The round of 16 has begun and brought plenty of drama along with it. This tournament continues to spoil us, a shootout and a flamboyant display of individual brilliance on Saturday followed by another heavyweight clash on Sunday.
The early kickoff this Sunday will see the most high profile clash yet of this World Cup’s dominant formation, the 3-5-2. It’s highly doubtful that Mexico’s enthusiastic manager Miguel Herrera will shy away from his preferred shape so the lingering question is wether or not Louis Van Gaal will stand by the lineup that has carried the Oranje to their berth in the first knockout round.
Both teams in this match came to Brazil with the unwanted freedom of low expectations. El Tri stumbled through an embarrassing qualification, only securing their playoff spot through the grace of Graham Zusi and a World Cup spot thanks to an unimpressive New Zealand. The Dutch were riding a wave of negativity, closer to total indifference from the public. A thuggish losing display in 2010 was followed by a miserable slog to ignominy at Euro 2012.
The two sides have found new life on the sun drenched pitches of Brazil. The Mexicans came within a goal of beating Brazil to the top spot in Group A while the Netherlands enjoyed sweet revenge over the Spanish before testing their mettle against a valiant Australia and dangerous Chile.
The three man defense so popular this tournament as brought victory to both sides, though as I’ve written elsewhere they go about it in different ways.
The deciding factor for this match comes down to Van Gaal. Does he stick or twist? His players have publicly expressed their enjoyment of the current system and on paper it seems a good idea to try and bypass an uninspiring Dutch midfield as much as possible. Without a dynamic number 10 it makes sense for Van Gaal to keep the faith with Daley Blind as creator, pumping pinpoint diagonals for Robben and Van Persie to chase.
To be totally honest the Dutch midfield is entirely interchangeable, in this system their role appears to simply act as human roadblocks, 3 to 4 players marking tight and breaking up any passing move that comes their way.
As mentioned I would expect Herrera to remain loyal to the players and formation that have brought Mexico such joy. Only one player, defensive mid Jose Juan Vazquez, will miss out via suspension.
El Tri haven’t really put a foot wrong so far this tournament, playing out their group as seasoned professionals. Various players have had their chance to shine, Ochoa against Brazil, Dos Santos cruelly and repeatedly denied in his man of the match performance against Cameroon, el Capitan Rafa Marquez opening the scoring in the route of Croatia. Against the Dutch they will need all of those elements in harmony. For Mexico it really is an order of “more of the same, but better”, good play from the wingbacks Aguilar and Leyun must lead to incisive action from Peralta and Dos Santos.
What will haunt the Mexicans going into this game will be the poor touch of their qualifying. For all their flair and creativity they just could not put the ball into the back of the net. For obvious reasons that cannot be the case come Sunday.
Marquez and Ochoa v Robben and Van Persie
The fear that must lurk in the hearts of all supporters of El Tri is the sight of Robben sprinting full tilt at their back line. Not particularly mobile and captained by one of the true stalwarts of international football, Rafa Marquez and Memo Ochoa will need all of their ability to martial the Mexican defense in their attempts to frustrate the fearsome Dutch pair.
Size v Speed
Against Chile it was readily apparent that one of the Netherlands main tactics was to simply bully the Chileans off the ball and around the pitch. In a way the Chileans enthusiasm for this type of play worked against them as the majority of the Dutch were just much bigger than them.
Mexico doesn’t suffer from quite the same size difference but they must keep their heads. They have plenty of players with craft through the midfield and should be prepared for some highly cynical play from the Dutch.
Come Sunday Mexico must be wary of the speed of Robben and the craft of Van Persie. The Dutch backline should be vigilant during set-pieces, their young goal keeper is inexperienced and Mexico has a number of threats from a dead ball.
Overall this should be a fantastic match between two heavyweights of world football. I predict a Dutch victory but if the Oranje underestimate their Mexican opposition they could be heading home full of what if’s again.