After the disappointment of elimination in a semi-final, the 3rd/4th Place play-off game is generally an unwanted consolation. Whilst Holland could look back on a tournament where they had exceeded expectations, Brazil certainly couldn’t say the same; following a 1-7 reverse to Germany in their semi-final they went into this game as a wounded animal looking to regain some pride.

Saturday 12th July 2014 – Brazil 0 Holland 3

The story of this game was that Holland were organised, disciplined and resolute whilst Brazil were sloppy and naïve, making silly errors that saw Holland take a two goal lead within the first 20 minutes. Would Brazil capitulate again?

Van Gaal was forced to make a last minute change pre-match when Sneijder pulled a hamstring in the warm up. The shape stayed the same as a 3-5-2, with Blind and Kuyt as the wingbacks. Jordy Claise started a game for the first time at this tournament and played as the deeper midfield player in a central three with De Guzman and Wijnaldum. Brazil set up as a 4-2-3-1 with Willian, Oscar and Ramires behind Jo. Thiago Silva returned to central defence.

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Holland scored within two minutes; this served to illustrate the same pattern of naivety shown by Brazil in the semi-final.  From the start, Brazil’s fullbacks pushed forward recklessly, leaving space for Holland’s players to spin into on the break. van Persie knocked a ball around the corner for Robben, who ran into the edge of the box before being pulled back by Thiago Silva. The referee was generous to both parties, giving a penalty to Holland and declining the opportunity to send off Silva. Holland’s second goal was a consequence of poor decision making from Luiz.  A simple cross should have been put into touch, but instead Luiz produced a back header which dropped to Blind on the edge of the box. He controlled it and calmly shot into the roof of the net.

Brazil Soccer WCup Brazil Netherlands       2nd half

Between and after these goals the pattern of the whole match was the same. Brazil threw men forward, losing their shape, whilst Holland sat deep and kept theirs. At the start of the second half, Fernandinho was introduced in place of Gustavo and Brazil tried a few strongarm tactics, but Holland did not lose their discipline and always looked dangerous on the break. Would Holland be able to snatch more goals on the break? Almost inevitably they did when Wijnaldum scored in injury time at the end of the game.

World Cup Overview

Looking at the whole tournament Holland did a lot better than many people anticipated. This is to van Gaal’s credit; he got the most out of the available players via a strong team spirit and an astute tactical approach. He also showed himself to be tactically flexible.

It is certainly fair to say that van Gaal demonstrated that he is far more flexible in his thinking than many Dutch critics had anticipated.  (They were unhappy with a move away from the usual Dutch 4-3-3 formation.) He moved away from that approach because he felt that the players available to him could not make it work. His squad was uneven; he had three established World class players in van Persie, Robben and Snejider and perhaps a couple of other younger players (who may develop to that level in time). The rest of his squad, largely based at home in Holland, was young and inexperienced. Therefore to have finished third or fourth in the tournament is a significant over-achievement.

The move to a 3-5-2 approach saw Holland sail through the group stage with three wins. The approach was fairly simple: sit deep in defence, man mark in midfield and look to hit early passes to Robben and van Persie when you gain possession. This worked against Spain, Australia and Chile – three teams who were prepared to attack – because they left space for Robben and van Persie to do the same. The weather conditions for some games favoured Holland as stifling temperatures saw opponents wilt after expending significant energy early on.

In the last two games Costa Rica and Argentina followed Mexico’s lead by sitting deep and defending in numbers, thereby restricting van Persie (whose form had faded for a number of reasons) and Robben. van Persie now had no opportunity to run onto the early ball over the top and Robben was left with little space to exploit with his shuttling runs. Had these two teams learnt from the experience of the teams Holland had played earlier? Attack and be picked off, sit deep and you stand a better chance.  Holland remained equally cautious, presumably concerned to avoid the need to “get out of jail” as they had done against Mexico; a task that would be increasingly harder against better opposition. The consequence was two nil-nil draws, both decided on penalties.

Holland had one shot on target in 120 minutes of play against Argentina. This tells a tale. That tale appears to be that van Gaal was fully aware of the limitations of his available squad and had devised a cautious tactic to get the most out of them. The team bought into his methods and his shrewd marshalling of those resources meant that he could get them so far, but ultimately the semi-final was the limit.  Against better opposition, well organised and tactically shrewd themselves, his organisation wasn’t enough.

There is an irony in the Dutch tactical approach to this tournament. Holland gave the world “Total Football”, which in recent years begat “Tiki -Taka”. The principal difference between these two generations of the same tactic is that whilst Total Football tended to be direct and fast, Tiki-Taka is more patient, reliant on a domination of possession in order to wear the opposition down. The response to Tiki-Taka is “counter-pressing”; sit deep in a compact defensive block and then look to hit the opponent on the counter-attack at the point of transition when they are out of shape or overcommitted. The counter-pressing team is effectively saying “you can control the ball, but not the game”. Holland’s approach during the tournament was essentially “counter pressing” rather than Total Football.  Consider the irony of a Dutch coach from the Total Football tradition using the “antidote” system to prosper. The problem for van Gaal and Holland was that this could only take them so far.  Against two teams who refused to take the initiative, Costa Rica and Argentina, his tactic didn’t work quite so well. Both of these matches were decided by penalties, which exposed the Dutch Achilles heel.

For United fans we can reflect that he has the ability to control the available playing resources at our club, and will have longer to work with the players.  Ed Woodward, we are looking at you – give him the players and let’s see what he can do.