Netherlands – USA: Dutch Pragmatism Triumphs Over Fatigued Team USA (3-1)
This was not just a football match, this was Louis van Gaal’s coaching team going in strongly against a nation’s football heritage, doing everything to maximize the chances of winning. The Dutch put full focus in their off-the-ball play, but ironically had to survive multiple close scares to pull off an ultimately quite convincing result over Team USA that should look back positively on the 2022 World Cup, having mostly tested the limits of the squad at hand.
Tactical analysis and match report by Sander IJtsma.
In the first knockout match of the 2022 Qatar World Cup, group A winners The Netherlands played Team USA that had finished as runners up in group B. Two of just five unbeaten sides facing each other after a group stage that has seen plenty of surprises already. Despite both teams meeting their initial goals of getting out of the group stage, mood and momentum seemed vastly different. Louis van Gaal’s Oranje got plenty of stick for failing to convince in basically all three games so far, while Gregg Berhalter had his team playing a bit above their talent level in a positive and aggressive manner.
Van Gaal kept his starting lineup intact, for the first time this World Cup, after some tinkering to find the balance between ball progression and defensive cover in the preferred 5-2-1-2 formation. Noppert played in goal, having made his international debut in the opening game, behind a defense of Blind at left wing-back, Aké, Van Dijk, Timber and at right wing-back Dumfries. Frenkie de Jong, deployed as the number six in the first two games, continued as the left-sided number eight like in the Qatar game, while Marten de Roon played at six and Davy Klaassen as the number ten. Cody Gakpo played as right-sided striker, next to Memphis, who has recovered enough fitness to start.
Team USA lined up in their familiar 4-3-3 formation, with Matt Turner in goal, behind a central defense pair of Tim Ream and a returned Walker Zimmerman. Both fullbacks had been very impressive so far, with Antonee Robinson at left back and former Ajax player Sergiño Dest at the right side. The core of this team is their midfield three, consisting of Tyler Adams at the base and Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah as eights. Star player Christian Pulisic was fit enough to start as left wide forward after injuring himself while scoring against Iran, with Timothy Weah as right forward. Up front, Josh Sargent was not fit to start and he was replaced, rather surprisingly by Jesus Ferreira, after Haji Wright had failed to convince so far.
The Dutch off-the-ball plan
A kick-off, three backwards passes and a goalkeeper punting it long to squander possession. One had to blink more than once, but the orange outfits ultimately convinced of the fact that this was really the Dutch national team playing a football match.
As it turned out, this match revolved around the buildup play of Team USA, and how Louis van Gaal had drawn up a precise plan to expose the weaknesses in the opponent’s team, while at the same time covering up the holes in his own squad.
USMNT v. Netherlands: Part 1 - Dutch Defensive Organisation— Carl Carpenter (@CarlonCarpenter) December 3, 2022
Analysis of how the #NED & their passive press on the #USA build nullified our attacking threat & enabled them force/create transitions:
- Role of the CFs on the FB
- Man-to-man CMs
- Inabiltiy to bypass this pressure pic.twitter.com/oopHciFG8d
On every instance of USA buildup play – and there were a lot of instances like that – the same pattern emerged. Acres of space and freedom for either central defender, a midfield three closely man-marked by their Dutch counterparts and most remarkably full focus from strikers Depay and Gakpo on closing off the passing lanes to fullbacks Dest and Robinson. Wing-backs Blind and Dumfries were on their front feet to put on the pressure and ignite fastbreaks whenever the ball would still go to either USA fullback.
The plan was clear, allow the weakest players time on the ball, and draw them into the densely populated central area of the pitch, in what Van Gaal termed ‘provocation pressure’.
Team USA did what they could to escape the chains hooked on their midfield three by their closely man-marking opponents. The midfield trio made smart rotations among themselves, they made positional switches, for example with Timothy Weah and later also Sergiño Dest, and players like Weah, Dest or Pulisic dropped into central midfield to try and create a numerical superiority. The Dutch stuck to their rigid defense-first plan and USA final third possession sequences were hard to come by.
Note the position of both Dutch strikers, closing up the passing lane to either fullback, and effectively only leaving the cluttered central zone as a passing option.
US scare, Dutch score
Apart from the major scoring chance for Pulisic in the third minute, USA had little to show for all their possession dominance. That chance – which could easily have upset the tactical outlook of the match – saw Dest first beat Blind one-on-one to put in a right wing cross, and then Pulisic exploiting a very sloppy offside trap execution by Blind. Goalkeeper Noppert blocked the shot with his outstuck left foot, in what in hindsight turned out to be the best USA scoring chance of the first half. The USA had the ball, the Dutch controlled the territory.
One moment of traded identities saw a Memphis fluffed shot lead to a fastbreak attempt from USA, with five Dutch outfield players, including both wing-backs, in the opponent’s box at the time of losing possession. The ball was mostly up in the air though, hardly ever really under control and it was turned over to initiate an even rare as beautiful sequence of play.
