The modern game demands many things of its footballers: Physicality, touch, technique and dynamism to name but a few. But often overlooked are the attributes of versatility and tactical flexibility.
The immersive statistical analysis that’s now available at the touch of a button has channeled the game towards a host of different philosophies and as such, managers are more reactive than ever in their approach to games; a style that is currently in vogue amongst the very best teams.
It’s something we’ve seen in earnest at the 2014 World Cup with Louis van Gaal and his Netherlands side. For those who pen match previews and likely line-up pieces, covering the Oranje has been something of a nightmare. Van Gaal has chopped and changed his personnel, tweaked his systems and shifted players around regularly, making it a logistic nightmare for journalists and opposition bosses alike to know quite exactly how the Dutch are going to set up.
Van Gaal has got a crop of adaptable players that are capable of playing in a host of different positions and that are able to change systems with ease mid-game. It’s these astute, subtle changes that have turned this Netherlands campaign from a good one into a great one and potentially, a very special one indeed.
Next up for the Oranje is a clash against Argentina in the semi-final. Here, we do our best to outline what to expect from the Netherlands team in what promises to be an encapsulating contest.
Here’s how they could line up for the clash with Argentina:
What have they done well?
They’ve faced adversity and they’ve reacted superbly. In three of their five games in this tournament the Netherlands have fallen behind, but they’ve been able to claw themselves back into the match to win four of their five games inside the 90 minutes. And that’s down to a few different factors.
The first being the patience and acumen of the manager. Van Gaal has wrung every little bit of an edge he can possibly find out of the games, whether that’s substituting a goalkeeper into the match solely for a penalty shootout, or using a water-break to drill key tactical instructions into his players.
The manager’s substitutions have also been outstanding so far in this tournament. Leroy Fer, Memphis Depay and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar have all scored winning goals coming off the bench; the latter actually came on against Mexico for captain Robin van Persie, a clear indicator that Van Gaal cares not for the reputation of the biggest names on his team.
Finally, when was the last time we were a witness to a Dutch side that was as spirited and and unified as this squad? So often in major tournaments gone by the Oranje camp has been volatile and fractious environment, but not here. They’re united behind a common cause and have full belief in the ideologies of their manager, traits that when combined with the raw quality within this squad, make for a formidable combination.
Where can they improve?
While the Netherlands have been the most tactically adept side at this World Cup, you could argue that they have been a little too reactive on occasions.
In their 5-1 demolition of Spain, the Oranje tempted the world champions onto them before springing forward at blistering speed. Against Australia, Van Gaal had to change his system to get a foothold in a game in which an energetic Socceroos team were overrunning the Dutch. Against Mexico, the Netherlands went direct to Dirk Kuyt and Huntelaar after struggling to find a way through their massed defense. All games in which intentionally or unintentionally, they resorting to a reactionary style of play.
Granted, these ploys all eventually all worked. But as we get to the very sharp end of the tournament, could the Dutch afford themselves a sluggish start against a team of the calibre of Argentina, Brazil or Germany? If any side goes a goal down against those trio of teams then it’d be a very difficult task to turn the match round, even for a tactician as capable as Van Gaal.
So while the Dutch boss deserves undoubted acclaim for the manner in which he’s been able to change the course of games, perhaps we can criticize a little him for the ponderous manner in which the Dutch have often started these matches?
If the Oranje can get off to a flying start and go a goal up, they could do some serious damage on the counter attack with Arjen Robben’s scintillating surges forward. As they gear up for their clash with the Albiceleste, you suspect that’ll be at the forefront of Van Gaal’s thinking.
What problems can they pose Argentina?
Here’s how the two teams look set to line up for this semi-final clash:
As we touched upon briefly, an early goal would be perfect for the Dutch. Of course, an early goal for any team in any game is always ideal, but given the players at Van Gaal’s disposal, the pattern of the match afterwards would suit the Netherlands down to the ground.
Offensively, this Dutch team has been geared towards getting Robben driving forward with the ball into space. Once the Bayern man gets it, everything else just seems to fall into place in domino effect fashion.
Robben stretches the defense into uncomfortable positions, dragging players into unfamiliar places on the pitch. That in turn creates space for Sneijder to pick up the ball, who then has options like Van Persie to thread the ball into. It sounds simple, but it’s worked brilliantly for this Netherlands team.
An early goal against Argentina and the Albiceleste would have to come out. The full-backs would push up and in this tournament so far, Javier Mascherano has been left a little exposed by the regular forward forays of the midfield players in front of him. If the Dutch can win the ball back with Argentina up the pitch, Robben will cause major problems when running at Mascherano and the two centre-backs.
But the Dutch will come up against a mercurial forward in the form of Lionel Messi, and if Argentina have too much of the ball, he’ll find a way through even the stingiest of defenses. The diminutive genius has been superb throughout this tournament, and while Van Gaal will undoubtedly have a master-plan to shut down the Barcelona man, it’s easier said than done when it comes to a player that talented. Either way, it’s going to be especially intriguing to see how this Netherlands side go about pinning Messi down.