Having scored 12 times in four matches, the Netherlands have had one of the most productive front lines of the tournament so far.
As the focal point of manager Louis van Gaal’s 5-3-2 formation, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben have been constitutive to Oranje’s attacking setup. Looking at the system employed for much of the tournament, they would seem, at first glance, largely responsible for the Netherlands’ success up front.
But a closer look at the tactical tinkering Van Gaal has done in the Netherlands’ campaign so far reveals that Memphis Depay has played an equally important role for Oranje, especially in the later stages of matches.
In the match against Australia, during the group stage, Memphis Depay delivered an all-important assist and scored the winning goal. Against Chile, the match that saw the Netherlands finishing top of their group, he scored the 2-0 goal, sealing the match and sending the Chileans on to play against Brazil in the round of 16.
During the Netherlands’ round-of-16 effort against Mexico, Depay exerted major influence on the match as well, even though he didn’t score or deliver an assist.
This was because Van Gaal used Depay to change the Netherlands’ formation and confuse the opposition, as he did during the match against Australia. Using this method, the Dutch managed to overload the opposition’s defence during the final phases of the match.
Whenever Depay is brought on, the Netherlands usually change from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3, the formation they used during their qualifying campaign. Since his days as manager of Ajax, it has been Van Gaal’s preferred setup.
This switch usually involves taking off a centre-back, with Bruno Martins Indi sometimes moving to left-back, and Daley Blind to the position of defensive midfielder—the role he often fulfills for his club Ajax.
With Arjen Robben on the right, Depay can then function as left winger. Wesley Sneijder remains a No. 10, while Van Persie leads the attack as the main striker.
Just as Robben often does from the right, Depay likes to cut inside to use his prefered foot to shoot at goal. This leaves space for Martins Indi or Blind, the full-back, to look for the overlap.
This was exactly how Depay managed to score the winning goal against Australia. After moving away from the flank and looking for space in a more central position, he slotted the ball past the Australian goalkeeper from a distance.
Against Chile, when he scored the Netherlands’ second goal shortly before the final whistle sounded, Depay put his pace on display by sprinting halfway across the pitch to receive Robben’s assist and tap the ball into the net.
While Robben and Van Persie are the key men in Van Gaal’s 5-3-2 formation, Depay allows the Dutch manager to easily switch to 4-3-3. As an added bonus, a player such as Depay is a welcome attacking impetus in his own right as well.
A 4-3-3 system allows the Dutch to press higher up the pitch. Against tired opponents, in the final phases of the match, this often proves to be lethal, as was the case against Chile and Australia.
What’s more, it seems to downright confuse opponents, who seemingly often prepare to counter the Netherlands’ 5-3-2, not their very different 4-3-3.
This is also why Van Gaal apparently sees Depay, not Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, as his go-to super sub. Rather than just subbing like-for-like, Van Gaal uses Depay to change the tactical outlook of a match.
Robben and Van Persie are not the only players essential to the Netherlands’ way of attacking. With the tactical depth he is able to provide, Depay is pivotal as well.
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