By Peter Mcvitie
“I call it differently, I call it a 3-4-3,” said a defiant Louis van Gaal earlier this month when questioned about the new system he has implemented into the Netherlands team ahead of the World Cup.
The injury to Kevin Strootman in early March robbed Van Gaal of one of his most important players. A player who is, quite simply, irreplaceable in the national team.
Indeed, had it been any other player who picked up such a horrifying injury as the cruciate ligament tear to the midfielder’s right knee, even someone like Robin van Persie or Arjen Robben, Van Gaal would have been able to slot another player in without having to change too much in the way of tactics.
Such is the importance of the Roma midfielder, though, that the injury has forced the coach to completely change his style.
As preparations went on, the media in the Netherlands noted the use of five defenders in training behind a midfield three and Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben up front. It was, it seemed a 5-3-2.
A defensive formation? From Van Gaal and the Netherlands? It can’t be!
If anything was made clear in the Oranje’s two most recent World Cup warm-up matches against Ecuador and Ghana, it was that this is certainly no defensive formation and it certainly is more of the 3-4-3 Van Gaal originally claimed.
“We’re not going to play with a 5-3-2,” the coach said. “I absolutely never said that. That’s just what the media say. They are making a fuss about something that is not there. I’m trying to hone a system that stays as close as possible to the principles of the Dutch school.”
Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat operate as wing-backs in this system but the two push extremely high up the pitch, so far that they can’t really be considered defenders any more. With the Feyenoord duo Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij playing alongside their former team-mate Ron Vlaar in the centre, the trio can spread out to help cover for the void left by the wide players.
Then, with Nigel de Jong operating as a holding midfielder, there is ample cover in front of the back line, especially when Jonathan de Guzman drops deep enough. With the energy and box-to-box role of De Guzman coupled with the advancing of Janmaat and Blind, it gives extra support to the trio of stars who lead the lines for the Netherlands.
Against Ghana, Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie showed that they can combine to make a wonderful front trio.
Five minutes into Saturday’s match in De Kuip, the three players linked up together, bursting forward with great pace and wonderful movement to open the scoring. Sneijder passed it to Robben in the centre and burst into the visitors’ box to receive a perfectly timed and weighted pass which allowed him to get in behind the Ghana backline. The Galatasaray player then cut it across the face of goal for Van Persie to tuck in comfortably.
As the game wore on, the Dutch were able to stretch the Ghanaians more and more. A low Blind cross from the left flank found Robben at the back post but the Bayern Munich star scuppered the golden opportunity, sending it wide. Later, Janmaat cut in from the right side and played a nice pass to Robben in tonnes of space on the left. As he bore down on goal, goalkeeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey came off his line and did well to block the shot.
Overall, Robben was wasteful when it came to finishing, but his work on the ball was very good. He had more shots than anyone, with three great chances, but failed to hit the net.
Coming up against a back four which sat quite deep and marked him quite tight, Sneijder didn’t have a great deal of space to work with in between the Dutch midfield and front two, however, his excellent movement allowed him to get on the ball a lot throughout the game and continue to pick out some excellent through balls and passes out to the flanks.
This system is one which suits the former Real Madrid player remarkably well. He is able to link up with the wingers in Blind and Janmaat while the intelligent runs of Robben and Van Persie allow him to send some delightful through balls in behind the defence to open up key chances.
As well as that, the fact the Netherlands are now utilising an orthodox central midfielder alongside a holder like De Jong means he has much more support in midfield, unlike in Euro 2012, in which there was a huge hole between him and the deep-lying AC Milan player and Van Bommel which opponents exploited with ease. With this system and this set up in the centre, the Dutch are able to recover possession better and ensure they can retain it in the opponent’s half.
De Jong is certainly a key component of this team. Heading into this World Cup, the Milan player is looking to redeem himself. After the 2010 edition and his time at Manchester City, the 29-year-old has a reputation of being a brutal and dirty player only out to stamp on some opponents and stick a boot into a chest or two.
In Brazil, though, he will show the world that there is much more to him than that and that he is a completely different player now. With excellent positional sense, great energy and good passing and with the support of a regular number eight, Netherlands can get the best out of the ex-Ajax player and build a central midfield partnership which adds a lot to the attack and the defence.
Van Gaal sees this new formation and style as the best possible way to cover for the loss of Strootman while simultaneously getting the best out of the key players in the squad and maintaining some balance in the centre of the field. The early signs are positive.
This style allows for smoother and quicker transition from defence to attack and allows them to stretch their opponents and use the full width of the field. While it robs them of the positive attacking wingers such as Memphis Depay and Jeremain Lens and prevents Robben from being able to cut in from the flank and fire towards goal, it does allow him to put his speed to great effect and means he, Van Persie and Sneijder operate as a more compact and intricate front three.
Netherlands were wasteful in possession against a rather poor, sluggish and limited Ghana team. They were not as effective or efficient as one would expect, with too many chances going to waste. Their second-half performance was rather poor and they should have killed the game off instead of leaving the Black Stars with time to draw level.
It was certainly not a wonderful performance, but it was never going to be. A new system with a relatively fresh and young team, the expectations for the Dutch are not great.
However, they can improve between now and their World Cup opener against Spain. With the Spaniards, Chile and Australia to contend with in Group B, the expectations for the Oranje are minimal.
Even finishing second in the group will likely set up a tie with Brazil in the next round. No one in Netherlands expects the country to go far in the World Cup, but the latest victory will lift some spirits as we know now that they can build on the foundations of this attacking system.
Next week’s meeting with Wales will give Van Gaal’s team the opportunity to build upon Saturday’s win and create a better understanding and thus bring greater fluidity to the team before the summer showpiece.
The Final Squad
Louis van Gaal announced his final 23-man squad for the World Cup on Saturday before the meeting with Ghana and there weren’t too many surprises in it.
While many expected FC Twente star Quincy Promes to make the final cut, it was always unlikely due to the new system which doesn’t require any orthodox attacking wingers, particularly with Arjen Robben available.
It is for this reason that Jean-Paul Boetius has been cut as well, since Memphis Depay is available to play on the left if called upon.
Perhaps the main shock was the omission of Patrick van Aanholt. The Vitesse left-back has enjoyed a positive season with Vitesse and has shown to be a very strong attacking full-back. That he has been left out means that Daley Blind will likely take up the left back position with Terence Kongolo available as back up.
Goalkeepers: Jasper Cillessen (Ajax), Michel Vorm (Swansea City), Tim Krul (Newcastle United)
Defenders: Paul Verhaegh (Augsburg), Daryl Janmaat (Feyenoord), Joel Veltman (Ajax), Stefan de Vrij (Feyenoord), Ron Vlaar (Aston Villa), Bruno Martins Indi (Feyenoord), Terence Kongolo (Feyenoord), Daley Blind (Ajax)
Midfielders: Leroy Fer (Norwich City), Nigel de Jong (AC Milan), Jordy Clasie (Feyenoord), Jonathan de Guzman (Swansea City), Georginio Wijnaldum (PSV), Wesley Sneijder (Galatasaray)
Forwards: Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich), Robin van Persie (Manchester United), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Schalke), Dirk Kuyt (Fenerbahce), Jeremain Lens (Dynamo Kiev), Memphis Depay (PSV)