The Round of 16 is over, the optimism and joyous attacking play of the group stage have given way to the need for ruthless precision and unyielding determination. Though we saw teams depart the tournament in the group stage those are exits we could often see coming, make our peace and begin to figure out where it went wrong. Knockout football, on the other hand, is one of the most physically, psychologically and spiritually grueling experiences around, just ask Miguel Herrera.
In the relentless sun Costa Rica and the Netherlands fought for and won the right to fight again, to step back out into the heat and give everything to get that much closer to the dream. The roar of the Maracana and the trophy lifted high.
In the controversial wake of the Netherlands 2-1 defeat of Mexico the debate over Arjen Robben’s penalty box behavior has given way to questions about Miguel Herrera’s in-game decisions and Louis Van Gaal’s judicial use of the water breaks to make necessary adjustments.
Van Gaal is being rightly praised for his reading of the game, continually upping the pressure as it became increasingly clear that Herrera had tipped his hand early, the removal of Dos Santos a clear indicator that the Mexican manager believed they could sit on the 1- 0 lead for the last 30 mins. Starting in the 3-5-2 they’ve used for most of the tournament, the Dutch slowly shifted between several loose formations, the ultimate goal being to stretch the Mexican defense, create gaps and give the ball to Robben on the right to dash into the box.
While Herrera is being criticized for his in-game decisions, the fact is that Van Gaal made the wrong choice for the start. Due to the weather I believe the Dutch had always planned to conserve energy and soak up pressure but the rotated 3-5-2 was the wrong choice. Since the opener against Spain it has become clear that Van Gaal meant it when he said he had planned to use the system for that game only. Each successive game has seen the Dutch abandon the formation around the half, moving to either a 4-3-3 or as against Mexico, a series of tactical shell games to keep Robben free.
Against Costa Rica I fully expect the Oranje to take the field in a 4-3-3 from the start. Before the tournament began the talk mainly focused on the young backline as the Dutch weakness however watching them play it has become glaringly obvious that the achilles heel of this team is the lack of creativity in the center of the park. Against the back five of Costa Rica the likely front three of Depay, Van Persie, and Robben will be able to use their dribbling and pace to turn a defense that prefers the offside trap to tight man-marking. The skill of Van Persie off the shoulder of the last man should be particularly effective, though he should prepare himself for a physical encounter. The hope for this game is that Wesley Sneijder will build on his fine goal against Mexico and be able influence play from advanced midfield positions.
For the first time this tournament it will be interesting to see what happens when this Netherlands side is given the lion’s share of possession. Will they be able to use the ball well, move it quickly and smartly too pick apart the stern Costa Rican defense or will they flounder in midfield with endless sideways passing?
Costa Rica are truly a Cinderella story. Up from the disrespected CONCACAF they topped a group of former champions and have been eyeing the glass slipper since. Los Ticos’ well organized displays have left 4 nations shaking their heads in frustration and disbelief. A few flashes of skill from Joel Campbell, Cristian Gamboa, and Bryan Ruiz have kept the tiny flame of hope alive, that maybe they can keep writing their fairytale,
In another of the more hostile environments in this tournament Costa Rica withstood a Greece side that, from the first minute, continued to increase the pressure. An odd Bryan Ruiz goal gave them the ability to hold on past a red card and the inevitable Greek equalizer after which, drained to the point that Campbell shuffled like the walking dead to the spot, they emerged victorious from one of the finest penalty shootouts I’ve ever seen and then collapsed with exhausted satisfaction.
Now they face what is likely going to be the most difficult international game any of them have every played. Without the services of Oscar Duarte, a key starter in the backline, Los Ticos will need focus and discipline like never before.
Like most of their matches thus far I expect Jorge Luis Pinto to set out his side in a 5-4-1. A life long devotee of Italian soccer he is well versed in the needs of catenaccio but has seen against the Greeks just how long his side can hold on. The five man back line works one of the most flawless offside traps seen in years, catching the Italians out a record 11 times.This skill will be key if Van Persie is fit, Robben will more likely being trying to dribble through them but Van Persie lives off the shoulder of the last man, controlling their shape will be key to shackling the Oranje captain.
If the Dutch switch to a 4-3-3 it will be crucial for the Costa Ricans to exploit the man advantage in midfield, closing down the Dutch quickly and allowing Ruiz and Campbell to find space. In this scenario it will mean that Gamboa and Junior Diaz also need to be on their toes, making the right decision but still seizing the opportunities to exploit the flanks.
At club level and in Brazil, Joel Campbell has shown skill at taking a touch and shooting from distance. Though he will likely get few chances he should take heart from the fact that Jasper Cillessen has not been among those keepers leaving their names writ large on this tournament.
Ultimately I believe the Dutch technical superiority will win the day but Costa Rica have been remarkably resourceful in their Brazilian campaign, what they do they do well and that must surely have given the players a confidence that they can shock the Netherlands. All that is for sure is that this Saturday in Salvador will be another fascinating chapter in a fantastic World Cup.