‘Was really looking forward to it’
editor of NOS Sports
editor of NOS Sports
With a disastrous 3-0 halftime score for Orange, both teams walked into the catacombs of the Stade de France. French captain Kylian Mbappé wrapped an arm of comfort around the shoulder of Oranje talent Xavi Simons, former teammate at Paris Saint-Germain. A starting debut to soon forget for Simons. Or was it?
“You expect a great game at your first starting spot,” the PSV player said afterwards. “Such matches you want to play as a footballer. I know a lot of guys, know they are top level. I was really looking forward to it.”
Five years ago at the previous edition of France-Netherlands, it was Frenkie de Jong who debuted in the starting lineup. A turning point. True, the Netherlands under Ronald Koeman’s leadership lost 2-1 to the brand-new world champion, but the then 21-year-old midfielder gave Oranje renewed zest after the lean years.
Battle for Mbappé’s shirt
It was the then 19-year-old Mbappé who put France ahead at the time. Afterwards, a battle broke out between the Orange players for the Frenchman’s shirt. That battle was won by De Jong. Quickly he put the trophy in his bag. Mbappé gave De Jong, then an Ajax player, a word: “Come to PSG.”
De Jong did not become a player of PSG, but of FC Barcelona and a defining player with the Dutch national team. And indispensable, his absence proved Friday. De Jong’s replacement Kenneth Taylor was not yet ready for the big time and, in partnership with Marten de Roon, headed Antoine Griezmann’s early counter-goal.
Simons started as a left winger and in that role, after a good run, had among other things a cross in for Memphis Depay, who shot wide. After Taylor was put out of his misery by Koeman in the 33rd minute on a 3-0 deficit, Depay moved to the left flank and Simons became the number ten.
With the same energy as at PSV, with often good choices, a successful header, a successful tackle on Kingsley Coman and also a lot of defensive meters, Simons showed himself as the pivot of the team a sparse bright spot at Oranje on an otherwise black night.
“I always play where the coach wants me to play, but the thing is I’ve been playing in midfield all my life,” Simons revealed his preference. “I had to find the spaces behind those two ‘sixes’ (Aurélien Tchouaméni and Adrien Rabiot, ed.), felt comfortable and got a few balls to play forward.”
Simons had imagined base debut with Orange differently
In that respect, it was all the more surprising that Koeman brought Simons to the side in the 68th minute and left Depay, for example, in place. Davy Klaassen was Simons’ replacement and that was not an improvement. Up front, the experienced Ajacied was indecisive in promising positions and at the back he inadvertently brought on Mbappé.
Klaassen got away with it, but the same was not true of Depay. Depay also gave a present to Mbappé and this present the French star gratefully accepted: 4-0. It was not Depay’s night anyway, who also missed a penalty kick in injury time.
“We did know that France was strong, that they lurked for mistakes from us,” Simons said. “We should have done better. No excuses. Disappointing that those guys get sick, but you have to move on. Everyone has the level of the Dutch team. You play against a World Cup finalist, but that’s no excuse either.”
Orange’s underperformance in Paris lingers, and the future will tell whether the game also marks the starting point of a period with Simons in Orange, like five years ago with Frenkie de Jong. And the question remains: is Mbappé’s jersey in Simons’ bag?