Now the Monkey Comes Out of the Sleeve

Euro 2032 Open Thread


Netherlands Squad Review; Tournament Preview.

Some of my earliest (and fondest) soccer memories, growing up in the States in the 80s, are of watching two videos — Hero, the official 1986 World Cup video, and Tor, the official 1988 Euros video.

Back then, we couldn’t watch matches live. We didn’t have the internet. The local paper didn’t recap matches or show the results from the weekend.

Instead, we’d have to wait for Soccer America (a weekly magazine) to arrive in the mail, by which time results would be ~10-12 days old.

A far cry from the current day, when even a 10-second delay on the broadcast means that my phone is often exploding with texts from friends in Europe before the ball is in the back of the net.

So, as a young goalkeeper in the 80s, I watched Hero and Tor more times than I could count. I knew the commentary by heart. It was my heaven. I even brought the VHS tapes with me to college, so that I could watch them in my dorm room before matches to get fired up.

This is a long way of saying that — thanks to the likes of Rijkaard, van Basten and Gullit — the Dutch have always had a special place in my heart. And, even though I’ve been neglecting them thus far in the save, I’m excited to co-host Euro 2032 and am long past ready for this part of the save to take off, with the resumption of actual, competitive matches.

But before we can do that, we need to look at the squad. Let’s dive in.

We’re playing the same shadowganche tactics used at Panathinaikos, Gladbach and Partizan, developed as a collaboration with Guido at strikerless, detailed here: The Kansas City Shuffle – Rise of the Shadowganche.

Our pre-tournament friendlies went well, but the real test is coming against the French in the Group Stage.

Goalkeepers

A decent group in the back, with PSG’s Pijnenburg in the 1st XI, backed up by Rafael and de Beer. Pijnenburg is another level, in my view. He will see us through the 2034 World Cup and, unless someone else emerges, 2038.

Defenders

The 1st XI sees the incomparable Frenkie de Jong as our libero, with Mbuyama and Hak as the centerbacks. Hak is also a capable libero, for when Frenkie needs a rest. This is Frenkie’s swan song; he recently announced that he will retire after the tournament, and rebuffed Frank Lampard’s attempt to talk him out of it. Mbuyama should be there in 2034; Hak could make it until 2038, depending on when the decline sets in. The 1st XI’s fullbacks are Adenie and Hoekstra. They’re not world class, but they’re solid and will be around for the next 2 World Cup campaigns.

The 2nd XI has de Vries and Kasanwijro as centerbacks, with Maatsen and Hoever as the wingbacks (I only brought 5 centerbacks, overall, due to the versatility of these two).

Midfielders

The central midfield pairing sees Respen as our Mezzala, with van de Sande as the Carrilero. Again, 2 players who should be in the mix for the next 2 World Cup campaigns. (I thought about putting de Jong in as the Mezzala, but decided that having him in the backline was for the best — he’s my dream libero, even if he’s past his prime.)

Reis and Gravenberch are the primary backups here, although other players can cover if needed. Solid, although neither has much of a future. They’re likely going to be replaced for 2034, even if they’re in the mix.

Attacking Midfielders

We’ve got a ton of talent up here.

The only undisputed starter in our front 3 is Liverpool’s Unuvar, who is arguably our best player in all 3 positions but has served as our Attacking Midfielder since my appointment. Valencia’s Visser will start as our shadowganche, narrowly beating out Chelsea’s Karabakal. Another close call at Inverted Winger, where Arsenal’s Bakker pips Inter’s Bijl to the starting spot. Importantly, all 5 will be in their prime for 2034. Unuvar will likely be in decline by 2038, of course.

We also have van Dijk and van der Meer on the bench — solid, dependable back-ups who will likely be replaced for the 2034 qualifying campaign. They’re good, but I want to blood younger players.

Final Thoughts

We’ve got a really strong squad. I don’t know that we’re good enough to win it all, but we have all the tools to make a run into the knockout rounds, especially as a host side.


Group Stage, Matchday 1; Wales – Netherlands.

