DOHA, Qatar – The Netherlands are not generally known for tactical jiu-jitsu. Their most iconic teams of the past have been assertive and ball-dominant.
But manager Louis van Gaal is known for winning – he’s yet to lose (14W-0L-5D) during his current run in charge of the Netherlands, and took his country to third place at the Brazil 2014 World Cup. And on Saturday evening at Khalifa International Stadium, he used the US men’s national team’s greatest area of strength against them in a 3-1 win that ends the USMNT’s 2022 World Cup and catapults the Oranje into the quarterfinals vs. Argentina.
“We did a different way of pressing. We know obviously that their strength is in the midfield,” star Dutch center back Virgil dan Dijk told reporters postgame. “So we let them have the ball a little bit longer in the back four, especially the two center halves. And overall, we did very good.”
Van Gaal’s side kept with the 3-4-1-2 formation they’ve been using at this tournament, but sat deeper than in past games. The Dutch used their wingbacks to blunt the influence of the marauding US fullbacks Sergiño Dest and Antonee “Jedi” Robinson and man-marked that MMA engine-room trio (Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams), allowing center backs Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman ample time on the ball and baiting them to pass into the congested middle.
Any lack of precision was then swiftly punished with a transition in the opposite direction, a strategy that helped the favorites a great deal when they perfectly executed it just 10 minutes after the opening whistle. Man-of-the-match Denzel Dumfries loped forward into acres of space – far too much space for Robinson to properly deal with on his own – down the Dutch right and cut back an inviting low cross to the top of the penalty box that Memphis Depay slammed past Matt Turner.
“We know they like to attack, they have a lot of good players in midfield, up front,” explained Netherlands defender Nathan Aké. “And today we maybe sat in a little bit more than we used to the last games, to make sure when we recover the ball, there's maybe more space for us to do on the counterattack. You can see today, I think with Memphis with [Cody] Gakpo, we're very dangerous in the counterattack.”
The Ferreira gamble
The Yanks dominated the opening minutes, getting so close when a deflected ball fell to Christian Pulisic’s feet, only for goalkeeper Andries Noppert to get a leg in front of it. Once Depay had broken the deadlock first, the game’s state was set.
Handed his first start (and minutes) of the tournament up top in the injury-imposed absence of Josh Sargent (ankle), Jesus Ferreira had no joy whatsoever, the FC Dallas striker’s movement failing to disorganize the Dutch shape. Ferreira was eventually subbed out at halftime for Gio Reyna, the Borussia Dortmund starlet playing as a false-nine for chunks of the match.
“They kept compact, obviously,” said Ferreira, the 2022 MLS Young Player of the Year. “They didn't follow me to the midfield. That kind of didn't help us a lot because they were covering all the gaps in the backline. And so it made it difficult for us … but we knew we needed it to speed it up a little bit more, once we found the opposite side, just make sure that we took advantage of that 2-vs-1, and we got it in the box. And that's where we lacked a little bit.”
As hard as they worked to haul themselves back level over the ensuing half-hour, the Oranje were a scalpel on the counterattack, posing a constant threat with any US turnover. Seconds before the halftime whistle Dumfries made an identical run and played an identical cutback to be firmly finished again, this time by Daley Blind, his opposite number on the left flank.
The USMNT were suddenly in a 2-0 hole, looking confused and disorganized at crucial moments, fatigued from the hard running of three group stage matches in eight days. That record-setting youth of theirs could not prevent the inevitable lagging of legs, and brains. They had failed to process the lessons and warning signs in real-time.
“We talked about the game being about moments, and I think the first half was a great indication of that,” said USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter. “We're on top for a lot of the first half and two moments come and all of the sudden we're down 2-0. At halftime in the locker room, it was really even hard to explain to the group. The message was, ‘soccer can be cruel sometimes. We’ve got to keep going, get a goal, get back into this game.'”
Tactical battle won
They did indeed. Substitute Haji Wright’s looping heel deflection off a low Christian Pulisic cross spun past Noppert in the 76th minute, giving hope to the Yanks’ substantial ranks of fans in the stands. But the fundamental problems remained, and not long after, Dumfries capped his dream day with a first-time finish at the back post, completely unmarked.
“I would assume that the stronger the country is, the less they’ll be adjusting. And Team USA didn't adjust, they didn't adapt,” said van Gaal later. “We based a tactical plan on that, that probably allowed us to win.”
Berhalter and many of his players kept positive, even defiant, about how the match played out
USMNT captain Tyler Adams admitted the Dutch goals came from “moments where we're probably sleeping a little bit,” but asserted the margin was tighter on the balance of play.
“I'm not going to sit here and say Holland was better than us,” Adams said. “I would say that we dominated for a majority of the game. We made them uncomfortable for a majority of the game, more uncomfortable than the rest of their games. And I think that a lot of teams would say they wouldn't want to play against us the way that we play.”
But as van Gaal, a managerial legend who’s coached nearly a thousand matches for the Netherlands and several of Europe’s top clubs, has said, matches at this level are about control, and winning, above all. That’s exactly what his plans accomplished.
Specifically, Berhalter pointed to the absence of a game-changing forward as a key differentiator.
"When you look at the difference between the two teams, to me there was some offensive quality, offensive finishing quality that Holland had that we're lacking a little bit," Berhalter said. " ... We don't have the Memphis Depay right now, who's scoring in Champions League and playing in Barcelona, has been an international for years and years."