Plenty of experts and pundits predicted the Dutch national team to be the big side that disappoints at the World Cup by crashing out at the first hurdle. Three games and ten goals later, the script has been rewritten. Netherlands have arguably been one of the best side’s at the tournament, with momentum going into the next round. Not only have they topped their group, they’ve done so ahead of defending champions Spain who they put five past.
A date with Mexico awaits in the Round of 16, arguably one of their easier games on paper having faced Spain & Chile; but hardly anything has been on paper this World Cup. They couldn’t have asked for a clearer path to the semi-finals of the tournament as a win over the Mexicans sets up a potential clash against either one of Costa Rica or Greece.
This Dutch side certainly isn’t as strong (on paper!) as we have seen in recent times, but the main experienced men have turned up when it matters most while youngsters like Bruno Martins Indi, Stefan De Vrij & Memphis Depay have also lent a helping hand to varying degrees. But just who are the key men to propel the Dutch in this competition?
Old man Arjen Robben
A lot has been said about Arjen Robben over the course of the past season or so, while many have given him his due credit, others have labelled him an annoying ‘simulator’. Both assessments are admittedly true. But the quite obnoxious criticism levied towards Arjen Robben (obnoxious in retrospect) is that he’s past his prime, into his 30s, lost his pace/energy and just won’t be the same. How wrong could they be!
From the first game against the Spaniards, Robben showed just why that assessment was completely off the mark. While his first goal was as calm and composed as you’d expect from an experienced head, his second was quite something else. With a lose ball to chase down Robben sprinted past Sergio Ramos, putting behind any “too old” claims and scoring what was the 5th goal in an absolute rout.
Although not playing in his traditional wide role, Robben’s influence hasn’t been in doubt. He’s been deployed in an attack alongside captain Robin Van Persie but has a far wider impact. Robben’s tendency to make use of the extra spaces, drift wide and deep make him an all-round package in attack. With the Dutch now expected to score and perform successfully, Robben will be the man who either creates or scores a majority of Netherlands’ chances.
The work rate of Daley Blind
Despite having been named Dutch footballer of the Year, Daley Blind somehow still doesn’t quite get the recognition he deserves, likely because he’s ‘only’ a full-back. But as has been explained here, his role in the Dutch side is as important as the likes of Van Persie & Robben.
As that performance against Spain showed, his two perfect assists turned the game on it’s head and the course of the World Cup (potentially the international scene as well). He also created two chances against Australia, grabbing an assist again. But that is not the only area he plays an important role. A full-back in a 3-5-2 has a role to play in defence as well, a more difficult one as he’s required to get back into a defensive position from his regular attacking one.
Daley Blind’s defensive work was most noticeable when he was played at centre-back in the last group game against Chile. He made 9 successful tackles then against an excellent Chile attack which is more than any other player who played in central defence for the Dutch side across the three group games. Thus, Blind is a crucial player in this Dutch success story and will continue to be for the remainder of the tournament.
The man to ensure the attacking focus doesn’t leave them vulenerable
The Dutch under Van Gaal employ a counter-attacking system which gets a lot of men, including the full-backs, to join into attack. Now one can’t levy enough praise on Blind & Janmaat and how they are always on hand to get back into a defensive position. But there obviously is a transition phase during which the Dutch are left slightly vulnerable to counter-attacking from the opposition.
It is in moments like these where the attackers and full-backs are in an attacking phase, that the work of a defensive midfielder becomes crucial. Step in Nigel De Jong!
A proper hard-hitting, rough tackling, no non-sense midfielder, De Jong is just about the player you’d want in your side to protect against quick attacks. Central defenders can certainly feel confident in knowing they are protected by a player of his type.
What makes Nigel De Jong’s role even more important is the fact that the other midfielder sitting next to him (most likely Jonathan De Guzman) isn’t present in a defensive capacity, but more of a creative one. This other midfielder isn’t one who will look to protect his back line, but instead supply the front line. De Jong’s role in this circumstance is to cover for this midfielder as well, making him the only real defence in midfield during a transition phase. While he may not score goals, or assist any, this role makes him arguably the most important in the side.
Now ofcourse questions will be raised as to how Van Persie hasn’t made the list, but if we’re talking pure attacking contribution, then Arjen Robben ticks all the right boxes. He’s been the best attacking player for the Dutch, while the role of Blind & De Jong is vital as explained. Believe it or not, the Dutch can potentially do without Robin Van Persie, but not the other three.