We start a bundle of nerves. And the Welsh are up for it.

90 minutes, end-to-end. Back and forth. Both sides attacking with a vengeance.

We concede early but maintain the faith.

The winning goal comes from Hak, switched into the libero slot, who plays Bijl in behind the Welsh defense, centering for Karabakal. That’ the stuff. Our depth paying dividends.

Albania managed to draw with the French yesterday, so we have a chance to take hold of the Group when we play the Albanians in 4 days’ time.


Group Stage, Matchday 2; Netherlands – Albania.

Zlatan is furious. Utter domination. But we are careless in front of goal. Wasteful.

While this win secures qualification for the knockout rounds, we all know that we have to be better.

More ruthless. Perhaps a 4am kickboxing session with Zlatan tomorrow will help.

The French beat Wales, so our match will determine who wins the Group. Win or draw, and it is ours.


Group Stage, Matchday 3; Netherlands – France.

With passage to the knockout rounds secured, I make the executive decision. We’re going to rotate the squad even if it means that we don’t win the Group. Winning our Group means little, if anything. Our goal is to win it all.

(Zlatan was very upset. When I told him I’d made an executive decision, he took that to mean that we were going to watch the Kurt Russell, Halle Berry and Steven Seagal classic from 1996. He wasn’t speaking to me, up until the point that he and Bozidar demanded that I resolve their long-running over the realism of the physics in the mid-air boarding scene. Now, they’re both mad at me.)

The French win the match and the Group. But at what cost? Will our calculated gamble pay off?


Group Stage Overview; 2nd Round Draw.

We draw Didi Kubauer’s England. France draw Iceland. Ugh. I’m not regretting the squad rotation. At least, not yet.


2nd Round; England – Netherlands.

That’s the stuff, lads.

England melted down so fast under our sustained high press that a Swedish teenage girl is probably complaining to the UN about it.

To make things even better, the French are out after losing 1-nil to Iceland. Our gambit paid off.

We will face Niko Kovac’s Belgium in Amsterdam, for a spot in the semifinals.


Quarterfinals; Netherlands – Belgium.

Visser starts us off on a flyer, after a beautiful solo effort in the 17th minute. Zlatan celebrates by ripping his jacket, Incredible Hulk-style, in the technical area.

(Kovac seems more than intimidated by this display of raw physical aggression, from the 50 year-old Swedish footballing icon. He doesn’t look a day over 37, if I’m being honest.)

A 30-yard, curling free kick from Frenkie de Jong makes it 2-nil in the 30th minute. Kovac cannot believe his eyes as Zlatan flexes, tearing his shirt from his upper torso. What a goal, in this, his final tournament.

The Belgians have barely caught their breath when they are stunned by a beautiful solo effort from Bijl, wrong-footing the Belgian keeper and leaving him for dead. 3-nil. Bijl replaced Bakker in the 1st XI after the Group Stage, and is earning his keep.

We are relentless. Zlatan has removed his belt, whipping the ground in front of him, demanding more. We continue to press and our aggression is rewarded with a penalty in the 41st minute. De Jong buries it. That’s 4.

41 minutes gone, and the match is done and dusted. Kovac weeps on the sidelines for his lost innocence. The reckoning will surely be severe.

2 minutes into first-half extra time, and we nearly make it 5 — Bijl smashes one off the post, Vandenbulcke helpless in the Belgian goal.

The Belgians start the 2nd half without Kovac in the technical area, or anywhere to be seen. Instead, his Scottish Assistant Shaun Maloney is standing there, wearing what appears to be Kovac’s’jacket…it doesn’t fit particularly well, but mutineers aren’t usually paying much attention to fashion. As if reborn, the Belgians score in the 49th…have we lost our edge?!

Zlatan is outraged, whipping the air about him with his belt, nearly catching Maloney who is celebrating. They exchange words, both staring daggers at the other.

I enter the technical area — making sure to stay far away from Zlatan and his belt, shouting at the lads. We drop into PM Tiki No Taco, looking to slow the pace of the match, control possession and smother it like a baby in a crib...

