Netherlands vs. Ghana: 6 Things We Learned
In their second friendly in preparation for the World Cup in Brazil, the Netherlands faced Ghana on Saturday.
The match was especially interesting considering manager Louis van Gaal's recent switch to a 5-3-2 formation. The key question was: Would Oranje once again line up in this unusual system, or would the Dutch return to their traditional 4-3-3 setup?
And what about Wesley Sneijder? Would the attacking midfielder play, and would he be able to reach his old form? Furthermore, how would Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie function as a strike partnership?
Answering these questions and more, we take a look at the six most important lessons from the Netherlands' 1-0 win over Ghana.
5-3-2 Is Here to Stay
After it became apparent that Kevin Strootman would definitely miss the World Cup due to a severe injury in March, Van Gaal decided to ditch idealism for pragmatism and employ an unusual 5-3-2 formation while preparing for the World Cup.
The new system was introduced during the Netherlands' first friendly against Ecuador. On Saturday, it became clear that the new system is here to stay, as the Dutch employed the system throughout the entire match.
By now, we can assume the Netherlands will use their new formation during the World Cup, where the Dutch will face Spain, Australia and Chile in the first round of the tournament.
Blind Best for Left-Back
For a while, the Dutch left-back position seemed up for grabs. With mixed success, players such as PSV's Jetro Willems and Feyenoord's Terence Kongolo were all tried out.
But after the match against Ghana, it's clear that Daley Blind is Van Gaal's best bet.
Initially, it looked as if Blind would play as a defensive midfielder, where he's usually deployed at Ajax. But with the versatile Blind at left-back, Van Gaal has the option to add some more creativity to his midfield by pairing Jonathan de Guzman or Jordy Clasie with the more defensive-minded Nigel de Jong.
The 5-3-2 formation is dependent on intelligent wing-backs, and against Ghana, Blind has shown he's up for the job.
De Jong Bossed the Midfield
Van Gaal likes to pair his more creative players with a tough-tackling, ball-winning anchor in midfield, and at Oranje, De Jong has stepped up to fulfill this role perfectly.
Against Ghana, De Jong was making tackles, winning possession and letting the Ghanaian players know who's boss.
This relieved Wesley Sneijder of his defensive duties and let him function in the space between the midfield and attack as a true No. 10. It also allowed De Jong's partner Jonathan de Guzman to roam forward and express his creativity.
Sneijder Is Back
Against Ecuador, Sneijder was not in the squad. Since he still had obligations with his club side Galatasaray, the playmaker had not yet joined training camp.
Young PSV midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum took over from Sneijder and managed to impress during the first half. Nonetheless, the in-form Sneijder we saw against Ghana was a notable improvement.
The playmaker sprayed passes toward Van Persie, Robben and the upcoming wing-backs. He also posed an attacking threat by shooting from range and popping up in the box.
Sneijder might have been out of favour with Van Gaal for a while, but fans must be happy to see the midfielder reinstated.
Robben Is Key
Although Robben's stand-in, Memphis Depay, played well during the Netherlands' friendly against Ecuador, it became clear in that match that Oranje needed more speed on the break.
For this reason, the return of Robben—who was not in the squad against Ecuador because he still had the German Cup final to play with Bayern Munich—was more than welcome.
In Van Gaal's new 5-3-2 formation, the wing-backs are supposed to provide width. This allows Robben to be more creative, and as a consequence, the free-roaming winger had all the freedom to cut inside from the flank or stay more centrally.
Without the expeditious Robben, the Dutch attack seemed incomplete. Now that he's back, Oranje's offensive runs seem much less predictable.
Lens Could Still Play a Role
Near the end of the second half, Van Persie was taken off for young PSV winger Memphis Depay, while attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder was taken off for Jeremain Lens.
During the Netherlands' qualifiers, Lens was a key man in Van Gaal's 4-3-3 system, but the Dynamo Kyiv attacker had seemingly become a victim of Oranje's change in formation.
Teaming up with Depay and Robben near the end of the match against Ghana, however, Lens functioned as one of Oranje's three most attacking players.
The trio's main strength was arguably their pace. Especially when looking to counter near the end of a match, Lens could still have a role to play for Oranje.