The Netherlands shocked the world with a 5-1 victory over world champions Spain to begin their World Cup in a manner beyond their wildest dreams. Now they have to prove that it wasn’t merely a glorious one off.
Expectations were fairly modest for the Netherlands heading to Brazil. Louis van Gaal had largely fulfilled his mission statement to restore traditional Dutch aesthetic values after the team’s negativity under Bert van Marwijk en route to the final in 2010 and subsequently attempting to brutalize Spain to get their hands on the trophy. The qualifying campaign saw the promotion into the squad of an array of young players, greater proactivity in the team’s approach and emphatic progress to the World Cup.
As expected Van Gaal had gone with the system -- or a variation of it -- that has been the key identifier of Netherlands teams since the 1970s, 4-3-3. But the loss of arguably the best of the younger generation of players, Kevin Strootman, to injury prompted a rethink. Van Gaal admitted that the Roma midfielder was “a player who brings balance to the entire team,” and that “no one will be able to replace Kevin.”
With a far from secure defense, Van Gaal thus went for a three-man back line and offensive full-backs Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind pushing on as wing-backs. The Netherlands were admirably proactive in pushing up high and engaging Spain’s midfielders early, but as is so often the case in soccer, the result could have ended very differently. A lack of understanding from the Dutch back three -- youngsters Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij and the experienced Ron Vlaar -- of when to come up and when to drop off was exposed repeatedly in the opening half by the movement of Spain’s attackers.
Having already conceded a penalty from a Spanish player running in behind, it could and should have been 2-0 when David Silva did likewise but fluffed his lines. Of course, Van Gaal’s men went on to thrillingly overwhelm Spain. They did so via a method that was again a deviation from the traditional Dutch approach. Their attacking success came from quick-hit balls forward rather than from extended spells of possession. Indeed, the Dutch’s emphatic victory resulted from just 42 percent of possession.
The Spanish defense ultimately proved the more vulnerable and, together with some sublime raking, diagonal passes from Blind, Arjen Robben’s pace in behind tore the champions apart. But the question now is can Van Gaal’s men prosper, as they’ll surely need to in order to be a factor in the later stages of the competition, against teams who won’t be so accommodating with a high, error-strewn defensive line.
The Netherlands’ next opponents will provide a clue. Like the Dutch, Australia perhaps also exceeded pre-tournament predictions in their opening match, although to far less dramatic effect. Ange Postecoglou’s young squad, selected with one eye on their hosting of next year’s Asian Cup, traveled to Brazil with the most modest of expectations.
Those appeared accurate when, with many of the players looking startled by the lofty stage they were now on, Chile ran riot early on to go 2-0 up inside 15 minutes. Instead, admittedly helped by a Chile team that became overly contented and cautious, Australia showed resolve to garner a foothold in the match and had chances to level after veteran Tim Cahill pulled one back, before ultimately going down 3-1.
With advanced full-backs and deep-lying center-backs, Chile aided Australia’s tactics of getting the ball out wide and lofting crosses in for the aerial strength of Cahill. The Netherlands’ high line should limit those opportunities and it could be a long afternoon for Australia chasing the ball in Porto Alegre. The Netherlands will surely make it two wins out of two, but the manner of it might provide a strong hint as to whether their stunning victory over Spain will be the springboard for a long stay in Brazil.
Prediction: Netherlands 2-0 Australia
Betting Odds (Bovada.lv)
Netherlands win: 2/11
Australia win: 12/1
When and where: The 2014 World Cup Group B match will kick off from the Estadio Beira-Rio in Porto Alegre at noon ET.