In their World Cup opener against Spain, Netherlands were off to a flying start, thrashing their opponents 5-1 and completely dominating the second half with apparent ease. Importantly, it wasn't just a team effort; scoring goal after goal, Netherlands forwards Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie just seemed too good for any defender to handle.
But during the second half of the Netherlands' second match of the group stage, against Australia, Van Persie and Robben looked inefficient. No matter how hard they tried, they were unable to find the net, despite dominating possession and Australia's decision to sit back and defend their lead by relying on their back line.
A similar scenario transpired during Netherlands' round-of-16 match against Mexico. After taking a 1-0 lead right after half-time, Oranje's opponents dug deep, inviting pressure and defending the goal line tooth and nail.
Ultimately, both Australia's and Mexico's efforts were fruitless. In both matches, Netherlands managed to turn things around shortly before the final whistle, all thanks to manager Louis van Gaal's clever substitutions and tactical switches.
Against both Australia and Mexico, Van Gaal changed from his defensive and counter-attacking 5-3-2 formation to his tried-and-trusted 4-3-3. This usually involved bringing in Memphis Depay, the pacy winger who made it possible for the Dutch to play with three attackers.
In their usual 4-3-3, the standard formation during Netherlands' qualifying campaign, the Dutch were much more capable of putting pressure on the ball and conquering possession in advanced positions. What's more, 4-3-3 provided them with extra attacking options. Where 5-3-2 is largely reliant on Van Persie's and Robben's abilities to find space behind the opponent's defensive line, 4-3-3 makes it easier to tear down defensive walls by patiently building up solid attacks.
Much like Australia and Mexico, it is likely that Costa Rica will employ a defensive tactic against Netherlands. Like they did during their group-stage matches against Uruguay, Italy and England, as well as their round-of-16 effort against Greece, the Costa Ricans will likely look to play on the counter.
Should Van Gaal once again decide to start with a 5-3-2 formation, the Dutch might once again find themselves with a lack of variety up front and a stalemate that could ultimately lead to extra time and even penalties.
This a risk Van Gaal will want to avoid, and therefore it's likely he will tweak his tactics to 4-3-3, like he did against Australia and Mexico, either from the start of the match or at some point in the second half. Against a defensive side like Costa Rica, it's unwise to rely solely on Robben and Van Persie to score goals.
To employ a 4-3-3 formation, Van Gaal will likely turn to Depay again. With the PSV youngster, who scored the winning goal against Australia, cutting in from the left, space will undoubtedly be created for the likes of Van Persie and Wesley Sneijder, who would play in more central positions, providing the Costa Rican defence with new and difficult problems.
But that won't be all. Looking for ways to pierce through Costa Rica's sturdy back line, Van Gaal will not just look at the match through a tactical perspective, but through the eyes of a people manager as well.
During Netherlands' group stage matches, when it already seemed obvious the Dutch would advance to the next round, Van Gaal consistently refused to bring on an undoubtedly frustrated Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. With Van Gaal seemingly preferring Depay and Jeremain Lens, it looked like Huntelaar would not be given any playing time at all this World Cup.
Then, during the round-of-16 match against Mexico, Huntelaar unexpectedly came on. Motivated to the core to finally show he can be of value, he provided the assist for Sneijder's equaliser and scored the winning goal by confidently converting a penalty.
Although it's difficult to find out for sure, Van Gaal's reluctance to bring on Huntelaar during the group stage might have been part of a master plan. Perhaps Van Gaal saw Huntelaar as a wild card, to be used when it was absolutely vital for Netherlands to score a goal.
Against a defensive-minded Costa Rica, they might find themselves in a similar situation. Playing against a reactive rather than proactive team, it will not be enough to rely solely on Robben and Van Persie. Attackers like Huntelaar and Depay will be needed as well.
Having turned things around against Australia and Mexico, though, Van Gaal will not be afraid to use all of his tricks—tactical and motivational—to see his side advance to the semi-final.
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