Holland finished the Group Stage of the World Cup as the tournament’s top scorers, in spite of the fact that their game was essentially based on a counter-attacking approach. Van Gaal has shown himself to be tactically flexible, adapting his approach according to the opposition or match situation and getting the most out of the available player resources.

Before the tournament the general consensus was that Holland possessed attacking strength but a relatively weak, inexperienced defence. Would that defence be found out as the tournament progressed to the knock-out phase?

Sunday 29th June 2014 – Holland 2 Mexico 1

For this round of sixteen game van Gaal made two changes to his starting eleven; van Persie returned after his suspension to replace Lens and Verhaegh replaced Janmaat. After 8 minutes Holland were forced to make a substitution when De Jong left the field with an injury. Martins Indi was introduced on the left hand side of the back three, with Blind moving into the midfield in place of De Jong. The Dutch tactical strategy remained broadly the same as in earlier games. In fact, in this match, both sides started with a 3-5-2 shape and for the first half cancelled each other out. Holland were perhaps the more cautious of the two teams, sitting deep, marking in midfield and waiting for a chance to hit Mexico with the pace of Robben and van Persie. Mexico were a little more assertive and moved the ball more quickly as a consequence they had slightly the better of the first half.

Both teams were troubled by the intense heat, as temperatures at pitch level reached 38 degrees. In response to this, FIFA introduced two “cooling breaks” after half an hour of each half. Despite this, the play was understandably slow at times.

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The real tactical interest came after Mexico took the lead in the 48th minute. Van Gaal responded to the goal by removing Verhaegh and introducing Memphis Depay. Kuyt, who had been playing at left wing back, moved to right full back and Martins Indi moved to left full back. Holland were now playing with a back four. Robben moved to wide right and Depay took up a position on the left. The shape was now 4-3-3. As a consequence of these changes, the 3-5-2 versus 3-5-2 match up was disturbed. Holland were now able to threaten with width on both sides, with Robben particularly finding space to run at the Mexican left side. This pressure in wide areas weakened the Mexican centre by pulling midfield players wide to prevent overloads.  Holland now had the upper hand and in response Mexico removed the goal scorer Dos Santos and introduced Aquino. Whilst this strengthened the midfield it did little to counter the Dutch threat in wide areas. It was generally a negative change, but Mexico still led.

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Van Gaal made a further change when he substituted van Persie for Huntelaar. This change was made just before the second half’s “cooling break” at the 75 minute point. Van Gaal used this time to reorganise, switching to a 3-3-4 shape. To do this he pushed Kuyt up front alongside Huntelaar and played without a right back (the majority of Mexico’s attacks were coming down the Dutch left by now). Van Gaal was relying on Wijnaldrum to cover the space behind Robben if necessary. The Dutch continued to press forward in wide areas and eventually broke the Mexicans down. First Sneijder scored with a rocket strike from the edge of the area after a head back from Huntelaar. Then Robben “won” an injury time penalty which Huntelaar converted.

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Saturday 5th July 2014 – Costa Rica 0 Holland 0, (Holland win 4-2 on penalties)

In every game to date van Gaal has started with either a 5-3-2 or 3-5-2, which are pretty much variations on the same approach. Here, for whatever reason, he varied his tactics. Maybe it was because Holland were facing another team that was essentially a counter attacking side, or due to the continued absence of De Jong.  It could have been because when Holland played Mexico, the Dutch team had looked far more convincing as an attacking threat when they went forward with width (whether that be in a 4-4-3 for much of the second half or a 3-3-4 towards the end of the game).

