Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said he used the cooling break in the last 16 clash with Mexico to change his tactics. The Dutch eventually came out with a last-gasp 2-1 victory in a World Cup match that looked like going Mexico’s way.
Although the heat and humidity of Brazil has not been as bad as many had anticipated before the tournament began, a number of countries have found it hard to play their normal game in the tough conditions.
In searing heat in Fortaleza, the referee halted the game for three minutes in each half so both sets of players could imbibe fluids to keep them going. Mexico looked like it was going to progress into the last eight when Giovani do Santos put his team ahead in the 48th minute. At the other end, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa continued his magnificent form in the tournament with a point-blank save from Stefan de Vrij.
The Dutch, on balance, did not look worthy of a place in the quarter-final and so van Gaal, who will join Manchester United after the tournament, made an all-important change when the break game. With time running out, Wesley Sneijder smashed home in the 88th minute before Arjen Robben was brought down in added time to win the Netherlands a penalty. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar scored from the spot to send the Dutch through to the last eight of the World Cup.
After the game, van Gaal said he first changed his formation to 4-3-3. Despite the fact his side threatened, it was unable to register a goal. Van Gaal then adopted what he called plan B. “That is a clever way of benefiting from these breaks,” he said. “Did you see what I did?” he asked reporters.
Van Gaal introduced Huntelaar and took Dirk Kuyt out of the defense and moved him into attack with the former. Huntelaar, a target man, was then used to take down and knock on long balls from the Dutch defense – a style of soccer that is the complete antithesis of what the Netherlands is famous for.
The Manchester United boss praised his players for the way in which they adapted to his new strategy. However, it was not all straightforward for van Gaal as he was forced into an early change when Nigel de Jong was forced off in the first 1o minutes with a groin injury.
Netherlands captain Robin van Persie, who will work with van Gaal at Old Trafford next season, was removed for tactical reasons, the coach said. United fans, who suffered a dismal season under David Moyes will be buoyed the brave tactics employed by the new Old Trafford boss. Playing in such conditions is difficult – especially for European sides – and van Gaal has proved he is prepared to ditch the passing came and revert to route one when needed in the World Cup. The feeling under Moyes was United had no plan B.
Despite being quite fortunate to come from behind to beat Mexico, the Netherlands has looked in control in all of its other matches. In van Gaal, the side has a coach who is prepared to make cool decisions under pressure and change the tactics on a whim. With such confidence now surging through the squad, it would take a brave person to bet against the Netherlands making the World Cup final. It did so in Argentina in 1978 and the team could go one better in Brazil 2014.
Commentary by Robert Shepherd