After impressing viewers with their level of football, and certainly surprising many experts who were of the belief that the Dutch would disappoint and fail, the Netherlands are looking ahead at their round of 16 game having topped their group and finished as top scorers in the group stage.
Mexico too, to a much different degree, have surprised spectators by reaching the second round, although it is the 6th consecutive time they’ve done it in a World Cup. While their World Cup participation itself hung in Panama’s hands, a few months later they are in the round io 16.
The Dutch are favourites, because 1) they were more impressive than Mexico in the group stage, and 2) they have more household names in their side than the Mexicans. This is purely on paper, and this 2014 World Cup just hasn’t been on paper has it? Yes the Dutch have the more known stars, but the Mexicans have the ability to hold their own. They’re comprised of unknown quantities, but that’s probably exactly how Mexico want it to be.
All the talk leading up to the this game will be Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie, Oribe Peralta and their goal-scoring abilities. Yes, they are the ones who’ll catch the attention, probably make the headines too, but there’s a more intriguing battle that will take place less spectacularly but much more crucially.
Step in Daley Blind, Darly Janmaat, Miguel Layun & Paul Aguilar. Two of them ply their trade in the Dutch Eredivisie while the other two are at Club America in the Mexican league. So yes, not the most spectacular battle, there’s no Real Madrid & Manchester United, but they are potentially lurking.
So far this campaign both Netherlands & Mexico have played with similar systems in the defensive third. They’ve used a three-man defence which has the flexibility to alternate between a five-man one based on the phase of play & opposition. The Dutch have had the freedom to be a more attacking side with their full-backs – Blind & Janmaat, but have been equally adept at playing a defensive system when faced against an attack, crucially a countering one.
The Mexicans’ flexibility with their system has allowed them to trounce opposition like Croatia, which they’d consider as their equals, while the quick change to a defensive approach can earn them a draw against a superior Brazil. Given the quality of the Mexican side, they probably have so far achieved their best possible outcome at the World Cup beating two teams equal or below them, while drawing the one significantly better off.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Miguel Herrera employ a defensive system against what they’ll consider a superior Dutch attack. They’ll look to invite pressure from Van Gaal’s men allowing even their full-backs to get forward. This is where the Mexicans will crucially look to strike Netherlands, a quick counter with the use of their own full-backs as this is their primary attacking avenue. With two strikers to aim at and potentially a lot of space to exploit in behind the Dutch full-backs, certainly they will have an easier route to goal. No doubt the full-backs have their recovery pace and Nigel De Jong is on hand to contain quick-counters, this could prove to be particularly threatening & lethal.
Now Louis Van Gaal is an experienced coach, he certainly would have anticipated this approach from Herrera. If he is invited to advance forward, he certainly will accept. But this will be done more cautiously than an out-right attacking approach. Realising the possible counter from Mexico using their wide defenders, Van Gaal will likely look to ensure that he follows a one-attack-one-defend policy with his full-backs. Thus when the Dutch do move forward in attack with it flowing down the left, Blind will offer his support while Janmaat will remain deep acting as almost a four-man defensive system. When Janmaat moves forward, Blind stays back. This not only offers the Dutch an extra-man in attack, but crucially an extra man in defence. So if the Mexicans do counter from the side that has left a gap for the Dutch, De Jong will be on hand to cover it.
How the Mexicans will react to the above will be interesting because their midfield isn’t one to regularly create chances if the full-backs are prevented from doing so. Van Gaal will also probably look to win the battle in the middle, quite comprehensively. So while the Mexicans go defensive with their full-backs, the Dutch too will ensure that atleast one is defensive at all points.
The game can ofcourse be decided by a pure piece of magic, but if you look at the details, it isn’t quite that simple. These full-backs will have a telling role to play in deciding which team progresses to the quarter-final of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.