Netherlands produced a comeback for the ages as they overcame Mexico in steamy hot Fortaleza. Mexico deservedly took the lead only to be denied by two late Dutch goals, a penalty included, to come away with a heartbreaking defeat. The game was slow and ponderous, with both teams intent on preserving energy in the heat. Mexico were the better side before they scored, and it was all Netherlands after the first goal.
Louis Van Gaal persisted with his now-preferred 3-5-2 with intentions of providing more room for attackers Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben and handed veteran Dirk Kuyt his 100th international cap. Paul Verhaegh was a new face, and Georginio Wijnaldum was preferred over Jonathan de Guzman in the midfield. Mexico’s Miguel Hererra made a first change in the tournament as the suspended holding midfielder Juan Vazquez was replaced by the experienced Carlos Salcido. Mexico lined up in their preferred 3-5-2 with emphasis on attacking through the wider areas.
Fresh impressions and game plans on tackling the heat
Both teams have been revelations in the tournament so far, and had clear tactical impressions about them. The Dutch preferred defensive cover over control as evident by their fixations with a three-man defence. While Mexico had been more proactive with intelligent pressing and defending from the front being a key aspect of their play. But both Van Gaal and Hererra had to abandon their favored approaches in light of the baking conditions as well as being a bit more pragmatic given the enormity of the occasion.
The Dutch were surprisingly on the lookout for a more controlled, possession-based game. The early removal of Nigel de Jong wasn’t helpful, as the Dutch had to readjust tactically with one of their key players out. Daley Blind started as a left-sided center-back beside left wing-back Kuyt; he was moved back primarily to help sweep and start attacks from the back, given his range of passing. But the De Jong-induced tactical rethink moved Blind to a more central area, just behind Wijnaldum and Sneijder.
Blind is a kind of player who relishes space and has an eye for the defence-splitting pass. His central holding role handicapped him, and given Mexico’s movement in between the lines, he struggled off the ball and had little time on it. Whatever he did was only passing sideways to Wijnaldum or Sneijder. The early tactical rethink virtually took Netherlands’ attacking outlet from the back off the game.
Mexico had more time on the ball and space behind the Dutch midfield. They curbed their aggressive pressing instincts, probably in a bid to save energy and perhaps more so because the Dutch weren’t particularly effective with the ball. Mexico had no problems dealing with the isolated threats of Van Persie and Robben, and had more incision going forward. Left wing-back Miguel Layun was particularly lively; this shows how Mexico played around the Dutch with relative ease.
Dirk Kuyt and his unconventional role
Dirk Kuyt was deployed as a wing-back, a move that made sense given his work-rate and attacking instincts. But Kuyt offered little as an attacking outlet. He summed up Netherlands’ difficulties in creating meaningful opportunities. Kuyt played on the left to start with, and was shifted to the right after Van Gaal looked to push forward at 0-1 down. Kuyt put in a solid shift, but he offered little to nothing as a full-back with his clumsy touches and one-dimensional play. Although he pegged back Mexico’s wing-backs, his advanced positioning meant that Giovani dos Santos and the impressive Hector Hererra always found space behind him. It was all before the Mexico goal, a point up to which Kuyt was pretty ordinary.
He was full of running as his action areas show, but offered surprisingly little end product. On the left, Kuyt was almost always looking to cut back and shift inside, a move that played well into Mexico’s hands. His 1 out of 5 successful crosses meant that he was virtually ineffective. His passing into key areas was poor too; Kuyt only completed 1 of his attempted 8 passes into the final third.
Mexico sitting back after scoring
Mexico dominated before scoring. Their three midfielders, Hererra, Guardado and Dos Santos played intelligently off the technically weak Dutch defence and in the pockets of space behind Netherlands’ midfield. Netherlands didn’t have a destroyer in De Jong’s mold, and the trio of Sneijder, Wijnaldum and Blind left spaces behind whenever they forayed forward. Rafael Marquez also had too much control as he picked up the advanced midfielders with ease behind the Dutch trio.
Mexico scored with the run of play early in the second half and immediately resorted to sitting back. The propensity to defend in numbers was understandable given how the Dutch have managed to rip up open defences in the past, but it was a case of being too much cautious and abandoning control. They made 4 defensive clearances before their goal, and 22 after. Mexico were fairly open before their goal, and the difference in the approaches before and after the Mexican goal is vivid in the following heat maps.
Special Arjen Robben
Netherlands quickly changed shape after conceding, a change which moved Robben to a more right-sided role, with substitute Memphis Depay on the right. This rejig from Van Gaal was almost game-changing; Robben had the tasty prospect of debutant Diego Reyes on Mexico’s left, and he had the better of him throughout the rest of the match. Kuyt, who was shifted to the right, occupied Paul Aguilar and was always on the lookout for Robben on his side whenever he received the ball.
It was widely expected that moments of individual brilliance could decide the result in the searing heat, and Robben aptly provided them. Robben was all-action in the last half hour; he won 5 out of 6 take-ons, had 11 crosses into the box out of which 2 were key passes, created 4 scoring chances and had a shot saved by Gullermo Ochoa. He even won the penalty that decided the match. Robben’s genius is undeniable, and he once again proved to be the big difference.
Netherlands were pretty average for most parts of the game; they only came to their elements after falling behind. As for Mexico, little bit more positivity after taking the lead could’ve been the difference in a game decided by the fine margins of a penalty kick winner in stoppage time. The Dutch were flexible enough to tactically reorganize twice, and were good value for their win.