Welcome back to our latest instalment of the World Cup tactics board, as we run through each of the 32 nations to have qualified for the 2014 tournament in Brazil.
This time we're looking at European heavyweights Netherlands, who have made it to their sixth finals in the last seven World Cups and their 10th appearance overall. Though they have never won the FIFA World Cup, Netherlands have finished as runners-up on three separate occasions, the latest of which was at the last tournament in 2010.
One of the favourites this time around then? Let's see how they have fared and might look to press on in Brazil.
It was a complete stroll for Netherlands to reach the finals through qualifying in their UEFA zone group.
Along with minnows Estonia and Andorra, they faced three well-matched sides in Turkey, Romania and Hungary—though all three were several levels below the Dutch.
The opening game was a 2-0 home win over Turkey which pretty much set the tone for the qualifying campaign. Hungary were vanquished 4-1 away from home, with Jeremain Lens on the scoresheet twice, before Andorra were dispatched 3-0.
A 4-1 win in Romania and a 3-0 home win over Estonia quickly set Netherlands clear at the top of the group with five wins from five and only two goals scored against.
The one downturn in qualifying came in Tallinn; despite taking a second-minute lead through Arjen Robben, Netherlands were 2-1 down to Estonia in the final moments of the game before Robin van Persie scored a 94th-minute penalty to steal a point. It was the only game in qualifying that Netherlands did not win, and it was business as usual soon after.
A Van Persie brace oversaw a 2-0 win in Andorra before the biggest result of the group came at home to Hungary.
Striker Van Persie scored a hat-trick, and there were five other scorers in an 8-1 hammering, leaving only Turkey to beat in the final game—Netherlands won that one 2-0.
Formation and Style
Often noted for their attack-minded approach, technical players and individual excellence, the 2010 World Cup saw Netherlands depart entirely from that mantra. Instead they were aggressive, had a safety-first approach and did not take the game to big rivals.
Now under the guidance of Louis van Gaal, Holland have been able to dominate matches and offer up an offensive mentality with a good work rate off the ball in midfield.
They play a 4-2-1-3, with wide forwards Robben and (most often) Lens looking to support Van Persie. Wesley Sneijder plays between the lines with a midfield double pivot of Nigel de Jong and Kevin Strootman providing balance and mobility. Jordy Clasie could now become central to their plans for the finals after Strootman's injury.
The squad depth allows Van Gaal to change personnel without altering the setup much at all; Rafael van der Vaart for Sneijder, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar for Van Persie, Ricardo van Rhijn for Daryl Janmaat—each slots neatly into the other's position to allow a tactical consistency from the side no matter who plays.
Netherlands will look to play out from the back, though not to the extent of Spain or Chile, and won't be afraid to look directly for the midfield line.
Projected lineup: Tim Krul; Daryl Janmaat, Ron Vlaar, Bruno Martins Indi, Daley Blind; Jordy Clasie, Nigel de Jong; Wesley Sneijder; Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie, Jeremain Lens.
Reasons for Hope
Holland will always be seen as one of the bigger nations in football due to the fact they promote so much exciting talent, and the squad always seems to contain at least a couple of genuinely world-class players.
Van Persie and Robben are two such examples in the current squad, both of whom can win a game in a moment of inspiration and excellent finishing, though both of course also rely heavily on getting good service.
On the opposite flank to Robben, Lens will be the most likely starter, though Luciano Narsingh also featured plenty in the qualifiers. Sneijder, though no longer at the top of his game, remains a player to unlock defences and is key to Van Gaal's strategy.
There are plenty of goals in the front line, if the midfield can supply the ammunition.
Reasons for Concern
The loss of central midfielder Strootman to a long-term knee injury is huge.
Enjoying a fine season with AS Roma in Italy, Strootman was at the heart of the Dutch midfield and started in all of the first nine qualifiers. Along with Sneijder he was a guaranteed starter and provided a great balance of combative qualities and creative excellence moving forward up the field.
The defence has also been extremely unsettled, with no less than six central-defensive partnerships utilised in their 10 qualifying matches. Both full-backs were also switched regularity.
In addition, Netherlands used four goalkeepers in qualifying; Tim Krul will probably start as the No. 1 after a desperate campaign for Maarten Stekelenburg, but Kenneth Vermeer and Jasper Cillessen also featured.
A difficult group containing Spain and Chile, along with struggling Australia, will also provide plenty of pitfalls if the Dutch do not start fast and get consistent service to their forwards.
One final and new potential problem for the Dutch is the uncertainty surrounding Louis van Gaal: He won't be the national team manager after the tournament but wants to get his future sorted, whether that be with Manchester United or elsewhere, to avoid it distracting the players or coaches.
Conclusions and Prediction
The Dutch side have, as usual, an armoury which is the envy of many nations, especially in terms of their depth. They have a system they trust, a manager who commands the respect of players and pundits alike and no shortage of self-belief.
However, they are also undoubtedly looking at—with the exception of Robben, perhaps—taking a squad of players either just past their best or who have not quite reached it. Concerns over the defence and goalkeeper might not make up for the pace and individual threat they have in attack.
Netherlands start against Spain, a repeat of the 2010 final, and while most won't expect anything other than a Spain win, sneaking a result here could be crucial. It could easily come down to the final group game between Netherlands and Chile, and the Dutch have no outstanding reason to be favourites in that case.
Prediction: An early exit in the group stage, behind Spain and Chile.
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