The Netherlands far exceeded expectation in finishing third at the World Cup in Brazil, tearing up not only up the formbook but their own rules on how best to play the game as their coach provided a talismanic touch. They also set a new record for themselves by going through the entire tournament without losing a match in regulation time.
A relatively young and inexperienced squad were given little chance of emulating the achievement of four years ago when they reached the final in South Africa. But with the canny coaching of Louis van Gaal they came mighty close once again, missing out after a semi-final penalty shootout defeat by Argentina and comfortably beating hosts Brazil 3-0 in the third-place playoff.
Van Gaal raised the wrath of footballing purists in the home of “total football” when he said he was dispensing with the 4-3-3 formation which had taken the Dutch successfully through qualification for a more conservative approach, with an emphasis on quick counter-attacks.
It was a virtually untested approach which looked set to backfire in the opening half of their first game against Spain in Salvador. The Dutch were trailing 1-0 and struggling until a swift counter led to wingback Daley Blind hitting a long cross from the left which Robin van Persie leapt salmon-like to head home the equaliser.
The delight shared by coach and captain in a sideline high-five spoke volumes of the satisfaction of a plan coming together. The subsequent mauling of the defending champions left the Dutch oozing with confidence and they topped their first-round group. Van Gaal proved the talisman on several more occasions with tactical switches that kept the Dutch on a winning path. The Manchester United-bound coach brought on 20-year-old Memphis Depay to score the come-from-behind winner against Australia.
Leroy Fer broke the deadlock with his first touch in their last group game against Chile and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar made one goal and scored the next after coming on for the last 10 minutes against Mexico. Switching goalkeepers just before the penalties against Costa Rica in the quarter-final proved the ultimate masterstroke as Tim Krul came on in place of Jasper Cillessen to make two saves.
Apart from the versatile and tireless Dirk Kuyt, new Dutch coach Guus Hiddink will have the same team to pick from for
September’s start of the Euro 2016 qualifiers. In two years time, the Dutch will have a very different set of expectations.