front line could carry it. Shanice van de Sanden on the right is a constant threat to get behind her defender and send the opponent’s back line scrambling. Creative left winger Lieke Martens was named the best player at the 2017 European championships, which the Netherlands won. Forward Vivianne Miedema is already the national team’s all-time leading scorer despite being just 22. These are the team’s unquestioned stars, a group that can punish defenses in so many different ways.
It took 70 minutes in Saturday’s quarterfinal against Italy, but Miedema finally opened the scoring in the Netherlands’ 2–0 win, running under a long free kick and gently flicking it into the far corner. It was the elegant, practical minimalism of a seasoned goal scorer. She turned her head as if she thought she heard someone call her name from across the table. That simple movement put her team into the World Cup semifinals.
Yet despite Miedema’s winner and Martens’ two goals in the Round of 16, the Netherlands’ star trio haven’t yet gelled in France. Martens’ moments of magic––like her backheel opener against Japan––have existed in a vacuum, too far separated from her teammates. Miedema spent much of the game against Italy leaping and stretching her neck at crosses that sailed just out of reach. She draws lots of attention but hasn’t seemed to make much use of her gravity to free her teammates.
And van de Sanden has had a nightmare of a tournament. She’s an aggressive and prodigiously talented dribbler, but hasn’t yet found her final ball. The BBC rated her the worst performer on either side in the Round of 16 win over Japan. Italy’s game plan Saturday appeared to be to encourage her teammates to give her the ball as often as possible, knowing that, despite her talent, van de Sanden makes the Dutch attack predictable and easy to snuff out.
With its stars struggling, the Netherlands has been kept afloat by outstanding play from goalkeeper Sari van Veenendaal, who has consistently bailed out a defense that has looked slow to react in transition. The most dangerous Dutch attacker for much of the tournament has been playmaking midfielder Daniëlle van de Donk. The Netherlands required 92 minutes to break through against New Zealand in its opener. It was outplayed for large portions of each of its last three games by Canada, Japan, and Italy, doing just barely enough to win. It hasn’t scored a goal in the run of play since the group stages. All four of its knockout round tallies came from set pieces.
The problem with being reliant on set pieces for all your scoring––as England’s men’s team found out at last year’s World Cup––is that you’ll eventually run into a team that’s just as proficient at them and your entire offense goes kaput. When that happens––and for the Netherlands, the semifinals is a decent bet––it’s going to need its front line to turn its disparate talents into a cohesive whole.
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