World Cup: how the Dutch can win

Anyone who thinks the Dutch will be playing an overwhelming offensive style of football during the knockout stage is in for a big surprise

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The sporadic offensive flair displayed by the Dutch team at times during the group stage of the World Cup was a spectacle for any football fan. Many football pundits have jumped on the bandwagon and hailed Van Gaal’s team as a return to the good old days where attacking football was the norm for the Netherlands.

Nevertheless, anyone who thinks the Dutch will be playing an overwhelming offensive style of football during the knockout stage is in for a big surprise. If they do play that way, they run the risk of exiting the tournament unceremoniously.

When stakes are high and there is no room for mistakes, the Dutch will close down the house. And that was exactly what they did in their match against Chile in São Paulo. The Netherlands, only in need of a draw in order to advance in first place out of the group stage, put up a formidable defensive structure and went on to exploit the speed of Arjen Robben on the counterattack. They were able to capitalize on the few chances they were given and go on to win 2–0, deservingly advancing in first place out of the group stage.

The 5-3-2 formation employed to perfection by Van Gaal’s foot soldiers is a defensive system that relies heavily on counterattacking play. Van Gaal is not the first Dutch coach to have foregone the 4-3-3 offensive formation, traditionally a favorite in that country.

His countryman Bert van Marwijk, who led the Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup, was responsible for a major shift in the national team's style of play when he shocked the country by promoting a more defensive and pragmatic approach to the game. Until then, the Netherlands was known for their kaleidoscopic Totaalvoetbal (Total Football), a highly offensive game pioneered by Ajax mastermind Rinus Michels that was the trademark of the 1974 and 1978 World Cup teams.

The 4-3-2-1 formation often chosen by Bert van Marwijk was shaped by rock-solid zonal defending, with his players relentlessly covering every bit of open terrain in the pitch.

He made the defensive unit into the foundation of the house, an unprecedented style of football for the Dutch. Under his reign, the Dutch used six players with defensive characteristics. They had specifically assigned tasks, and their defensive fullbacks were not as mobile offensively.

Some members of the press viewed Van Marwijk and his structured style of play as heretical and opposed the philosophy he was trying to implement. He was constantly forced to defend his system. During the course of the 2010 competition, when journalists persistently asked if the team would play "total" football—the entrenched offensive game that was the base of Dutch football—Van Marwijk simply pointed out that Holland had never won the World Cup while playing in such a fashion.

In the quarterfinal match against Brazil in 2010, the Dutch team used every tactic in the Italian playbook, making many dissenters question their adherence to FIFA's Fair Play slogan. Many argued that throughout the course of that game, Arjen Robben, the striker, would fall to the ground upon the most innocent physical contact with the opponent in order to obtain favorable calls. Other Dutch players constantly pressured the referee. They complained about calls that were made against them and also favorable ones that they thought the referees should have awarded them.

During the final match against Spain in South Africa, they followed that same script, as evidenced by the eight yellow cards and one red card the squad received. This was not the Holland football aficionados were accustomed to watching in the past.

Back then Van Gaal must have been attentively watching and learning from the experience of Bert van Marwijk, though not necessarily the lessons fans of ultra-offensive tactics would have preferred. The current coach may not be willing to give up on certain elements of that results-oriented style of play, especially given how close it came to winning the Cup. The 2010 final against Spain in South Africa, characterized by relentless and sometimes ruthless defensive play by the Dutch, was a masterpiece for all football worshippers who find beauty in defensive schemes. At the end of the day, if the objective is to win at all costs, who can blame Bert van Marwijk for the philosophy he brought to that squad?

Out of the three games the Dutch have played so far in this year’s World Cup, the last match against Chile was the one in which they emphasized defensive play the most. In that game, Chile may have kept significantly more possession of the ball, but one also had to attentively observe what was happening when the Netherlands was without possession. The South American squad was moving around the pitch in tightly and heavily guarded terrain. In fact, the Dutch played to perfection without the ball, covering space relentlessly in a systematic fashion throughout the 90 minutes of play. It takes superb overall organization, tactical discipline, fitness and a communal commitment by all players in the field to efficiently perform such task. Teams with many self-centered individuals unwilling to subjugate their own egos may not possess the collective mindset to execute an unselfish style of play in which everyone is looking out for one another.

The fierce defending of Aston Villa’s Ron Vlaar and Feyenoord’s Stefan de Vrij was rock solid, simply too much for the Chileans to beat. Nigel de Jong, with his disarming prowess, was a wall in front of the defense.

Chile had no opportunities to penetrate that defense, rendering their extra possession of the ball useless. When the Dutch had the ball, they were simply more effective than the South Americans. They didn’t need many opportunities in front of the goal to score. Time after time, Robben has shown himself very effective with the chances he is given, and in the games against Spain and Australia, van Persie has shown the same capability. Both players have the ability to eat the other team alive.

The Dutch will need the talents of their two main strikers even more in the knockout stage of the tournament, which will kick off for them today when they face mighty Mexico.

From now on, the stakes are higher than ever. Losing means going home. There is no room for mistakes. Relying excessively on offensive play, potentially leading to more open space and a lack of compactness, may result in catastrophic consequences. Now more than ever the Dutch may put their results-oriented style of football on display once again. Tight, solid defense with fast and deadly counterattacks may be the best recipe for success.

This week, Mexico’s Miguel Herrera has probably spent many sleepless nights trying to dissect the defensive tactics the Dutch used against the Chileans and are also likely to use against his side. Herrera should be thankful that he had almost a whole week to analyze the video of that match. For his team’s sake, today he needs to come up with an antidote to counter the orange defensive counterattacking machine.

The Mexicans’ skipper should also take valuable lessons from the match against Chile as to how mercilessly the Dutch can slice up an opponent on the counterattack, as evidenced by the second goal scored. They may continue to park the bus in front of the goal and exploit the lethal talent and counterattacking play of Van Persie and Robben. If they use that strategy, they will become a dangerous opponent for Mexico and anyone they play in this year’s World Cup. However, if they instead open up and give their opponents too much space as a result of reckless offensive misadventures, the individual talent of the Mexicans could prove deadly.

During the knockout phase of this tournament, when everything is on the line, Van Gaal may very well take even more elements from the playbook of Bert van Marwijk, the unfairly maligned coach who almost won the last World Cup for the Dutch. If he does, he could have better luck than his predecessor. Then, maybe the critics of a more results-oriented style of play will have to absolve Bert van Marwijk.

Ricardo Guerra is an exercise physiologist. He has a Masters of Science in sports physiology from the Liverpool John Moores University. He has worked with several football clubs in the Middle East and Europe, including the Egyptian and Qatari national teams.

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