The Netherlands had every reason to step down a couple of gears but instead upped their pace thanks to a fine display by speedy forward Donyell Malen in Monday’s 3-0 win over North Macedonia, advancing their claims to be genuine Euro 2020 contenders.
Frank de Boer’s side had already qualified for the knockouts as group winners but whereas Italy’s Roberto Mancini made sweeping changes for his side’s 1-0 win over Wales, the Dutchman fielded his strongest team in their final Group C game.
One of the two changes he did make was to bring in 22-year-old Malen in place of Wout Weghorst, making the Netherlands even more potent in attack as they became the top scorers in the tournament with eight goals.
Malen, who provided an assist less than three minutes after coming on in the 2-0 win over Austria, was a constant threat all over the pitch, linking superbly with main striker Memphis Depay and free-scoring midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.
The PSV Eindhoven forward was instrumental in breaking the deadlock, finding Depay with a pass from deep before collecting the ball to shuttle down the right wing and find his strike partner to score.
Depay, criticised by De Boer after missing a clear chance against Austria, had an excellent game and darted down the left wing before feeding a perfect ball for Wijnaldum to score early in the second half.
Malen showed his game is not just about pace with a perfect pass to Depay, Wijnaldum following his parried shot up on the rebound to add the third.
Captain Wijnaldum hailed the 22-year-old’s impact.
“We all know Donyell’s qualities, he poses a real threat to defenders and frees up more space for me,” he told reporters.
“It’s always good if you can add another quality player and Donyell is one.”
A youth trainee with Ajax Amsterdam and Arsenal who finally realised his potential at PSV, Malen was joint second top-scorer in the Dutch championship last season with 19 goals plus eight assists.
He made his international debut in 2019 and while this was only his sixth start for his country, he looks likely to be a shoo-in for the rest of the tournament.
But while De Boer’s side had a licence to thrill, North Macedonia enjoyed plenty of attacks of their own, hitting the woodwork in the first half and having two goals ruled out.
“We took it all a bit too easy at times,” added Wijnaldum.
“It’s hard to say where we are exactly. We did well in the group, but we still have to show ourselves against other teams.”
The team’s openness may well prove their undoing eventually, but if De Boer’s side continue to play like this, it will be an entertaining ride.