Okay, so a come from behind victory? Check. Late drama? Check. A Louis van Gaal game changing substitution? Check. A Guillermo Ochoa wonder save? Check and check. It’s just standard fare for this World Cup.
For a large portion of this game Mexico was the better side and were only a few minutes away from qualifying for the quarterfinals of the World Cup for the first time on foreign soil. Alas for Miguel Herrera and his team it wasn’t to be as the Dutch managed to dig deep and find two extremely late goals to turn the match on its head.
It was a tough game as both sides played in extremely difficult conditions that saw a cooling break.
The Dutch march on but will be mightily relieved after being second best for much of the game. For El Tri an historic achievement was cruelly snatched away from their grasp.
Here are my 5 observations from the Mexico-Netherlands game:
1. Heat dictated the tempo and tactics
With the temperature and humidity high at Fortaleza this game was always going to be a slower, more considered affair compared with the rip-roaring feast that was Brazil versus Chile.
It was El Tri who adapted better to the conditions initially fashioning a number of chances whilst the Dutch struggled with the heat and humidity.
It was not surprising that both sides played with a deeper defensive line. The onus was on Holland and Mexico to break each other down rather than force a mistake and hit on the counter.
Mexico was more comfortable in the conditions creating a number of good chances. Miguel Layún whipped in a delicious cross early on but unfortunately for him none of his teammates were on hand to capitalize. Héctor Herrera saw a low shot roll agonizingly wide whilst Carlos Salcido stung the palms of a nervy Jasper Cillessen.
Mexico could have arguably had a penalty in the 20th minute as Herrera challenged for the ball in the area with his head whilst contending with a pair of raised Dutch boots. If that challenge had happened anywhere else on the pitch it’s likely the referee would have blown for a free kick.
The Mexicans kept the pressure going at the start of the second half and made the Dutch pay.
2. De Jong injury rocked the Dutch early on
Nigel De Jong had to go off inside the opening 10 minutes and his absence was keenly felt. Not only was his midfield steel missed in the central areas but Holland also lost Daley Blind’s delivery from the flanks. It was a double blow for the Dutch as they were hit both defensively and offensively.
Whilst Blind’s passing is generally more adventurous than De Jong’s he is nowhere near as physical. That physicality was missed as Giovanni Dos Santos held off Blind to give Mexico a deserved lead in the 48th minute with a thumping strike.
3. Ochoa stands tall again
Spare a thought for Guillermo Ochoa. He was the better of the two keepers in this match, far better in fact but yet he ends up on the losing side despite putting in another big performance.
What was truly impressive about Ochoa’s display was the level of concentration he exhibited. Ochoa was in the thick of the action against Brazil and showed that he’s a great shot stopper but in this match he demonstrated an alertness that all top keepers require.
Ochoa did not have much to do throughout the game but when called into action he did not disappoint. Ochoa somehow denied Stefan De Vrij from a couple yards out when the Dutchman powered an effort on goal in the 58th minute from an Arjen Robben corner. He was later called into action to smartly to deny Robben.
There wasn’t much Ochoa could do for Holland’s late equalizer nor could he save Mexico from late heartache when Klass-Jan Huntelaar converted a 93rd minute penalty.
Ochoa was not helped by the tactics of his team who invited pressure on themselves once they took the lead.
4. El Tri abandoned a winning plan
Once Mexico took the lead they decided to sit back and asked the Dutch to force the issue. That was always going to be a dangerous game to play with the talent that Holland had on the pitch and the bench.
Normally, it would be understandable for a team to sit back and protect a lead but in this case it was a rather baffling decision. Mexico was the better side for the first half and at the start of the second but instead of continuing with a strategy that was quite clearly working they adopted a regressive approach. Before the goal they were playing a few yards higher up the pitch, kept possession cleverly and looked to create chances. After they took the lead they opted to play more reactive football and paid the price.
As cruel as it was to lose the game deep into stoppage time the Mexicans will have to look at their choice of tactics after taking the lead. There was a real chance of killing the Dutch off if they had stuck to their original game plan for a little while longer. There is no guarantee that Mexico would have scored a second but they would have forced the Dutch to think twice before attempting to commit more men forward.
However the Mexicans chose to play reactive football and invited the Dutch to set the tempo. Once they ceded the initiative Mexico found it very hard to regain any kind of momentum.
Of Holland’s ten corners seven of them were won after Mexico had taken the lead. That in itself tells its own story. Although Louis van Gaal’s men left it extremely late it was hard to begrudge them an equalizer with Wesley Sneijder, who’s thus far had a pretty average World Cup, unerringly smashing home the ball to level the match. Once the scores were level the Dutch scented blood and were duly rewarded with a penalty after Rafael Márquez brought down Arjen Robben.
5. A touch of Klass from Louis van Gaal
Louis van Gaal is not afraid of making a big decision is he? Substituting the team captain and star striker takes courage and an unflinching sense of self-belief. Not for the first time in this tournament it paid dividends as Klass-Jan Huntelaar helped turn the game around for Holland.
The FC Schalke striker created the leveler for Wesley Sneijder nodding back Arjen Robben’s corner. He then stepped up to score a pressure packed penalty to send Holland through to the quarterfinals.
Once again Louis van Gaal made the right choices by firstly taking off Paul Verhaegh and bringing on Memphis Depay after recognizing the lack of attacking intent from the Mexicans. His last throw of the dice replacing the ineffective Robin van Persie for Klass-Jan Huntelaar came up good and once again Manchester United fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of having van Gaal at the helm of their club.
Could King Louis sign off his tenure as Holland coach with the World Cup? Don’t bet against it.