Louis van Gaal’s Netherlands are a tactical outlier at this World Cup


On the one hand, it was a game that came down to finishing. If Christian Pulisic had scored his very presentable early chance, this would have been an entirely different contest. The US had other fine chances, and the Dutch were simply more clinical.

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

Louis van Gaal’s approach at this tournament is very familiar to anyone who watched his Netherlands side at the World Cup in 2014. It bears little resemblance to the type of football Van Gaal has preached throughout his club career, which is possession-based, features structured defending and proper wingers.

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

(Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

The Netherlands play football unlike anyone else at this tournament. Their man-marking in midfield feels like something out of a different sport entirely, and the approach of their back line just feels bizarre to watch, with one defender regularly 10 yards behind his colleagues in response to the movement of the US attackers.

Here’s one example of the midfield marking: Frenkie de Jong, Marten de Roon and Davy Klaassen simply picked up the nearest of the three US midfielders, and stuck with them across the pitch. The US knew what the Dutch game plan was, and it was common for two of their players to rotate in an attempt to drag the Netherlands out of position. But it was still extremely difficult for the US to play through the middle.

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

…while, out of shot, left-sided Nathan Ake is about 15 yards behind right-sided Jurrien Timber, because Timothy Weah was playing higher up than Pulisic. It meant the Netherlands’ defensive line was extremely lopsided, but there were few runs in behind from anyone other than Weah to exploit this.

And of course, when Weah dropped deep, Ake followed him. Here’s an extreme example — the Netherlands are without the ball, but their left-sided center-back Ake is higher up the pitch than their No 10 Klaassen, because Weah has dropped back behind holding midfielder Tyler Adams.

In possession, the Netherlands tended to play on the break. But their first goal was magnificent, a sublime passing move from back to front that might go down as 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 dropped into defense before twisting and turning away from pressure…

… and ended with this measured pull-back from Denzel Dumfries, when others might have flashed a ball across the box.

That gave the Dutch license to play on the break. They kept Memphis Depay and Cody Gakpo in clever positions, in the channels. They weren’t acting as a proper front two, nor where they tracking back with the US full-backs, who were the spare players. Instead, they simply remained in a position to counter.

And, on a couple of occasions, they nearly did so to devastating effect. Here’s Depay dropping deep and playing in Gakpo…

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

And Van Gaal actually increased the level of counter-attacking threat at the break, introducing a third attacker in Steven Bergwijn, in place of Klaassen, more of a midfielder. This meant Gakpo dropping back to play the No 10 role, and situations like this, where the Netherlands attacked with a speedy front three.

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

And, to a certain extent, the Netherlands became a broken side. Five defenders, two to shield them — and then three attackers left high up the pitch to attack.

Of course, the goals didn’t actually come on the break — they came from the wing-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 assist for the opener — almost the same ball.

And here, on the stroke of half-time, is his second assist of the game, for Daley Blind, the opposite wing-back. Johan Cruyff always used to say his favorite goal was one full-back crossing for the other. It’s debatable whether that applies to wing-backs, and Cruyff didn’t go out of his way to praise Van Gaal, to put it mildly. But this was, from a Dutch perspective, a lovely goal.

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

From a US perspective this goal was far too simple. We’ve seen examples of a back four being overloaded by a fifth attacker at this tournament, most obviously in Japan’s comeback against Germany. But the US had the numbers to cope, and the time to realise where the threat was.

The Netherlands always seemed likely to impress more against opponents who came onto them, rather than sitting back. It remains to be seen whether their clash with Argentina produces such a good performance. Yes, Argentina are a good side, but they’re a side who are up for a fight as much as they’re up for an open game.

The meeting between the sides in 2014 produced no goals in 120 minutes, and very few chances. We could be in for the same thing again.

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


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