Koeman: I always believed I could improve things

  • Ronald Koeman has overseen a transformation in the Netherlands’ fortunes

  • The Dutch topped a UEFA Nations League with France and Germany

  • Koeman speaks to FIFA.com about the reasons behind their revival

When Ronald Koeman became Netherlands coach last February, he found a football nation wallowing in misery. And with the long faces came an even longer list of problems.

The negativity was understandable. Since finishing third at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™, the Dutch had endured two miserable qualifying failures and been through three different coaches.

Nor did improvement seem imminent. It was not by accident that the team had toiled in those calamitous campaigns, losing to the likes of Bulgaria and suffering home-and-away defeats to Iceland and Czech Republic.

The stars who had inspired the team to podium finishes at the last two Worlds Cups – men like Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie – were in the process of bidding farewell. And the search for worthy replacements was coming up empty.

Koeman also faced the most daunting start imaginable: a UEFA Nations League group with the reigning world champions and their soon-to-be successors. But he embraced that challenge, and a year that promised to be an unmitigated disaster became an unlikely triumph.

Topping that section ahead of France and Germany, and doing so in some style, has transformed the national outlook. Add Ajax’s recent UEFA Champions League conquests to the mix and it’s easy to see why Dutch desolation has been replaced by rejuvenation.

It was, therefore, an understandably upbeat Koeman who spoke to FIFA.com ahead of his side’s opening UEFA EURO 2020 qualifiers later this week.

FIFA.com: Mr Koeman, you’ve been in the job for little over a year, which seems remarkable when you consider where the team were when you took over and the mood now. How would you assess the progress that has been made? Ronald Koeman: Well, expectations now for the team are far higher now than when we came in – and that’s good. Big things will be expected of us in the EURO qualifiers and that reflects the results and performances we’ve had. It’s a big change, and a good one, because when we took over the fans were not at all positive about the national team. Fortunately results have been encouraging, and the fans now see in the players the kind of happiness that they expect from those who represent the national team. With PSV and Ajax especially doing well in the Champions League, there is a really positive feeling in the country again.

You came in after two successive qualifying failures, with three coaches – two of them hugely experienced – having failed to turn things around. Was there any hesitation in taking the job? No, none at all. In a way it was a good moment to step in because everyone knew that something had to change. It’s true there was a lot of negativity at the time - maybe too much - but I always believed I could help improve things. Now the stadiums are sold out for national team matches again, and that hadn’t been the case in the last few years.

As you mentioned, your achievements with the national team have been followed by Ajax’s success in the Champions League. What impact has that had on the national team? It has been a big help to us. The Eredivisie was one of the challenges we faced when we took over because it does not have the same level of intensity as the English, German or Spanish leagues. But the way Ajax and PSV have been playing, and the experiences they’ve had in the Champions League, have shown their players the intensity needed at the very top level.

When you took the job, you said: “We have enough talent but we need to change some things.” What were those things, and how easy was it to put them right? Well, we wanted to change the system at first and we did that, to play five defenders. But that changed again after the summer, when we went to a back four. You have to be ready to do that, and we saw that the players were more comfortable in a four. Plus Ajax and PSV play with that system, so it was more familiar to a lot of them. The players understanding a system and feeling comfortable is important because, outside of big tournaments, national coaches don’t have a lot of time to work with our players on the training pitch.

Ronald Koeman speaks to his players during the Netherlands Training session held at Amsterdam Arena also known as the Johan Cruyff Arena

It’s often said that a different skill-set is required for national coaches, due to the reduced contact time with players like you mention. How have you adapted to the role? First and foremost, it’s a great job. You have to be very proud to be coach of your national team. And I think it was a good moment for me to take this job after a long time in club football, and three-and-a-half seasons in England. It’s very different, of course, to coaching a club team with a match every few days. I watch a lot of football, travel a lot to meet with international players and at certain times - September to October last year, for example, with lots of big games - it’s fantastic. But November to March - having four months with nothing at all - has been tough. I like to have contact with my players, so those periods are difficult for me.

It has been a period of renewal for your team, with the retirement of several influential stalwarts. It was also said that there was a “lost generation” of Dutch players after the likes of Robben and Sneijder. How did you view that challenge? I think it’s normal sometimes - in any country, not just the Netherlands - to go through periods where talent isn’t coming through quite as much. It’s difficult for a national coach too because you don’t develop young players – the development happens at their clubs. And that’s why I return to the Ajax and PSV situation, and how their success has helped us. If you’re a young player and win 4-1 in the Bernabeu, imagine what that does for you and for your confidence. But of course, even when young players come through, you need balance in the team. And yes, that was a challenge for us because we had lost Van Persie, Van der Vaart, Sneijder and Robben – all top, top players, who provided a lot of creativity for the national team and were very influential. When you lose players of that stature, you need new leaders to step forward and, fortunately, we’ve had that. Virgil van Dijk, my captain, has been really, really important to us, and so have the likes of Gini Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman.

Ronald Koeman and his Netherlands captain Virgil van Dijk.

A Nations League group with the last two world champions was as tough a start as you could have faced. How did you manage to come out on top? That was fantastic because it was clear that no-one expected us to win a group with France and Germany. I actually think the key game was the first one (a 2-1 defeat to France in Paris), even though we lost. We really played well despite the result and the players saw that they could compete against the world champions and took a lot of confidence from it.

Clearly, you would have liked to have been at the World Cup in a coaching capacity. But did observing it from a distance enable you to step back and make assessments about trends in tactics and approaches among the top national teams? Definitely. We looked closely at the World Cup – obviously to scout our future opponents, like France, but also to look at the systems and tactics being used by the likes of England and Belgium. We brought all those lessons back to the Dutch team and it was actually one of the reasons why we decided to change our system and go back to a four-man defence.

You have Belarus coming up on Thursday in EURO qualifying, and then it’s Germany again. How special is that rivalry, and how much have you enjoyed being part of it again? It’s fantastic. Everyone knows about the strong rivalry between the two countries, but there is also a lot of mutual respect there too. Winning against Germany always means a lot, of course, and it did wonders for the players to get those results against them in the Nations League. Now it’s up to us to give the same kind of performances against them and make sure we’re back at a major tournament in 2020.

AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS - OCTOBER 13:  Virgil Van Dijk of the Netherlands scores his sides first goal during the UEFA Nations League A group one match between Netherlands and Germany at Johan Cruyff Arena on October 13, 2018 in Amsterdam, Netherlands.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)