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Dublin: 7 °C Friday 21 February, 2020

Analysis: How Holland came from behind to beat Mexico

Arjen Robben wielded substantial influence on proceedings as the Dutch conjured a dramatic last-gasp victory.

1. Was it or wasn’t it? That isn’t the question

Brazil Soccer WCup Netherlands Mexico Source: Wong Maye-E/AP/Press Association Images

When Wesley Sneijder equalised for Holland with two minutes of normal time remaining, Mexican heads dropped. Their ploy hadn’t worked. They had dropped deep and invited a steady stream of pressure. Finally, they cracked. But they had to face a Dutch side who weren’t finished yet. They didn’t want extra-time and penalties. They were determined to score again and went in search of a late winner.

The tactic was easy. Get the ball wide to Arjen Robben and allow him charge at defenders at pace. Better still, get him as close to the penalty area as possible and maybe, just maybe, he could draw a foul. It worked a treat. Because Robben scares defenders. In fact, he terrifies them.

What Holland needed was Mexico to make a mistake. What they needed was to entice a stray leg, a lazy challenge. And as Robben dribbled along the by-line, that’s precisely what he did. When he jinked back inside, he was heading towards a bunch of Mexican defenders. He was heading into trouble and was about to be dispossessed. Yet, his movement drew a mistimed tackle by the highly-experienced Marquez. There was a foul. And, like so many players do, Robben dramatically made the most of it. He threw his arms out as wide as he could and splayed himself on the ground. The reaction was overblown and theatrical. And it’s not a nice aspect to the sport. But, to expect a player to stay on his feet after being fouled in the penalty area and with a place in the quarter-finals of a World Cup at stake, is immensely optimistic.

What is the reward? How many times have we seen referees call play back when there’s been no advantage gained? How many times have we seen referees give a penalty in a situation where a player is fouled but manages to stay on his feet and tries to do ‘the right thing’? If Robben didn’t make a big deal of Marquez’s foul, would he still have won his team a penalty? Unfortunately, probably not. And perhaps that’s the bigger discussion that needs to be had.

2. Van Gaal took some risks and was rewarded

Van Gaal prides himself on flexibility. He toys with various systems and enjoys being able to count on an adaptable, intelligent group that can carry out a myriad of instructions. His selection was strange. In a knock-out game, Dirk Kuyt was selected as a wing-back and on the other flank, Paul Verhaegh was given a first run-out. Within the opening ten minutes, he lost Nigel De Jong to a groin injury and had to re-shuffle. But Daley Blind effortlessly pushed higher into midfield – again something that showed the uniqueness of the team. Late on, Kuyt was playing at right-back. And right-wing. And up front.

He changed formation after going a goal behind, taking off Verhaegh and bringing on a conventional winger in Memphis Depay. Robben was switched to the right-wing and everything changed from there. With fourteen minutes left, Van Gaal brought off his captain (and muse) Van Persie and introduced the directness and robustness of Huntelaar. Again, it offered something different and gave Mexico something else to worry about.

Robben’s influence was substantial but Huntelaar had seven touches of the ball after he came on. He set up one goal and scored another. His role in the comeback certainly can’t be ignored.

Above all else though, this was a victory for Van Gaal and his beliefs. He proved he could win in a different way, in searing conditions and with time running out. Looking solely at the winning penalty and concluding everything revolved around that is a little unfair to the splendid tactics Van Gaal deployed.

3. After going in front, Mexico retreated and stopped taking the game to Holland

In the first-half, Miguel Herrera’s side caused Holland plenty of problems with the deep running of Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera. Mexico identified a weakness in Paul Verhaegh and Miguel Layun featured prominently on the left-side, cutting inside and flashing in some shots. Their best chance of the opening period also came from a cross sent in from the left – it was eventually teed up for Herrera on the edge of the box who narrowly missed the bottom corner with his effort.

Moments later, Herrera was through again after a simple ball over the top and only Ron Vlaar’s flying boot cleared the danger with Jasper Cillessen having raced off his line and committed himself. Shortly before the break, a neat flick played in Guardado and though his miscue saw the ball bobble off his knee, Dos Santos pounced and tested Cillessen at his near post.

When Mexico did score, it didn’t follow any real pattern other than featuring one of their key players. When Dos Santos picked up the ball outside the area after 48 minutes, he was far from goal, well shackled and had little support. But he was allowed onto his strong foot and, inevitably given his stats, he hit the target. It was a wonderful strike but a strange goal in many ways.

But, despite taking the lead, Mexico didn’t build on it. Instead, they were pinned back as Holland immediately upped their energy and purpose. Suddenly, the likes of Herrera and Guardado, slipped deeper and couldn’t influence proceedings like they had been doing.

MexStats Source: Squawka

Van Gaal’s changes gave them plenty to worry about and instead of taking a breath, they stood back and allowed Holland dictate. Dos Santos was replaced on the hour mark by a midfielder and more territory was lost. They didn’t muster any response to Holland’s tactical tweaks and there was an inevitability to Holland’s equaliser when it finally came.

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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