About six months before the World Cup, van Gaal gave an interview to a Dutch TV channel in which he identified Robben, Strootman and van Persie as his key players. It was a significant setback, then, to lose Strootman to injury before the tournament. This injury also precipitated a tactical change: Strootman is a classic box-to-box midfield player; without that type of player van Gaal chose to change from his usual 4-3-3 approach to a 3-5-2. The other factor influencing this change was a perceived lack of a top class natural right back.
Friday 13th June 2014 – Holland 5 Spain 1
So, in this opening World Cup game, the Dutch set up with three central defenders and two wing backs in place of conventional full-backs. In midfield (in the absence of Strootman) they deployed two defensive midfield players with Snejider ahead of this pair as a number 10. Robben played narrow on the left, often pushing high alongside van Persie who was fairly central.
The first point to make about this performance is that Holland was very brave. They pressed very high up the pitch, as did Spain of course, but against the Spanish Tiki-taka this was an unusual approach; teams tend to sit deep against Spain and defend on a narrow front. Holland pressed high with the two outside centre-backs Martins Indi and de Vrij following Iniesta and Silva. De Jong and de Guzman also pressed high, which left Ron Vlaar exposed to face Diego Costa. On several occasions this nearly went horribly wrong for the Dutch.
Despite going a goal behind, fortune favoured the brave; Holland did what many have tried and failed to do against a Spanish Tiki-taka – beat the press. They did this with quick, direct and accurate long passes to van Persie and Robben who were always looking to run at or behind the Spanish defence whenever the Dutch pressing picked up the ball. This exposed the Dutch defence, whether to a ball over the top for van Persie or a shorter ball in front to Robben’s feet to set up a run with the ball at the defence. Van Persie’s headed goal was superb, similar to the one he scored with his boot against Aston Villa to clinch the title in 2013. Robben left the Spanish back line with the clichéd “twisted blood”, picking the ball up in a slightly deeper position, running at pace whilst changing direction from a more central position than we are used to seeing from him at Bayern Munich.
Spain looked shell shocked by the end.
Wednesday 18th June 2014 – Australia 2 Holland 3
The detail of this game was rather overshadowed by the excellence of Cahill’s goal. From Holland’s perspective, however, the headline was that they were the first team to obtain back to back victories and in so doing they qualified for the knock-out stages.
Van Gaal chose to start this game with the same players in the same formation, (3-5-2), which had faced Spain. As in that match, the opposition started in a 4-3-3 with both sides pressing each other. Were Holland’s players were a little complacent? After all, Australia were the lowest ranked side to qualify for the finals. Maybe, but the real difference for Holland was in the problem posed by the opposition. Spain’s Tiki-taka is all about possession; Australia were more direct. What this meant was that whereas two of Spain’s front three tended to drop off to link with their midfield, all Australia’s front three pushed onto one of Holland’s back three. Australia’s central midfield two were able to push on, creating overloads, in fact the central midfield two often ran beyond their attacking three. Leckie’s pace and direct running notably caused Holland problems on the left hand side. So it was against the run of play when Holland took the lead. Their goal came from much the same tactic we saw against Spain: a quick transition, an early headed pass through the inside left channel from Blind for Robben to collect and run at the opposition before firing home. Almost immediately, Australia struck back through Cahill’s wonder goal.
On balance Holland were probably happy to go in at half time with the score at 1-1. Just before the break Martins Indi left the pitch with concussion and at half time van Gaal chose to reorganise. He introduced Memphis Depay for Martins Indi and reverted to a 4-3-3 with Daley Blind moving to left back and Janmaat dropping deeper to right back. This gave Holland an extra man at the back; they now had four against three, and a spare man to watch the runners from central midfield. Holland had a greater degree of control. Australia still had some momentum after their first half performance and this change didn’t stop them from taking the lead from the penalty spot after Janmaat had handled in the box. This was a harsh award as Janmaat was standing at point blank range. He could not have hoped to get out of the way of the cross when it struck his arm.
Ahead of the defensive reorganisation, Sneijder dropped back to form a midfield three: Depay on the right, van Persie centrally and Robben (where we are used to seeing him for his club) cutting in from the right. It was Depay rather than Robben who made the difference, however, creating a goal for van Persie and scoring one himself. So Holland edged out ‘the plucky Aussies’. Van Gaal’s half time reorganisation had worked.
Monday 23rd June 2014 – Holland 2 Chile 0
With van Persie suspended, van Gaal had to make at least one personnel change; he chose to make three as well as a change to the shape of the side. Chile was many people’s form side going into this game, having also collected six points from their first two games. As a consequence both sides had qualified for the knock-out rounds but both would want to top the group in order to secure what in theory appeared an easier route forward.
Despite this, and perhaps because of Chile’s all-action, high tempo, dynamic approach to their opening games, van Gaal adopted a cautious, almost defensive approach, resorting to a 5-3-2 shape with Kuyt playing so deep that it appeared that the Dutch had two left backs (Blind being the other). Sneijder dropped deep to form a midfield three with Wijnaldum and De Jong (playing in place of De Guzman). In attack, van Gaal set up the team without a conventional centre forward but instead played Robben on the right and Lens to the left, almost as inverted wingers cutting in from the outside.
In the aftermath, Holland and van Gaal were heavily criticised by the Chile coach for playing such a defensive strategy. Put simply, they sat deep, man-marked in midfield and looked to hit Chile on the break through the pace of Robben and Lens. It worked because although Chile had the lion’s share of possession they did not use it well. Holland absorbed the pressure and waited for their moment.
Goals eventually came from Fer and Depay (late substitutes for Robben and Lens) after Chile, perhaps frustrated and overtired from their own hard-running approach, had over-committed by pushing full backs forward. This left space for the Dutch front men to attack two on two. The Dutch defended resolutely, needing only a draw to win the group. Goal difference meant that Chile would need a win in this game to top the group. As in their previous games, and in this one without van Persie, Holland showed themselves to be a potent counter-attacking force.