In the match against Wales, the Netherlands’ final friendly before heading off to the World Cup in Brazil, manager Louis van Gaal once again took the opportunity to do some experimenting.
After trying out an unusual 5-3-2 formation against Ecuador and Ghana, the Dutch boss now lined his men up in a 4-4-2 diamond.
In the case of Oranje, the differences between these different formations might seem like mere nuances. All of them, however, had one important aspect in common: They were all designed to accommodate the Netherlands’ best three attacking players: Robin van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder.
Especially in the case of Sneijder, whose ascension to the team’s forefront seems to have come out of nowhere, the efforts made by Van Gaal to get the most out his best players will put extra pressure on an already imperative World Cup campaign.
To fully understand the significance of Sneijder’s sudden special status within the team, it’s important to go back to 2012, when Van Gaal was instituted as the new manager of a team that had performed dismally at Euro 2012.
After returning home from Poland and Ukraine, where Oranje hadn’t managed to gather a single point, the Dutch squad came under heavy criticism. Van Gaal, famous for winning lots of prizes by playing attacking football, was assigned with the task of reviving the team.
But Van Gaal wasn’t just asked to win matches. He was also asked to do it in an attractive way. To play football inspired by the so-called “Dutch school.”
The manager got to work by implementing a rejuvenation process. Up front, Dynamo Kyiv’s Jeremain Lens was put next to Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben. In midfield, Marc van Bommel—who retired from football—was replaced by Kevin Strootman. The most decisive changes were made in defence: Almost the entire back four—or is it back five?—was replaced.
Wesley Sneijder, who had been a key part in the Netherlands’ World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 setups, was victimised and banished to be a substitute. In some matches, Sneijder was left out of the squad altogether.
Sneijder was demoted, Van Gaal explained very publicly, because he wouldn’t get fit, and because he seemingly “didn’t get it,” as was reported by ESPN.
In the attacking 4-3-3 system employed by Van Gaal, all in accordance with the "Dutch school," there simply didn’t seem to be any place for Sneijder—a true No. 10 who operates in the space between midfield and attack.
To some, Sneijder’s tendency to wait and slowly sneak away from defenders’ attention made him appear lazy. Van Gaal wanted Sneijder to be a central midfielder, to run from the half line to goal and back—something Strootman excelled at.
In short, his manager wanted Sneijder to do a lot more running.
But just as Sneijder started to appear like an anachronism in Van Gaal’s modern imagining of Total Football, things were switched around completely.
Following the news that Strootman had suffered from an injury ruling him out of the World Cup, Van Gaal changed from 4-3-3 to an unusual 5-3-2 formation, completely ignoring his task of reinstating the “Dutch school.”
To the Dutch, 5-3-2 seemed as alien as UFOs and tractor beams. It did, however, have one clear advantage: It seemed geared towards the inclusion of Wesley Sneijder.
And so the attacking midfielder got to make his moral comeback in the Netherlands’ friendlies against Ecuador, Ghana and Wales. Relieved of his defensive duties and allowed to play in the way that suits him best, Sneijder once again became a key man in Oranje.
In a way, Van Gaal has given in. Sneijder didn’t change, but the manager’s tactics have. It’s very rare to relinquish direct control for Van Gaal, who is sometimes seen as authoritarian and stubborn. Sneijder, then, should be conscious of the responsibility his new status comes with.
Now that he’s given a crucial role in the Netherlands’ tactical setup, his manager will be looking at Sneijder to assert his influence and provide individual brilliance. Should the playmaker fail to deliver, the new system might crumble.
Ultimately, Sneijder’s performance might make the difference between tactical masterplan and catastrophe.
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