Louis Van Gaal Has the Dutch Flying in the World Cup

The Netherlands are soaring in the World Cup, but how far can they go?

In the 2010 World Cup Final between Spain and the Netherlands, the Dutch set up in a traditional 4-3-3. Their plan was simple: get physical with Spain. They wanted to out muscle the Spanish midfield and force mistakes. As we all know now, they failed miserably, with Spain controlling possession and the Dutch left to chase the ball from start to finish. Ultimately they ran out of gas, and in the 116th minute, Andres Iniesta fired home both the winner and himself into World Cup glory.

Fast-forward to 2014, and that loss can be looked at as the catalyst for Netherlands’ resurgence on the global soccer stage. Since that 2010 final, the Netherlands appointed a new, but familiar head coach in Louis Van Gaal. He took over the position with one objective, to win the 2014 World Cup. In his second stint as the national team Van Gaal came in with a brand new outlook.

His first task in a major competition was to take on a familiar foe, Spain. For the first time in the history of the World Cup, we had a replay of the final from the previous tournament. Known for his tactical prowess, Van Gaal looked at the job ahead and realized that he could not come out with the traditional 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formations that failed them back in 2010 and expect to win. Instead, Van Gaal decided that his best course of action was to play a 5-3-2. The strategy would address two main issues that plagued the Netherlands in their first meeting. First and foremost he wanted to over crowd the Spanish midfield, which was so dominant in the 2010 final. The second key to this formation was to take advantage of his three brightest stars, Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder. He gave those three players freedom to play upfront and interchange at their discretion; all while causing chaos for the Spanish back line. These two tactical adjustments by the Netherlands ended up changing the game.

Xavi and Iniesta who have been mainstays for the Spanish national team, and FC Barcelona were virtual non-factors. They combined for only three chances created without registering a single assist. They were outnumbered in the middle and clearly frustrated by the lack of space given to them by the Dutch to create.

Robin Van Persie and Arjen Robben grabbed the headlines in that matchup, but the player that made the game tick was Daley Blind. Son of Netherlands assistant coach and Dutch legend Danny Blind, Daley finished the game with a 9 rating, which was tied for the highest on the pitch. Daley is by trait a left fullback which is where he is accustomed to playing for his club team Ajax.

In Van Gaal’s system, Blind was pushed a litter further up the field in the left wing back position. Though it seems like a minor tweak, this decision was ultimately responsible for creating a Dutch attack that was persistently threatening throughout the match. Blind created four chances for the Netherlands, with two of them ending up as assists. There was a clear strength on the left side of the Netherlands lineup and it is where the Dutch initiated most of their attacks. Eight of their 11 chances created were from balls going left to right. Daley also didn’t forget about his defensive responsibilities either, where he played a very tidy game as well. He kept David Silva in check for most of the match forcing him to drift towards the center of the pitch to get involved, instead of keeping his width. The game Daley Blind played was a master class on both ends of the field and he deserves much of the credit for the role he had in that win.

In the second game against Australia, Van Gaal again decided to go with his favorite formation of 5-3-2. Heading into this matchup, the Netherlands were clearly the favorites. Everything was going according to the script with Arjen Robben grabbing the lead for the Dutch with a great run and an assist by, you guessed it, Daley Blind. But this was short lived, as a minute later Australia’s Tim Cahil hit a wonder strike to tie the game at 1-1. To further compound the situation, Van Gaal was forced to sub off a central defender and adapt a 4-4-3 formation. After a dicey call of a handball in the box left the Netherlands down 2-1 via a penalty, Van Gaal and his men were clearly up against it.

Following that penalty, an adjustment was made and Van Gaal’s men looked to press high and to exploit the left side of the field again. Robin Van Persie fired home an equalizer in the 58th minute after Memphis Depay forced an Australian turnover right outside of the box. Depay followed up his hard work on defense with a fantastic strike from distance in the 68th that turned out to be the game winner. The move which led to that goal started in the Netherlands defensive box and consisted of six passes strictly on the left side of the field. Van Gaal and the Dutch clearly have something special on that left side, as six of their eight goals have come from that side of the pitch.

Looking forward for the Dutch, with Spain’s loss to Chile, they have clinched a spot in the Round of 16. But there is still a ton of work to be done. They started the tournament with a 23.98% chance to advance out of Group B in first, which has now jumped to 72.55%. Perhaps the most important jump was in the odds of winning the World Cup, which more than tripled from 2.66% to 8.07%.

With Group A still in limbo, finishing first in Group B will be key for both the Netherlands and Chile, who face off next Monday. The Dutch will be without their main striker Robin Van Persie, who is suspended after receiving two yellow cards in the first two matchups. But if there is anyone who knows how to adjust to whatever is thrown at them, it is Louis Van Gaal. Chile is a team not to be taken lightly. They boast a ton of talent up front and their goalie Claudio Bravo has been stellar so far. But the word is out to all of the teams in this summer’s World Cup: the Netherlands are here to play.