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.