Netherlands vs. Mexico: Van Gaal's 4-3-3 Switch Turns the Game...Again

Sam TigheWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterJune 29, 2014

FORTALEZA, BRAZIL - JUNE 29:  Head coach Louis van Gaal of the Netherlands reacts during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Round of 16 match between Netherlands and Mexico at Castelao on June 29, 2014 in Fortaleza, Brazil.  (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Netherlands claimed a precious place in the FIFA World Cup 2014 quarter-finals on Sunday, beating Mexico 2-1 after an incredible late turnaround.

Giovani dos Santos had given El Tri the lead with a wonderful long-range effort, but Wesley Sneijder smashed a crisp strike home half an hour later to level things up.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, playing his first minutes of the tournament, converted a penalty in injury time to seal it for the Oranje.


Formations and XIs


The Netherlands used the 3-5-2 formation for the fourth time in succession but made a few significant changes. Daley Blind started at left-centre-back, Dirk Kuyt continued at left-wing-back, Paul Verhaegh replaced Daryl Janmaat at right-wing-back and Georginio Wijnaldum continued centrally.

Mexico used their usual 3-5-2 too, but made one forced change: Carlos Salcido for Jose Juan Vazquez in defensive midfield (suspension).



The pattern of the game was easy to project before kick-off: Netherlands would sit deep and absorb pressure, leaving Mexico with plenty of possession in the middle and final thirds.

Bruno Martins Indi, Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij set their line close to the penalty area with Nigel de Jong patrolling ahead of them; Wesley Sneijder allowed Salcido to bring the ball out and feed the wide men; the wing-backs matched up one versus one and tried to hold their ground.

Mexico moved the ball from side to side quickly and used intricate moves to draw the Dutch defenders out of position, hoping to fill any possible gaps. Hector Herrera, in particular, was instrumental to this.


Struggling to Play Through

The Dutch had a lot of problems playing through Mexico when they got on the ball, with three distinct factors playing their part.

NED managed just four take-ons in the entire first half, unwilling to try to beat MEX's players.
NED managed just four take-ons in the entire first half, unwilling to try to beat MEX's

First, Kuyt was a poor choice at left-wing-back. In a 3-5-2 formation, your wing-backs are solely responsible for holding the width and aggressively pushing your formation up the field.

A right-footed player playing on the wrong side cannot work at wing-back, and Kuyt refused to push on and engage markers one versus one, failing to win his side ground.

Second, Sneijder struggled for the fourth game running. Bar the second half of Netherlands vs. Australia, in which he was moved into central midfield in a 4-3-3, and his wonder-strike here, he's had a poor tournament.

NED take-on numbers improved dramatically in the second half.
NED take-on numbers improved dramatically in the second

He was outnumbered in midfield two versus one and sometimes three versus one, but anytime he did get free between the lines, his touch let him down, and he perpetually ruined attacking flow.

Lastly, Arjen Robben was too far forward, playing too clear a striker's role. In the absence of any attacking thrust from the Dutch, they needed him to pick the ball up deeper and hurtle forward when given the chance.



Louis van Gaal saw all of the this and made a second-half change, swapping Verhaegh for Memphis Depay and completely reordering his team.

They switched to a 4-3-3 formation, playing Depay left, Robben right, Kuyt at right-back and moving Sneijder into a flatter central midfield role.


The difference, as it was against Australia in their second game, was miraculous: runners off the ball, buildup from deep, strong width in advanced areas and balls frequently finding their way to the edge of Mexico's box.

Robben became a menace down the right, able to surge into the box and challenge defenders with the ball at his feet. Less stress was placed on Sneijder to be the sole link player, and his confidence on the ball allowed Wijnaldum to rocket forward and break between the lines.

The Oranje managed to create periods of sustained pressure, rewarded by Sneijder's rocketed strike to level the scoring.



Louis van Gaal switched to 4-3-3 and won the game for the second time in this tournament, sparking fresh questions over whether he should be starting with the 3-5-2.

Miguel Herrera played the game well for Mexico and could have been up 2-0 at half-time, but the decision to send on Javier Hernandez late on backfired dramatically, removing El Tri's out-ball and penning them into their own half.

The Dutch are up against Costa Rica next: a team that will relish sitting back and playing on the counter-attack. Three centre-backs could well be wholly unnecessary in such a tie, so if there's a moment Van Gaal decides it's right to go back to the 4-3-3 on a permanent basis, this could be it.

Klaas-Jan Huntelaar will push for a start, but Robin van Persie will play despite a poor showing here. His movement, energy and nous were missing, but the scorching temperatures in Fortaleza surely played a part.