I need to find a better way of expressing that, yeah?!

We slow things down, controlling the match. And in the 71st, a first-time volley from Unuvar buries the Belgian resistance. 5-1. Zlatan and Maloney fling insults at each other, with a little handbags at 10 paces.

Visser pounces on a loose ball in the 79th to rub salt in the Belgian wounds. In the distance, I see what appears to be Kovac peeking out of the tunnel, hair mussed with a black eye, dried blood on his upper lip. Watching. As our lads celebrate, he turns and slinks away. This is an abject humiliation for the co-hosts, who have barely managed to reach this stage as it is.

It is our finest performance with the Dutch. By a large margin.

Let’s hope we left some gas in the tank for the semifinals, where we will face the Italians.


Semifinals; Netherlands – Italy.

Pedro Martins’ Italy are unbeaten in 13 matches. Tired legs. But willing hearts. We have no choice but to rotate several players.

The early stages are all Netherlands, with Karabakal firing over the top in the 9th from 10 yards. We could have used that.

Zlatan is nervous, pacing the technical area like a lion. Agitated. Twitching. Jesse, in contrast, is relaxed on the bench. Taking it all in. Bozidar is off playing Mario Kart…he can’t take the pressure.

Italy strike first in the 36th, as we have failed to turn our early dominance into goals.

At halftime, we can feel the tide turning in favor of the Italians. We must up the ante. The lads are instructed to press higher up the pitch. We’re not going down without a fight.

An hour gone, and we’re flailing. I can feel the moment slipping away. Time to ring the changes. A standing ovation for de Jong, who may have played his final match. Mbuyamba replaces him. Gravenberch pushed forward with Respen replacing van der Meer, Unuvar in as our shadowganche.

And almost instantaneously, the tide turns. Gravenberch, playing in his more advanced role, buries one from 8 yards out.

1-1. All to play for.

In the 76th, with Zlatan at my side, urging the lads forward…the Italians fail to clear, and Bijl curls a ball to Unuvar at the back post, who heads home. 2-1.

The Italians abandon their traditional inclination to sit deep and defend, and attack relentlessly, led by our former lieutenant, Zappasodi. And in the 92nd minute, we catch them out with a lightning-fast counterattack. 3-1.

We’ve done it. De Jong is in tears at the final whistle, the squad surrounding him. He is our talisman.

We will face Luca Freire’s Portugal, who needed extra time to beat Sotiris Antoniou’s Greece, the Cinderella team of the tournament.

90 minutes to play, lads. Leave it all on the field.

[PSA: the final will not be live-blogged with Jamie/Gary, as there is too much going on today.]

Final; Portugal – Netherlands.

Thanks to some necessary squad “management” for the semifinal, we are largely able to play our 1st XI. The only exceptions being Hak and Bijl, who I anticipate will see time in the 2nd half. They’re just too beat to put out there from the first whistle. Adenie is back from suspension.

We’ll play our standard PM Laenket SG to start, pressing slightly higher than usual. Zlatan’s belt is already whipping the ground in the 3rd minute, when the first real chance of the match falls to Unuvar, who smashes a loose ball just wide.

Just a few minutes later, as Portugal look to get forward, we counter at pace. Respen through on goal…denied by Pimentel…but Unuvar is there to finish! Zlatan tears down the sideline to celebrate with the lads. We can feel it. The momentum is in our favor. We need to capitalize…

In the 20th minute, Pimentel stretches to deny Visser. We need to find another, before the Portuguese find a way back into the match.

A stalemate ensues, until Bakker is set free in the 41st minute. He fires wide. Not good enough, the story of his tournament thus far.

Halftime. Our dominance has not translated to the scoreline. Bozidar has taken a break from Mario Kart to vomit, nerves getting the best of him. Zlatan has stripped to the waist, giving the lads an impromptu karate display in the locker room, punctuated by Dutch idioms shouted with a heavy Swedish accent.

