It was a result which shook the World Cup, a mere two days into the tournament. World Champions Spain were swept away 5-1 by the Netherlands, losing finalists last time around – the Spanish tiki taka faltering, while the strong, exciting counter-attacking style of the Dutch won over in style.
After a win like that, would it hold up that the Netherlands are now one of the growing crew of dark horses to win the World Cup?
Well, it depends; certainly, the Dutch seem to have been underrated by the pundits and fans alike – many thinking they wouldn’t qualify from one of the trickier groups of the competition, featuring the exciting trio of Spain, Chile and Australia – and this first result, in probably their trickiest game on paper, is much more positive than expected; many suggesting that the Dutch would do well to keep the goal deficit down.
On the other hand, however, they’ll face many other stern tasks on the way to glory, if indeed they are to get there. They’ll play one of the feted dark horses, Chile, in what will be a crucial game in Group B and potentially in deciding the beginning of the path to the final for each team. From there, they’re likely to have to play at least 2 of football’s traditional powers – whether that be European rivals such as Germany, Italy or even England, or South American outfits such as the hosts Brazil and, despite their stumble against Bosnia on Sunday, pre-tournament favourites for many, Argentina – in any bid for the trophy come July the 13th.
The lingering doubts over the Dutch team can’t exactly be swept away completely following what was an excellent win – which is understating it a little bit, all things considered. There were complaints over the 5-3-2 system that coach Louis van Gaal has employed in recent months; this looked a little bit dodgy in the warm-up games; if a team doesn’t manage to defend effectively, a 3 man central defence can be a hindrance moving forward. Vlaar, Martins Indi and de Vrij all looked reasonably strong on Friday evening, Vlaar in particular not putting a foot wrong at the back, but it can’t be forgotten that this is a young defence, the most experience player in it a defender for Aston Villa – Vlaar – who hasn’t had the greatest season for his club side. The midfield will be crucial to the hopes moving forward, both literally (on a football pitch) and figuratively (through the tournament), with Nigel de Jong perhaps the key man. De Jong will shield the defence for the Netherlands throughout the tournament and was one of the only men to emerge from AC Milan’s horrible Serie A season with any real personal credit, and isn’t perhaps a reason for concern – however, Swansea’s Jonathan de Guzman was fairly useless, even in the romp over Spain, which might be a problem in tighter games, while Sneijder isn’t the player he was in South Africa, having pretty much dropped out of top tier football with his move away from Inter Milan a few years ago.
These issues can be helped by other presences within the squad – the likes of Wijnaldum, Clasie, Lens, Fer and Depay waiting in the wings – but all of those are just as inexperienced as some of the men around them, including wing backs Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat at international level. This would upset the balance of the team, especially if they ever end up in a losing position. Perhaps the main area for confidence remains the front two – Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie were in inspired form against Spain, scoring two apiece in a scintillating display of what they can do at their peak, with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar not a bad option from the bench either.
If van Gaal’s Dutch side can keep this up, the entertainment should continue. The 5-3-2 is an entertaining system if employed correctly, while the big name players such as Robben and van Persie should probably still be in form over the coming games. Are they dark horses for the tournament, however? Well, probably not. It’s very rare to see a team that starts this well in a World Cup end up lifting the trophy in mid-July – it’s a cliché, sure, but it’s definitely true that slow starters generally tend to impress the most at tournaments; Spain in 2010 are the most obvious example here, becoming the first Champions to lose their first game, but Italy’s World Cup winning teams generally seem to have a poor group stage, while it is a general rule that peaking early is a bad thing. The Netherlands have recent history of this – absolutely tearing apart their group in Euro 2008, the group of death, no less, containing France, Italy and a potential banana skin in Romania – before crashing out inconspicuously to Russia in the Quarters. Back then, the Netherlands’ best performance was against France in the second game, a 4-1 win, but they beat the World Champions (then Italy) 3-0 in the first game. Interesting parallels.
Overall, it seems that the Netherlands will indeed have a good tournament but it really depends on your definition of dark horse which can decide how far they are going to turn out as this year’s dark horses. They’re perhaps a few good performances off perhaps being back where they usually are, among the favourites, but their team certainly has it within them to go far in the tournament. It will be interesting to see how the Dutch campaign pans out – van Gaal could receive an excellent swan song as Netherlands manager yet.