A series of twenty Dutch passes, including some trademark Frenkie stepovers, allowed the Dutch a free Dumfries cross. He pulled it back, on the ground, towards an onrushing Memphis, while De Roon and Klaassen made first and second post runs that had pushed the USA defensive line back. Memphis hit a clean first time shot to give Holland a tenth minute 1-0 lead.
If that Dutch opening goal did something tactically, it was a fortification of the stances that both teams had had before. Most Dutch possession was defensive by nature, taking time off the clock Pep style, with safe ball circulation, and only moving forward on truly promising occasions. More often, though, we were left watching the US failing to escape the trap set in central midfield.
The first half finished with an injury time second Dutch goal. Dumfries took a throw-in, De Roon played it back and with the Dutch overloading the flank, it was striker Jesus Ferreira who first pressured and then completely overlooked Dumfries. The Dutch wing-back earned his second assist, with another low pullback cross, this time to an onrushing Blind, whose movement had escaped Dest’s attention for a crucial moment.
Two goals down and largely failing to break down their opposition team, Berhalter elected to remove Jesus Ferreira, who had failed to exert any influence on the game and had made surprisingly few drops into midfield. On came Gio Reyna, at left wing, with Pulisic moving to the striker role, interpreted with some positional freedom.
Rather unexpectedly, Van Gaal made a double change, with Bergwijn and Koopmeiners coming on for Klaassen and De Roon. After the match, he explained that he aimed to improve the accuracy on the ball, seemingly unhappy with poor ball retention figures, despite a comfortable score line and an off-the-ball plan drawn up and executed to a tee.
In theory, the move could’ve worked well, with Koopmeiners being strong at safe passing, but overall, the off-the-ball plan mostly suffered and the balance didn’t quite improve in the Dutch favor. Steven Bergwijn seemed much less able to close off the passing lane between center back and fullback than Cody Gakpo – now playing at number ten – had done in the first half. On top of that, in hindsight Davy Klaassen did a better job playing against base midfield man Tyler Adams than Gakpo – more of an attacker than a midfielder – would go on to do.
Lack of squad depth
Playing four games in thirteen days midway in a filled football season clearly takes its toll. And it showed in the USA second half performance. Intensity level dropped, understandably, among crucial starters like McKennie, Weah and Dest. The trio had to be replaced and introducing Brenden Aaronson, Haji Wright and DeAndre Yedlin exposed the limits of this USA squad. It’s hardly a surprise that playing with less capable players hurts your performance, and the lack of squad depth played a big role in the second half.
Despite all that, Team USA first almost scored and then really scored, both from sequences of misplaced Dutch gallery play. Memphis first escaped from a misplaced back pass that put Haji Wright one-on-one with Noppert, admittedly from a tough angle. Just one minute later, a Memphis backheel attempt under strong pressure led to a turnover, a Pulisic cross and a Haji Wright goal. It’s very hard – even after ten times of watching – to say exactly how the substitute hit that ball to generate a kind of backheel lob over 2.03m tall Noppert, and it’s even harder to say to which degree this was an intentional finish. What was clear, is that an energy-depleted USA side managed a deserved comeback goal and the game was back on.
That phase lasted all of five minutes, though, as Blind found himself in acres of space after a nice passing triangle. With Yedlin fully focused on tracking Memphis, Blind had all the time in the world to pick out an onrushing Dumfries at the second post. Favor returned, a second wing-back cross to wing-back goal, this time in the reverted direction, game over.
It’s not like Louis van Gaal has sold all of the nation’s footballing identity to the devil, but the bigger picture of this important win isn’t fully free of Faustian connotations either. The world famous 1928 Goethe novel revolves around the figure of Faust, who makes a deal with the devil, who helps him beat the plague that is terrorizing his world, all in return for his soul.
Louis van Gaal had the Dutch play in a reactive system before, and enjoyed success with it, finishing third in the 2014 World Cup. This time, though, game planning seems even more reactive and based on a sound off-the-ball plan. Setting up a pressing system that fully exposed the limits of his opponent worked well, but the short-term nature of tournament football means that a wholly different outcome was always on the cards. The early Pulisic chance and the Wright one-on-one situation are the best examples of situations where Team USA could have turned the match around.
We saw what happens when a rigid, almost religion-like devotion to a playing style and formation dominates Dutch football. Less than two years ago, a shameful EURO 2020 exit showcased all the shortcomings of a possession-heavy unadjusted tactical setup that had little regard for player qualities, player types and opposition plans. This time around, the Dutch are different, putting all dogma’s to the wind and sailing with the winds of pragmatism.
A genius. Holland respect this man. The idea of Dutch total football doesn’t exist anymore. He understands the strength of his players and is playing to win. 2018 World Cup all of Holland was watching it from their couches. Stop complaining and support the team.#louisvangaal pic.twitter.com/bzPjD4OVWe— Pa-Modou Kah (@PMKAH) December 3, 2022
For Gregg Berhalter and Team USA, this should count as a successful World Cup. On a broad scope, football is on a very healthy and upwards trajectory in the US, and competitive games against respected footballing nations serve to cement this. Tactically speaking, Berhalter has made the most of the squad available, deployed varied tactical setups, and was confronted, on the night, with a rare pressure trap that his team failed to work around. Heads up.
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