The Netherlands are playing football like no one else at this World Cup

The Netherlands are playing football like no one else at this World Cup

On the one hand, it was a match that came down to finishing. If Christian Pulisic had scored his very presentable first chance, it would have been an entirely different contest. The United States had other great chances, and the Dutch were just more clinical.

On the other hand, the Dutch were also tactically superior. Yes, USA scored and they had chances, but they tended to come from abnormal events. The Netherlands’ scoring opportunities came from more deliberate play and more obvious combined football.

Louis van Gaal’s approach to this tournament is very familiar to anyone who watched his Dutch side at the World Cup in 2014. It bears little resemblance to the type of football Van Gaal preached throughout his career in club, which is based on possession, structured characteristics. appropriate defenders and wingers.

At international level, Van Gaal favors counter-attacking, man-marking and full-backs sprinting forward. It worked pretty well in 2014 – the Dutch only lost to Argentina in the semi-finals on penalties – and it could work well again here.

(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The Netherlands plays football like no other in this tournament. Their man-in-midfield marking looks like something from a whole different sport, and the approach to their backline just looks bizarre to watch, with a defender regularly 10 yards behind his colleagues in response to the movement of the American attackers.

Here is an example of the midfield marking: Frenkie de Jong, Marten de Roon and Davy Klaassen simply took the closest of the three American midfielders and stayed with them on the pitch. The United States knew the Dutch game plan and it was common for two of their players to rotate in an attempt to slide the Netherlands out of position. But it was still extremely difficult for the United States to play in the middle.

It’s pretty much the same approach in defense. Here, you might look at the Netherlands and think they’re playing with two lines of three – a classic old-school 3-3-1-3, perhaps? Not enough. The third ‘midfielder’ here is actually Virgil van Dijk, pushing high up the pitch to shut down Jesus Ferreira…

… while, out of shot, left-hander Nathan Ake is about 15 yards behind right-hander Jurrien Timber, because Timothy Weah was playing higher than Pulisic. This meant that the Netherlands defensive line was extremely unbalanced, but there was little delay from anyone other than Weah to exploit this.

And sure enough, when Weah fell deep, Ake followed him. Here’s an extreme example – the Netherlands are without the ball, but their left centre-back Ake is higher up the pitch than their No.10 Klaassen, as Weah has fallen behind midfielder Tyler Adams.

In possession of the ball, the Netherlands tended to play on the break. But their first goal was magnificent, a sublime pass from back to front that could well become the goal of the tournament. It’s impossible to analyze every aspect of the move, but it’s worth pointing out that it started when De Jong fell in defense before twisting and turning away from the pressure…

…and ended with this measured takedown by Denzel Dumfries, when others could have sent a ball through the box.

This gave the Dutch license to play during the break. They kept Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo in shrewd positions, in chains. They weren’t acting like a true front two, or where they were coming back with the American full backs, who were the reserve players. Instead, they simply remained in counter position.

And, on a few occasions, they came close to doing so with devastating effect. Here’s Depay diving deep and playing Gakpo…

… who couldn’t quite take the ball in his stride to get past Tim Ream.

And Van Gaal actually increased the threat level on the counter-attack at the break, introducing a third striker in Steven Bergwijn, in place of the more midfield-oriented Klaassen. That meant Gakpo coming back to play the No.10 role, and situations like this, where the Netherlands were attacking with a quick three.

Here’s another example, this time joined by a fourth runner.

And, to some extent, the Netherlands have become a broken team. Five defenders, two to protect them – then three forwards went up the pitch to attack.

Of course, the goals didn’t actually come at the break – they came from the back. Dumfries, the game’s key player, was a constant threat down the right. Here’s a cut-back he played 20 minutes after his Game 1 assist – almost the same ball.

And here, on the stroke of half-time, his second assist of the match, for Daley Blind, the opposing winger. Johan Cruyff always used to say his favorite goal was a center back for the other. Whether that applies to the wingers is debatable, and Cruyff hasn’t gone out of his way to praise Van Gaal, to say the least. But it was, from a Dutch point of view, a nice goal.

And, of course, Blind returned the favor to put the game to bed, playing a deep cross for Dumfries to steal home at the far post.

From the United States’ point of view, this objective was far too simple. We’ve seen examples of a back four overloaded by a fifth striker at this tournament, especially in Japan’s comeback against Germany. But the United States had the numbers to deal with and the time to realize where the threat lay.

The Netherlands always looked likely to impress more against opponents that came their way, rather than sitting idly by. Whether their clash with Argentina produces such a great performance remains to be seen. Yes, Argentina are a good team, but they are a team that is as much ready to fight as it is to play openly.

The encounter between the teams in 2014 produced zero goals in 120 minutes and very few chances. We could be in the same situation again.

(Top photo: Eric Verhoeven/Soccrates/Getty Images)

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