An hour gone, Mbuyamba receives the ball 20 yards inside our half from Pijnenburg…he spies Unuvar hitting the space…and hits him in stride. 2-nil. The celebrations begin in the stadium, but there is still an incredible amount of football to be played.

Hak on for de Jong moments later, the latter receiving a stading ovation from the home crowd. Tears flowing in the stands and down Frenkie’s face, the end of an era. Just under 30 minutes from the best possible end, but an end nevertheless. Moments later, Bijl enters the fray for Bakker, the least he deserves after the tournament he has had.

In the 73rd minute, a poor defensive header from Portugal falls to Visser on the penalty mark. The Valencia man buries it. 3-nil. That has to be the match. It’s over. Bozidar emerges from the locker room, certain that the triumphant noises mean that he has no reason to worry, he joins Zlatan and Jesse in the technical area, they know it is over. Zlatan does not have the heart to taunt Pedro Martins, who can only watch in dreary resignation. The dream is over.

High in the stands, a disgusted Cristiano Ronaldo watches, shaking his head. He was vocal in the press about Martin’s failure to employ daily sponge baths and ritualistic oilings of the flesh in training, and certain pundits are starting to think he may have been right. Jorge Mendes, Ronaldo’s agent, has been agitating for Cristiano to get the job for years…is this his moment?!

The Portuguese push forward regardless, and a lapse in concentration sees them pull one back in the 88th minute. The Dutch celebrations do not stop. The disgust, still plain on Cristiano’s face as a young female assistant removes his ceremonial robes.

Insult to injury in injury time, as Dias is shown a second yellow for a cynical foul on Visser, who was otherwise through on goal. The humiliation complete, Ronaldo’s attention drifts from the field as the final whistle blows. He isn’t going anywhere, any time soon.

page break

It’s a shame we didn’t have Gary and Jamie for this final, but I’ve been getting pulled away for family things now and then.

What a run. Absolutely beautiful. Couldn’t be happier with how this went. The perfect appetizer as we look towards the World Cup in Japan, kicking off in less than 2 years.

The end of an era. De Jong is retiring and Reis is done at this level (even if he doesn’t know it yet…). The forthcoming Nations League campaign will be focused on identifying my “ideal” squad. The World Cup will be here sooner than we realize.

My attention does need to turn back to Partizan for the moment, though. Our domestic campaign kicks off in 1 week, as we host Smederevo in Belgrade.

If you’ve stumbled upon this post and are finding yourself a bit confused… Don’t worry.  The basic concept behind the Nearly Men save is explained here.  Just need to catch up? Each installment in Nicolaj Bur’s story can be accessed through the Nearly Men Archive.

And if you just can’t get enough…join us for The Ballad of Toothless Bob, a series conceived and co-authored by Seattle Red and Oriole that explores the world of Nicolaj Bur, away from the pitch. What is Project Arcturus? What lies beyond the twisted redstone door, deep in the bowels of the Santiago Bernabéu?


2 thoughts on “Now the Monkey Comes Out of the Sleeve”

  1. Brilliant stuff as always; I’ve followed your previous years and always have trouble differentiating the roles across the front. What differences do you look for (attributes or PPMS) to indicate which players belong where?

    1. Thanks, man! Honestly, I want all three to be very universal in their skillset. They all need pace, and should be able to beat players on the dribble, create for others, and finish opportunities, as appropriate.

      That being said, I do have distinct roles in mind when looking at players: (1) the Inverted Winger should be a Robben-esque type, primarily serving as the proverbial “can-opener” who can unlock defenses on the dribble or through dangerous crosses, served from dangerous angles; (2) the Shadowganche should be a complete forward/false 9-esque player, Bergkamp-esque, since they’re responsible for both finishing off chances and acting a fulcrum when in possession; and (3) the Attacking Midfielder is the most creative of the 3, a KdB-type playmaker..

      In practice, I think the players are probably interchangeable in terms of the attributes I look for, for all practical purposes. But these are the specific skillsets/profiles I think of, when I think about who is going to play where.

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