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Wout Weghorst goal shines light on Dutch football’s complicated relationship with big strikers

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After Euro 2020, when fans could not travel abroad to most matches, and the 2022 World Cup, when fans of many European nations weren’t keen on a trip to Qatar, Euro 2024 has been notable for the sheer number of fans in Germany.

And Sunday’s early kick-off, geographically, was the perfect game for fandom. Germany is straddled to the east and west by Poland and the Netherlands, with the borders about 300km and 200km away from Hamburg.

And as the Dutch national anthem Wilhelmus played before the Netherlands’ 2-1 win, their supporters behind the goal held up banners depicting various stages of Marco van Basten’s famous winning goal at Euro ’88, perhaps the most celebrated single hit of a football in the history of the game.

That is the only time the Netherlands have won a tournament — and that tournament was hosted in Germany. The Dutch are hoping this proves a lucky omen.

But even the most optimistic Dutch fan isn’t pretending there’s anything like Van Basten in the current side. This is a peculiarly unbalanced Dutch squad overloaded on defensive talent — Micky van de Ven, Daley Blind and Matthijs de Ligt were on the bench here — but rather lacking in central midfield and up front.

Dutch fans pay tribute to Marco van Basten and their victorious side of 1988 (John MacDougall/Getty Images)

On 45 goals, Memphis Depay is only five away from drawing level with Robin van Persie as the Netherlands’ record goalscorer, but few consider him a genuinely top-class centre-forward. For much of this game, Depay showed why he is so frustrating — attempting somewhat ambitious shots from range, and snatching at close-range opportunities. Now 30 and a free agent, it’s difficult to make a case for him being a significantly better player than he was a decade ago, when he scored twice in the group stage at World Cup 2014. None of the four shots he took in his 81 minutes on the pitch were on target.

And so, with nine minutes remaining, on came big Wout Weghorst. The Dutch have a habit of producing strikers like this, and the enjoyable thing is that they always seem a little embarrassed by them. The nation of Total Football, about interpretation of space, cohesion between players and developing good all-round footballers is also the nation with the tallest people, on average, in the world. So they end up producing big No 9s, whether they like it or not. Weghorst, with his first touch of the game, scored the winner.

For all the justifiable celebration of that Van Basten goal, it’s worth remembering that the Netherlands briefly seemed to be heading out of the Euro ’88 group stage with a goalless draw against the Republic of Ireland. But then they threw on big Wim Kieft and John Bosman, two proper strikers. Kieft, an awkward-looking but effective 6ft 3in (190cm) striker, scored a famously scruffy goal by getting his head to a wayward shot, sending the ball spinning home into the far corner. The man who attempted the shot, incidentally, was Ronald Koeman, the side’s current manager.

Even before the advent of false nines, the Dutch have always prided themselves on their centre-forwards being all-rounders. Johan Cruyff was essentially a centre-forward, but obviously so much more. The all-time Eredivisie top goalscorer, Willy van der Kuijlen, was really an attacking midfielder. And while Dennis Bergkamp was considered a second striker by the time he played in the Premier League for Arsenal, in his Eredivisie days, he was considered a No 9 who finished top goalscorer three times. Ruud van Nistelrooy, a proper No 9 who specialised in putting the ball in the net, was somewhat unloved in his homeland.

Wout Weghorst puts the Netherlands in front against Poland (Geert van Erven/Getty Images)

The 6ft 6in Weghorst is even more extreme. Signed by Sean Dyche to lead the line for Burnley, then the Premier League’s most old-school side, he was then surprisingly loaned to Manchester United where he failed to score in 17 league appearances, 10 of them starts. Nevertheless, he was admired for his work rate and had the makings of a cult hero. Since loaned to both Besiktas and Hoffenheim, he is still owned by Burnley, now a second-tier side.

Somehow, players like that seem more effective in international football, where the style of play is a little more basic — Niclas Fullkrug, Germany’s equivalent, came off the bench to smash in a goal in the 5-1 win over Scotland. Weghorst scored two crucial goals against Argentina at the World Cup 18 months ago.

“Wout found the net at the decisive time,” said Koeman on Sunday. “He adds value to the team because he has a different way of playing. That’s great, and what we needed in the final stages of the game. Memphis is a forward but he plays more ‘open’, has more ball possession and also wants players to run (off him), and we couldn’t do that in the first half. Wout is aggressive, he always takes the initiative, he’s a good header of the ball too. He gets one opportunity, he finds the net, and that’s great. We have different ways of playing with different players.”

“When I spoke to Wout (about coming) with the national team, I tried to explain the possibilities of starting or coming on the pitch in the second half when we need a different option. He was a bit upset — but that’s a good reaction. He’s doing a lot to get an opportunity to start.”

And before the press conference ended, there was, inevitably, a question about whether a striker like Weghorst can really fit with a Dutch football side. “Every team needs Dutch qualities, but also qualities that make the team better,” smiled Koeman.

A couple more goals like this in another Dutch triumph in Germany, and Weghorst will earn a banner to go along with Van Basten’s.

(Top photo: Roy Lazet/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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