Louis van Gaal's tactics not won over purists
29 June ~ The mood in the Netherlands has changed dramatically over the past couple of weeks. Before the tournament started, few people here genuinely believed that the Dutch could qualify from their group. But now, with Mexico and then Costa Rica or Greece between them and a semi-final berth, expectations are high. And why not? Louis van Gaal's side were top scorers in the group phase with ten goals, the only non-top-seeded team to win all three matches and their astonishing demolition of the reigning champions is still the most remarkable performance of the tournament so far.
Yet while this upturn in fortune has brought greater optimism, it has also been accompanied by considerable criticism on the home front. Supporters, football writers and TV analysts have all expressed their disdain at the manner in which these victories have been achieved. On the TV show Voetbal International Oranje, sports journalist Johan Derksen and former PSV player René van der Gijp have been particularly withering in their attacks on Van Gaal's tactics.
The problem, as they and others see it, is that decades of attack-oriented, swashbuckling football have been abandoned in favour of a more conservative, reactive and – heaven forbid – result-oriented style. The 5-3-2 formation that led to the dismantling of Spain and the stifling of Chile is viewed as bordering on heretical. It's been dubbed "polder catenaccio". Possession football has been sacrificed for defensive solidity and a counter-attacking philosophy. The purists are not happy, and express themselves like puritans.
It seems strange that an approach born out of necessity should be so reviled. Van Gaal correctly concluded that he didn't have the necessary talent to play the usual high-pressing, dominant game and therefore came up with an alternative. That it has proved so effective in such a short space of time – he was only able to try it out in a couple of pre-tournament friendlies – is a testimony to the man's tactical genius.
A shaky defence has been bolstered with the addition of an extra central defender. And by playing deeper, space has been created for Arjen Robben, arguably the best player in Brazil so far, to exploit with such devastating effect. Of course it has helped that others have also been in excellent form, such as Daley Blind, Nigel de Jong and Memphis Depay, but this really has been a triumph of a well-drilled team.
So hopes are high for the game against Mexico. If everyone is fit then the general consensus here is that the Dutch are favourites. The quarter-final looks winnable as well. And who knows, if they could out-manoeuvre their semi-final opponents (Argentina?) then maybe even the critics would grudgingly acknowledge the merits of this new Oranje style. Derek Brookman