The Dutch were not given much of a chance before the World Cup in Brazil started. Critics speculated that the Dutch defence was too inexperienced, and that Spain and Chile, two of the Netherlands’ opponents in the group stage, would get the better of them.
Despite the brilliance of players like Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben, not to mention the undeniable expertise of the manager, it was said the Dutch would have to leave the World Cup party quite early in the evening.
But three matches and 10 fantastic goals on, those critics have been silenced indisputably. The Netherlands have finished first in their group, leaving Spain without a chance. According to some, the Netherlands now have a clear chance of reaching the semi-final, and who knows what lies waiting for them beyond that.
Establishing themselves as one of the best-performing teams in the tournament, the Netherlands have risen from the position of outsider to the top-of-the-list favourites.
The mastermind behind this ascension is, of course, Louis van Gaal, whose ability to tactically out-think opponents was perhaps underestimated ahead of the Netherlands’ match against Spain. Stepping away from the Netherlands’ traditional 4-3-3 formation, Van Gaal devised an unusual—especially for the Dutch—5-3-2 for the matches against Spain and Chile, all in order to accommodate star players Van Persie, Robben and Wesley Sneijder, who have indeed blossomed even more beautifully than was expected of them.
But where the attackers are scoring manifold (and often beautiful) goals, it should be remembered that the constitutive foundation of Van Gaal’s new strategy is in fact formed by the defenders.
Daryl Janmaat, Stefan de Vrij, Ron Vlaar, Bruno Martins Indi and Daley Blind, all young defenders brought up by Dutch clubs Feyenoord and Ajax, have been especially important. It is they who allow Robben and Van Persie to catch their opponents on the counter; it is they who make the tactical pendulum swing.
De Vrij, Vlaar and Martins Indi are the centre-backs. It is their job to mark opposing strikers, block crosses and keep the defensive gates closed. While they pushed high up the pitch during the match against Spain, little attacking impetus is expected of them.
This is, of course, different for the wing-backs. Where the centre-backs are defenders in practice as well as in name, the wing-backs are required to combine the job of a full-back with the job of a winger. Neither the one nor the other, wing-backs have to cover an entire flank in attacking as well as in defensive phases of play.
Yet the centre-backs and the wing-backs are separate arms belonging to the same body, for it is precisely the extra man in the middle of the defence who makes it possible for the wing-backs to push so far up. Without the three centre-backs, who spread out when in possession to cover the entire back line, there wouldn't be any reinforcements in case the opposition’s full-back or winger approaches from the flank.
Thanks to the intelligent positioning of De Vrij, Vlaar and Martins Indi, Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat get the chance to showcase their attacking prowess. And as was exemplified by Blind’s fantastic cross that led to Van Persie’s wonder goal against Spain, this adds an important dimension to the Netherlands’ attack force.
Daley Blind, who is the son of Van Gaal’s assistant Danny Blind, also adds a touch of adaptability to the already versatile Dutch defence. As was the case against Australia, there are sometimes phases of the game where the Dutch function better in their tried-and-trusted 4-3-3 formation. By repositioning Blind, Van Gaal can easily switch without making many substitutions.
Under normal circumstances, Blind would then end up as a holding midfielder, a role he often fulfils with verve for his club Ajax. Martins Indi, who often plays as a full-back or wing-back for his club Feyenoord, would then move to the left. Finally, a player is taken off for a winger—for example Memphis Depay or Jeremain Lens—and suddenly, the Dutch are back in 4-3-3 mode
Most critics were wary of the Netherlands’ young defence force, which largely consists of players deriving from the Dutch Eredivisie. But thanks to the defenders’ individual talent and Van Gaal’s excellent tactical vision, the Dutch back line has become vital to the Netherlands’ World Cup success so far. Providing defensive solidity while also contributing to the buildup of attacks, defenders like Daley Blind and Bruno Martins Indi have been of fundamental importance for the Oranje.
Without the brickwork at the back, the Netherlands’ attacking stars would not have shined as bright as they have. Ahead of facing the Dutch in the round of 16 on Sunday, Mexico would do well to remember that.