Netherlands 2-1 Mexico: Mexico dominate the start, but Van Gaal changes help the Dutch back into the game

June 30, 2014

The line-ups after De Jong's early injury

The Netherlands produced a dramatic late turnaround, meaning Mexico were eliminated in the second round for the sixth consecutive World Cup.

Louis van Gaal welcomed back Robin van Persie after suspension, while Paul Verhaegh came into the side as the right-wing-back.

Miguel Herrera was forced to cope without Jose Vazquez, who had been excellent throughout the group stage, so Carlos Salcido played the holding role.

Mexico were clearly superior until they went ahead, then became too passive and the Dutch rallied to create a number of goalscoring chances.


An extremely important feature of this game was the weather. The temperature reached 38 degrees at one point, and the effect was most obvious because a huge number of supporters who were sitting in the sunshine vacated their seats early before half-time, in order to find some shade. They weren’t missing much, but if fans sitting down could barely face it, imagine the demands upon the players. This was the first World Cup match with three-minute ‘cooling breaks’ in each half, because of the intense heat, and this would prove important later.

The heat was obvious from the opening minutes. Van Gaal had warned that players would ‘hallucinate’ if not given cooling breaks, and while we didn’t quite reach that stage, there were a few strange decisions from players throughout the game – Jasper Cillessen, for example, twice found himself in extraordinary positions for a goalkeeper. There’s no evidence this was anything to do with the heat, of course, but there was strange, almost surreal feel to the game.

3-5-2 v 3-5-2

The heat wasn’t the only thing making the game slow. The tactical battle was 3-5-2 versus 3-5-2, and as documented previously, this tends to produce slow matches. This was the third 3-5-2 v 3-5-2 game of the tournament, and while there’s much more to strategies than simple starting formations, all three games have been 0-0 at half-time.

This match took the expected pattern. The defences had a spare man, the midfields were evenly matched, the wing-backs battled against one another up and down the touchlines. Mexico dominated possession and therefore one of their centre-backs was usually able to step forward from the back. It was only when Wesley Sneijder went to close him down, and therefore a Mexican midfielder found himself free, that things started to happen.

Different attacking approaches

High up the pitch, Mexico were aware of the Dutch insistence on man-marking very tightly, and so the major role of Giovani dos Santos and Oribe Peralta was about making decoy runs to open up space for Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera – the front two weren’t actually goal threats themselves. The Dutch always had a spare man, while Cillessen was (rather too) keen to sweep up behind his defence.

The Dutch were happy to soak up pressure before trying to counter, but they struggled to supply their front two with good passes, and the only major Dutch attack before half-time came when Mexico’s defenders conceded possession, allowing Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie to combine, with Robben bundled over for the first of three penalty shouts in the game.

Dos Santos’ fine long-range goal put Mexico ahead shortly after the break, and from there the contest changed dramatically – partly a natural shift after the change in game state, but partly because both managers made substitutions which changed the game.

Changes in formation

Van Gaal reacted first, and immediately put on an attacker, Memphis Depay, for right-wing back Verhaegh. This resulted in a complete change of system, from 3-4-1-2 to more of a 4-2-1-3. Dirk Kuyt switched to the opposite flank, and became a conventional full-back, while Robben played on the right and Depay went left. The Dutch had width on both sides, and this pushed back the Mexican full-backs, who now formed a back five. Space opened up for Kuyt and Bruno Martins Indi to push forward.

Herrera then responded. But his move was curious, taking off Dos Santos and putting on Javier Aquino. Mexico then played a system that looked more like 5-3-1-1, albeit with Aquino shuttling out to the right. This played into the Netherlands’ hands – they would have been scared defending 2 v 2 at the back, and they would also have been disappointed if Mexico had matched them down the flanks. The switch didn’t really change anything – Mexico would dominate the centre, but the Dutch still had numbers down the flanks.

The Dutch piled on the pressure in the wide areas, which resulted in a variety of set-piece opportunities, particularly from the right, with Guillermo Ochoa forced into a string of fine saves.

The major beneficiary of the switch was Arjen Robben, who had struggled to receive the ball on the run in the centre of the pitch, but now collected possession out on the right and dribbled past Miguel Layun dangerously. He had some very fine moments, including a neat cross for a Sneijder headed chance, and a one-on-one that dew another save from Ochoa.

More Van Gaal changes

Van Gaal then made a very brave move, substituting Robin van Persie, and putting on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who was more of a natural as a penalty box poacher, getting on the end of crosses.

The line-ups for the final 20 minutes - substitutes are highlighted

Van Gaal also made a switch during the water break, which involved moving Kuyt upfront from his right-back position, with Georginio Wijnaldum covering the right of the pitch. This tactical shift during the water break has received lots of attention – it’s pretty much the World Cup’s first ‘time out’, but in truth the change was little more than throwing a defender upfront and knocking long balls towards him. It helped, of course, that Kuyt is actually a forward…

But the crucial changes had already happened, and were important in both goals. Huntelaar’s clever back-header created the equaliser for Sneijder, and then Robben’s upteenth dribble resulted in him winning a penalty from Rafael Marquez – Huntelaar stepped up to convert. The formation change, however, was what resulted in the Netherlands’ late dominance.


This was all about the second half changes. Mexico were the better side in the first half, although partly because the Dutch were happy to invite pressure and play on the counter-attack.

Individual contributions were crucial, of course, but Van Gaal must take great credit for acting so quickly, and changing his system so decisively. Playing with width allowed the Netherlands to build pressure, Robben’s switch to the right meant he became the game’s key player, and Huntelaar being introduced was crucial for both goals.

Herrera didn’t respond well – the defensive-minded substitution didn’t work. It gave Mexico numbers in the centre of the pitch, but didn’t help them defend down the flanks, and reduced their attacking threat. Overall, he and Mexico had an impressive tournament, but it’s yet another second round elimination.

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