We were expecting a showcase of exciting attacking football when Netherlands and Chile squared off in Sao Paulo on Monday. Instead, we got a disciplined tactical performance from the Dutch, who won 2-0 to go through to the last 16 of the World Cup as winners of Group B.
It was a solid and orderly display from Louis van Gaal’s side. They knew that a draw would be enough to win the group and were content to sit back and strike on the counter-attack against a Chile side who became increasingly more open as the match progressed.
Van Gaal was effusive in his praise of Chile in the build-up to the match and showed them a huge amount of respect by defending deep and assigning seven of his 10 outfield players to primarily defensive roles.
Wesley Sneijder was employed as a largely unused conduit between the defensive element of the side and the speedy front two of Arjen Robben and Jeremain Lens, who prospered more readily from long balls forward from the back.
It was not the most aesthetically pleasing display, but it was an effective one, as Washington Post columnist Michael Caley noted in his post-match breakdown of the chances created by both sides:
The tactical set-up was very similar to that used in the crushing 5-1 defeat of Spain in their opening match and again gave the impression that this is a side suited to playing on the break. Their defensive players appear more comfortable close to their own goal, while the pace and direct dribbling skills of Robben are put to better use when he has space in front of him to attack.
Robben was the provider of the second goal on Monday, driving free on the break in second-half stoppage time before squaring for Memphis Depay to tap home. Leroy Fer had opened the scoring a quarter of an hour earlier with a free header from a Daryl Janmaat cross.
Barring a strange set of results in the final matches of Group A, Netherlands’ victory has seen them avoid a clash with hosts Brazil in the first knockout round. According to the statistical prediction model of Infostrada Sports, it has also nearly doubled their chances of winning the World Cup.
But just how far can Van Gaal’s side go? Have three wins from three group-stage matches suddenly cured all the ills that saw them come into the World Cup with even their own countrymen showing signs of pessimism?
The answer to the latter question is both yes and no.
Van Gaal has certainly struck upon a formula that has been sufficient to defeat all three of his side’s group-stage opponents, including the reigning world champions.
He also has the necessary experience and tactical acumen to make minor improvements to this set-up as the competition progresses. Tournaments are one of the few times international coaches are provided an extended period of time with their squads, and Van Gaal is the sort of coach who thrives in such an environment.
Netherlands have some excellent attacking players, and as long as they can maintain their defensive solidity, this wait-and-see approach will likely be sufficient to see them past most opponents. We have already seen that Robben and Robin van Persie have the requisite quality to take chances as and when they come.
The problems are likely to arise when they face a side who are comfortable adopting the same tactics—to cede possession, defend deep and break quickly on the counter. Tricky forwards aside, there is a lack of creativity in this Netherlands’ side that could see them struggle to break down other defensively aligned teams.
The Australia match also suggested that their defence may be susceptible to pace if the team are forced to push up as a unit in search of a goal.
Croatia and Mexico are Netherlands’ most probable second-round opponents, and of the two, it is Croatia who would be likely to cause them the most trouble. With hard-working wide players, a decent target man and willing forward runners from midfield, they are capable of playing an effective counter-attacking game. Mexico, on the other hand, are generally a more proactive side and would be likely to leave space in behind.
Until Netherlands have overcome such a hurdle, it is impossible to get a true grip on whether this side has what it takes to go all the way in Brazil. We know that they are good on the counter-attack, but suspicions remain about their ability to take the initiative.
To date, no outstanding candidate to lift the World Cup has emerged. Each and every one of the contenders has issues of some kind or another, and only time will tell if Netherlands' deficiencies are more pronounced than those of their rivals.