Netherlands took on Mexico in the round of 16 game, going in as clear favourites to emerge victorious and set-up what would potentially be an ‘easy’ win to take them into the semi-finals of the competition. The Dutch came into the game having won all their group stage games while Mexico were on the back of the best realistic result they could have hoped for after the three group games.
This article here had explained how Daley Blind will have a crucial role to play for the Dutch. The assumption in that piece was that Daley Blind would take up his natural position at left full-back, thus proving vital for the 3-5-2 system. Van Gaal though, had other ideas. Daley Blind was instead played centrally as part of the three-man central defensive system. Analysts scrambled to rethink the tactics but it seemed to be a bit of a like-for-like change. Dirk Kuyt took up what should have been Blind’s position, according to general assumption, while Paul Verhaeagh was brought in on the right side with Van Gaal dropping Daryl Janmaat.
Before viewers could judge how Blind would perform at centre-back, having already played there against Chile, Nigel De Jong was forced off with an injury and replaced by Bruno Martins Indi. Within the opening minutes Daley Blind went from expected at left-back, to make-shit centre back and right into the heart of central midfield. With De Jong’s injury and Martins’ introduction, Daley Blind was the only player capable of playing in that deep midfield role.
Now Daley Blind is no stranger to the defensive midfield position having regularly played their for his club side Ajax, alternating between the left-back position and this. His performances earned him wide praise and more significantly the Dutch Footballer of the Year award as he helped Ajax to their 4th consecutive Eredivisie title.
But in this Dutch side, which constantly looks to get it’s full backs forward, a proper hard-hitting defensive midfielder is the most important player to keep the balance of the side. His role involves covering for the full-backs and defending centrally as well. De Jong was perfect for the said role. And with all due respect to Daley Blind, though able to play that position, he can’t quite play that role. Blind isn’t as solid a defensive midfielder as De Jong, but he is a better passer. In this system, he wasn’t quite what the Dutch needed.
The Dutch struggled against Mexico’s creativity at brief periods in the game with a lot of the play going through from there as opposed to just the wings which was expected, and covered by Van Gaal. De Jong’s injury certainly opened up a chance for Mexico to exploit through the centre.
The above gives you a slight idea of the joy Mexico were finding from central areas with a lot of their chances created directly or indirectly taking place from this zone.
Although it would be unfair to attach complete blame on Blind for a potential knock-out, if we were looking at this in absolute terms, then the goal that Mexico did score through Dos Santos arised in a manner that could put Blind as the guilty party. He failed to get close enough on the Villarreal man, allowing him to run in, chest it down, take his time and pull a shot-off.
Another bit of criticism that can be levied against Blind, albeit to a lesser degree was the passing he put on. With the Dutch looking to score, possibly take the lead and eventually equalise, Daley Blind offered nothing in terms of creativity. All his passes were lateral attempts at getting play moving without a single successful forward pass. He didn’t create a single opportunity. To be fair to Blind, even his predecessor of the role didn’t or wasn’t expected to give a helping hand creatively, but certainly this could have helped a Dutch side chasing the game for large parts.
It has been explained previously on this site quite extensively how good a footballer Blind is but the importance of De Jong hasn’t been ignored either, neither should it. While Blind has experience in that position, De Jong brings something more to the pitch which the 24-yr-old probably won’t be able to. His error of judgement could have costed the Dutch dearly, but with football being a cruel sport on one end and the beautiful game at the other, the Dutch were saved with a comeback, leaving it extremely late.