Manchester United have found themselves a real manager.
OK, so the various Champions League and domestic league titles that have long littered Louis van Gaal's coaching CV already stood as testament to his abilities as a tactician, but coaches can find their methods rendered obsolete very quickly in football—and many greats never see it coming.
Not Van Gaal, it seems. The way he organised and motivated his Netherlands side worked to perfection on Friday, as they eviscerated World Cup holders Spain 5-1 in Salvador. Four years after losing the final in Johannesburg, this was sweet revenge.
Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben were the heroes on the pitch, but Van Gaal's fingerprints were all over the result. His innovative 5-2-1-2 wingback system worked to perfection, at least once his side got back on level terms, thanks to Van Persie's marvellous header.
Daley Blind was a revelation as the side's left wing-back, while Wesley Sneijder was a brilliant foil to Robben and Van Persie, as they came from behind to tear apart what appeared on paper to be one of the best defences in the competition.
"The match has gone exactly as the coaching staff predicted," Van Persie told NOS (via Sky Sports). "That [first] goal came at a good time.
"After that we continued. Often, you quit after two or three goals. But we went on, and on, and on."
What of Spain, however? Just six of the players on the Dutch squad were also around in 2010, compared with 17 of Vicente del Bosque's contingent, and there seemed to be a certain staleness about their play even after Diego Costa won the penalty that put them ahead.
The intricate passing was there as always, but there was a lack of real incision in the final third, with Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique often in different postcodes at the back.
Though 5-1 may have flattered the Dutch performance (David Silva had a great chance to effectively kill the game off at 1-0), it was not by much. Spain have a lot to ponder—and know their next game, against Chile, will see them face a side with similar attacking traits, with a similar potential to pose problems.
Dutch fans, meanwhile, know a victory over Australia will almost certainly send them on to the knockout stages. But, having just beaten the world champions so handsomely, they may now be setting sights a bit higher than that.
And Manchester United fans already have a lot to be excited about, if this game gave any indication of what Van Gaal's insight and Van Persie's technique might combine to deliver at Old Trafford in future months.
Friday's Results in Brief
Mexico 1-0 Cameroon
Spain 1-5 Netherlands
(Alonso; Van Persie (2), Robben (2), De Vrij)
Chile 3-1 Australia
(Sanchez, Valdivia, Beausejour; Cahill)
1. Notes From Day 2
Size matters...Spain must now beat Chile next week if they are to get through the group, no easy task considering the attacking talent of Jorge Sampaoli's side. Yet Australia exposed their weakness at the back; not only are neither of the centre-backs actually centre-backs by trade, they are both very small (Gary Medel is just 5'7").
Tim Cahill's headed goal was not the only time the height disadvantage was highlighted, but it was the only time it was punished. That—along with Arturo Vidal's continuing injury problems—might derail Chile's dark-horse pretensions, but are Spain really a side set up to take advantage?
Caution gets you nowhere...The opening game of the day between Cameroon and Mexico took on an extra significance, with Brazil's win on Thursday effectively meaning the loser would have very little chance of reaching the knockout stages.
With that in mind, Cameroon seemed to play six at the back for the majority of the match, despite enjoying an obvious size and weight advantage over nifty opponents who showed more intent from start to finish.
Cameroon even had the referees on their side, as Giovani dos Santos was denied two fair goals for offside. Eventually, Cameroon were broken down, however, and despite adjusting their approach, they were unable to recover. They still have two games to go, but Volker Finke's side already look to be on their way home.
Concerns about Casillas?...The veteran goalkeeper (155 caps and counting) was conspicuously poor against Netherlands, at direct fault for at least one goal on Friday on the heels of a ropey Champions League final display.
Yet Spain cannot really replace him—Pepe Reina has hardly played a competitive game for his country, while David de Gea only earned his first cap earlier this month—so they have to hope there will be no further slips. His country cannot afford them.
2. Quote of the Day
We don't have anything yet. We've made a pretty start. If you beat Australia, then you've made a good start.
- Louis van Gaal (via The Associated Press)
Talk about not being easily impressed. The coach could be forgiven for gloating, especially after his side were written off in many quarters ahead of the tournament. Then again, perhaps these are the sort of standards you need to set to succeed at the very highest level.
3. Tweet of the Day
4. Goal of the Day
Could there really be any other candidate? Two instances of brilliance—one from Daley Blind, another from Robin van Persie—combined to draw Netherlands back on terms with Spain, laying the foundation for what was to come in the second half.
There may be better goals in the tournament (indeed, there probably will be), but perhaps none will match this one for vision and execution.
5. A Good Day for...
Daley Blind. The son of former Dutch international Danny Blind (who is scheduled to take over as the Netherlands' head coach in 2016), the versatile Ajax youngster has long been on the fringes of the wider footballing conscious, admired among hipsters but little known to the general public.
No longer, you sense. The 24-year-old was almost faultless down the left for his side, showing brilliant positional understanding defensively, and then bursting into life going forward with his vision and passing range.
Fans will be looking at him more closely as the tournament continues—and probably a few clubs too.
6. A Bad Day for...
Diego Costa. Yes, the naturalised won the penalty that put his side ahead ("won" being very much the operative word), but he then suffered a painful afternoon before being substituted for Fernando Torres. Almost every touch was booed heavily by Brazilian fans unhappy at his defection to the Furia Roja, with a chant of "Diego, viado" (a homophobic slur) often heard ringing around the ground.
Such treatment would be no problem if Spain were winning. If today is not the end of the embarrassment, however, then this could turn into a tournament to forget for the Chelsea-bound man.
7. Tomorrow's Schedule
Colombia vs. Greece (Group C: 5 p.m. GMT/Noon ET)
A clash of cultures kicks off the third day of football, with the South American's expansive, attack-minded (but Falcao-less) style coming up against the obdurate defensive focus of the Europeans. It will be interesting to see which team comes out on top in Belo Horizonte.
Uruguay vs. Costa Rica (Group D: 8 p.m. GMT/3 p.m. ET)
No Luis Suarez for this one, so the pressure is on his Uruguay teammates to grab a crucial early three points before they face the two teams most expect to push them hardest for supremacy. Costa Rica are hardly no-hopers, however, and in Keylor Navas they have one of the most acrobatic goalkeepers in the competition.
England vs. Italy (Group D: 11 p.m. GMT/6 p.m. ET)
After today's first all-European meeting, what might this game have in store? The odds, considering the likely heat and state of the pitch in Manaus, are that a boring 0-0 draw might be in store. We can but hope, however, especially if Roy Hodgson puts out a young, hungry England side. Will Wayne Rooney be part of that? And which Mario Balotelli will turn up for the Azzurri?
Ivory Coast vs. Japan (Group C: 2 a.m. GMT/9 p.m. ET)
The only 2 a.m. GMT kick-off of the tournament takes place in Recife, rounding off a big Saturday of football. Again, two teams with differing approaches face off, in what is perhaps the most diverse group of the competition. Japan are technically adept but somewhat lightweight, while a slightly ageing Ivory Coast have pace and physicality in abundance.