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Whatever the reason, Holland started this game playing a 3-4-3 formation. Blind and Kujt played almost as wide midfield players to either side of Wijnaldum and Sneijder, whilst in attack van Persie started in the centre, keeping Robben wide to the right and Depay wide to the left.  Costa Rica set up with five at the back, a midfield three and Ruiz and Campbell up front. Campbell however tended to drop back to equalize the numbers in the midfield area. This all created a stalemate. Holland had most of the possession but were not able to create many significant chances. With both teams having four in midfield they cancelled each other out and neither team seemed prepared to overload by moving a defender forward. Holland had three defenders to cover Ruiz and the occasional threat from Campbell. This tells a tale in respect of van Gaal’s strategic thinking.  The move to a 5-3-2/3-5-2 strategy was reportedly as a consequence of two concerns about defence; first, the relative inexperience of the back line and second, the loss of Strootman (who would screen them) through injury. van Gaal’s cautious strategy only altered in the second half of extra time, when he removed Martins Indi and introduced a second central striker, Huntelaar.  Perhaps van Gaal is right about his defence and the defensive credentials of his midfield as after this change Costa Rica created a number of very good chances and looked at their most likely to score.

The game ended in stalemate. Both teams remained fairly cagey for most of the game – Holland’s midfield was often too square to each other and passing options always seemed to be too cautious; Costa Rica’s off-side trap proved very effective, catching Holland out 13 times across the full 120 minutes; van Persie seemed out of sorts following his return from suspension; the only consistent threats from Holland came via Robben’s running (which resulted in a large number of Costa Rica fouls) and Sneijder’s long range shooting (he hit the bar twice).

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So to penalties, and a minute before the end of the game Holland changed goalkeepers. Why? Krul is not known as a specialist penalties keeper but maybe van Gaal was playing mind games with the Costa Rican heads – being proactive and setting the mental agenda.  If this was a bluff, it worked: Krul saved two penalties whilst Holland dispatched their first four. Game over, and Holland progressed to the semi-final.

Wednesday 9th July 2014 – Argentina 0 Holland 0, (Argentina win 4-2 on penalties)

In the semi-final van Gaal was able to welcome de Jong back from injury. Van Persie had been ill in the days before the game but was announced fit to play. Holland started with their (now usual) 3-5-2 shape; de Jong anchored the midfield with Wijnaldum and Sneijder playing further forward. As in the majority of their earlier matches, Holland sat deep and man-marked in midfield, waiting to hit on the break. Argentina was set up as a 4-2-3-1 with Messi in the number 10 role. Both teams were very cautious and as a consequence very few chances were created across the whole 120 minutes (Holland had one shot on target).

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The problem for Holland, and one which they failed to solve, was that because Argentina defended very deeply, they were denied chances to break and use the speed of Robben.  Holland had prospered in the early games of the World Cup from two repeated moves. The first was an early ball over the top for van Persie to run onto. In this game, the Argentine defence sat deep to ensure that there was no space behind to make this pass. The second move involved an early shorter pass for Robben to pick up and then run at the defence starting from a deeper position. In the semi-final, Mascherano was always alert to this danger.  He therefore had an excellent game as a screening midfield player. In consequence, van Persie and Robben were isolated from the rest of the team (themselves sitting deep) for long periods.

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In the first half, Argentina had some success down Holland’s left. Blind was tending to push forward and this provided space behind for Messi, Lavezzi and even Higuain to run into.  This exposed Martins Indi on several occasions and he picked up a booking early in the game.  Indi was removed at half time and replaced by Janmaat.  Blind moved back to the left side of the defence, Kuyt switched sides to left wingback and Janmaat played at right wingback.  For most of the game de Jong tracked Messi, who had a subdued game, and dropped deeper and deeper as the game wore on.  After the reorganisation Argentina never again had the same level of success down the Holland left. By extra time it appeared that both teams had settled for penalties. It was a poor spectacle.

De Jong clearly wasn’t fully fit and was withdrawn on 62 minutes to be replaced by Classie. Then, early in extra time, van Persie (whose illness was probably catching up with him) was replaced by Huntelaar. In truth, van Persie had looked off the pace for the whole game. This meant that van Gaal had used all his substitutes and couldn’t introduce his specialist keeper. Holland’s first penalty, taken by Vlaar after others declined the chance to take first, was saved. That was effectively the end of Holland’s chances. Sneijder’s penalty was also saved; Argentina scored their first four to eliminate the Dutch.

So that left Holland facing a 3rd/4th Place Play-off game against hosts Brazil.

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