Netherlands was always recognized with attacking football since its emergence in the 1970’s. The advocates of Tiki-taka and total football inspired many teams to be like them. Even after their golden era, Netherlands have always remained synonymous with attacking football. The national teams have always attacked and strived to get results. This philosophy led them to many promising performances and also an elusive 1988 UEFA EURO Cup. But, times have changed and changed to extreme limits. With the appointment of Louis Van Gaal after the 2010 World Cup, unpredictability was inserted in the team’s DNA.
Playing many formations in various matches and changing many playing positions during a match itself seemed to be Van Gaal’s strength. The entire qualification campaign leading up to the FIFA World Cup in Brazil saw 4 separate formations with 4-3-3 being fundamental to the system as all Van Gaal teams have, 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 also have been effectively used. But, nobody expected Netherlands to go as far as the semi-finals. It was perceived that the team has ageing players or players with no experience. The eccentric nature of the manager was evident in influencing the team and the way they played.
5 man Defence
When a 5-3-2 formation is visualized, it’s hard to imagine a Dutch team employing it. Especially if a manager with attacking philosophy is in charge. But, Van Gaal has been decisive in picking up a 5 man defense. De Vrij, Ron Vlaar and Bruno Martins-Indi comprise the back 3. Janmaat as right back and Blind as left back with Dirk Kuyt occupying those positions whenever required gives formidable width to the defense.
3 man Midfield
Van Gaal always plays 3 men in midfield, that’s the way he likes it the most. With a warrior like De Jong protecting the back 3, the pace of Wijnaldum and creativity of Wesley Sneijder can be utilized the most.
Robben and Van Persie are the men upfront. Though van Persie has the duty to play target man and essentially provide a focal point to attack, Robben has a comparatively free role. Throughout the tournament, Robben has played wherever he has found space, unlike his previous position as right wing forward. Jermain Lens provides strength upfront whenever required. His presence and ability to hold the ball paves way to counter attacking play.
How the System Works
The 5 man defense is the key to creating spaces upfront. In all the matches Netherlands have played, they were reluctant on keeping possession deep in their own half. This is a ploy most teams use to waste time when leading the score line, but the Dutch have used it as a temptation. The back 5 have kept possession, but that’s not merely a dull grasp of the ball. Constant movement of the ball between the defenders tempts opposition attacker to spring forward to snatch the ball and counter attack.
The role of Ron Vlaar is crucial in the back 3. When in possession, Vlaar plays a good couple of yards behind the two remaining defenders- this enables a secured option to pass. While on attack, Vlaar steps forward and literally plays ahead of the two defenders functioning as an auxiliary defensive midfielder. When he sits deep in his own half, the three midfielders are utilized to their potential best.
In the midfield, De Jong is obviously employed to cut off any chances of counter attacks. His tackling is enormous and being a shrewd battler, he never gives anything away easily. Sneijder is the most crucial man when the team attacks. His distribution has always been amazing. With only 2 men upfront, his accuracy with long balls counts immensely. The 3rd midfielder in De Guzman or Wijnaldum provides a passing option to Robben and Sneijder.
The role of Daley Blind
Daley Blind has literally played on the touchline just like his teammate Janmaat. But, Blind has a more important role in the Dutch 2-3-2. He is the one who is entrusted with the responsibility of charging forward making marauding runs to provide necessary width on the left hand side.
Stretching Opposition Attack
Van Gaal’s system encourages teams to press high up the field. The width Blind and Janmaat provide with a 3 man wide defense creates multiple passing options. Sneijder and De Jong playing as double pivot multiply the already high options. If observed, Netherlands only attack when there is adequate space for Robben and Van Persie to exploit. This is the X factor in this Dutch side; create space between opposition midfield and defense rather than midfield and attack.
The formation hasn’t changed much; 3-5-2 may switch to 3-4-3 with the introduction of Memphis Depay. In the matches against Australia, where Netherlands were trailing, and Costa Rica; Depay was deployed at his most favored position- left wing forward. He cuts in beating defenders and also allows Blind to get into a great crossing position. This variation is only employed when opposition defense has to be stretched. Robben tends to glide towards the right leaving the left wing open where much defense is not required. With Depay, there are two men on the flanks which mean more defensive numbers in the box and more space for midfield to exploit.
The role of Kuyt
Kuyt played 2006 World Cup as a centre forward, 2010 as a right sided midfielder then later as a left wing forward after Robben recovered from injury. In this World Cup he has been employed as a left back, right back, central midfielder and wing forward. His role in all the positions is to create spaces and allow others get into better positions. He displayed stellar performances in the final group match and the round of 16 against Chile and Mexico respectively.
While everyone laughed at the decision to play him out of his position, his influence had been extraordinary. He is one kind of player who always does the right thing. Though age has caught up and he has lost a lot of pace, his experience compensates for it.
This Dutch side cannot be termed as favorites but, their tendency to change their own game so easily can change their fortunes in the ongoing World Cup. Their play is not very Dutch-esque but, results are certainly going their way.