The lead changed hands three times in an epic Group B encounter.
Despite suggestions Louis Van Gaal had trained yesterday with his side in a 4-3-3, he kept with the same starting eleven from their fine 5-1 win over Spain, and the 3-4-1-2 formation.
Mark Milligan was unavailable with a hamstring injury, and Ivan Franjic is out for the tournament, so Ange Postecoglou started Matt McKay and Ryan McGowan in centre-midfield and at right-back respectively.
Australia started strongly and dominated the first half, but a change of formation allowed the Netherlands to assert their superiority.
The key question in the preview was what formation Van Gaal would use – 3-4-1-2 or 4-3-3? With the same starting eleven, however, he was clearly keeping with the back three, and the Netherlands started off with a very similar approach to that first group stage match – pressing intensely in midfield, and transferring the ball quickly on counter-attacks to Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie upfront.
However, Australia were clearly prepared for this, and were particularly impressive in their pressing. Tommy Oar and Matthew Leckie worked hard to close down Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi respectively, and Tim Cahill shuttling between Ron Vlaar and the ‘outside’ centre-backs to support the closing down. It was much more intense and much higher up the pitch than against Chile – quite similar to how they pressed in Postecoglou’s very first match in charge, against Costa Rica.
The discipline of the front three to work hard off the ball was important, and they covered a lot of ground between them. Cahill set the tempo with constant running upfront (and was booked for a vigorous challenge on Martins Indi), supported by Leckie and Oar pressing diagonally from ‘outside’ to ‘in’ so that they blocked off the passing lanes to the wing-backs, but maintained pressure on the man in possession. As a result, Daley Blind and Darryl Janmaat were barely involved in build-up play, with De Vrij overhitting a few cross-field diagonals to Daley Blind. The concern in the preview was that the wing-backs might get too much time on the ball, but that wasn’t the case at all, Blind, particularly, was far less influential than against Spain.
Dutch outnumbered in midfield
Importantly, combined with Australia’s front three pressing 3v3 upfront, the midfield also stuck very tight to their direct opponents. Mark Bresciano, Matt McKay and Mile Jedinak closed Nigel de Jong, Jonathon de Guzman and Wesley Sneijder down quickly, not allowing them any time on the ball and preventing them from facing forward in possession.
The result was that the Netherlands lacked a link between their defence and attack. They attempted lots of longer balls from the back, and struggled to find rhythm in possession.
The nature of Australia’s pressing meant they were winning the ball relatively high up the pitch, and as a by-effect, actually controlling a surprising amount of possession. Importantly, the midfielders followed up their intense pressure with constant bursts forward – both Bresciano and McKay popped up inside the area for half-chances inside the first fifteen minutes, with the former blazing a good opportunity over the bar.
This was possible because of the man-marking system the Dutch were effectively using at the back – Martins Indi and De Vrij picking up Leckie and Oar, Cahill 1v1 against Ron Vlaar. However, where against Spain this risky strategy worked because David Silva and Andres Iniesta always drift inside (and still was exposed when Silva made an unexpected burst forward), it looked far more vulnerable here because Oar and Leckie stayed wider, making runs into the channels and carrying the ball forward purposefully. Leckie, in particular, caused real problems with his drive and directness.
As always, too, the full-backs got forward to swing in crosses, helped by the fact the Dutch wing-backs had more ground to cover defensively, giving Ryan McGowan and Jason Davidson more time on the ball.
This, inevitably, lead to the opening goal, with Matthew Spiranovic and Alex Wilkinson effectively defending 2v2 against Robben and Van Persie at the back and always likely to be exposed if they could pick the ball up in space on the counter-attack. That is, of course, exactly what happened for Robben’s goal, picking up the ball in space and simply running into the space in behind McGowan.
As widely discussed on this site, though, the consequence of pushing the full-backs forward is that Australia created a stream of chances for Cahill. Immediately after conceding, Australia equalised with an exaggerated example of their most common pattern of play under Postecoglou – swinging a ball in early from out wide, and Cahill applying the finish (rather brilliantly, in this situation).
Van Gaal changes shape
With an injury to Martins Indi just before half-time, Van Gaal took the opportunity to substitute a winger for a centre-back, changing formation to the 4-3-3 used throughout qualification. The injury obviously gave him the means to change, but it would have been interesting to see if he’d made the switch at half-time anyway.
As it were, it changed the complexion of the tactical battle. Now, both sides had a spare man at the back, but importantly, the Dutch were able to pin the Australian full-backs with natural width high up the pitch. That meant Oar and Leckie had to drop off onto the Dutch full-backs, rather than being able to press high up the pitch like they had in the first half – the tempo of the game slowed significantly as a result.
That said, Australia still created chances with their pressing – the Oar cross that Leckie attempted to chest into the goal was a good example. The fresh legs of Oliver Bozanic, on for Bresciano, also helped – he did a good job ‘connecting’ the side, and won the penalty.
After a frantic first half, the second felt calmer in comparison. Even then, though, neither side really took control in midfield, with a simple 3v3 battle in that zone (with Sneijder now withdrawn into a slightly deeper role alongside De Guzman).
To escape the attention of Australia’s midfielders, Sneijder drifted left throughout the second half – that’s his standard move, but here it felt part of a deliberate tactic from Van Gaal to target Australia’s right. In conjunction with Sneijder combining with Depay to overload McGowan 2v1, the Dutch hit quite a few balls to switch the play across to the left.
Depay was the matchwinner – assisting Van Persie for the equaliser, then scoring the winner.
Australia dominated the first half because of their excellent pressing – taking advantage of obvious weaknesses in the Dutch 3-4-1-2 and thus being able to compete in an open, attacking game against superior opponents.
Van Gaal’s switch to 4-3-3 helped settle his side. They got more time on the ball in deep positions, were able to work it forward and took advantage of the width they had high up the pitch, both in attacking the Australian full-backs 1v1, and preventing them from motoring forward to provide Cahill with service.
Fatigue was undoubtedly a factor, too. Cahill was withdrawn specifically for the sheer amount of work he got through upfront, and it was obvious how exhausted Leckie was by the end – barely able to sprint for Australia’s last attack.
The fact Australia’s defensive mistakes are being so regretted sums up their improvement. The feeling that they lost the game, rather than the Dutch winning it, demonstrated how hard they pushed them.