Round of 16 tactical preview: How the US, Netherlands match up
Tuesday’s dramatic 1-0 win over Iran was just the ticket for the US, as they finished second in Group B behind England and therefore booked their spot in the round of 16. Up next, however, is another potentially tricky opponent: the Netherlands, who finished top of Group A by virtue of beating Senegal and host nation Qatar in Group A.
The two will go head-to-head at Khalifa International Stadium on Saturday (10 a.m. ET) to see who advances to the quarterfinals, where the winning team will take on Argentina or Australia on that side of the bracket. Can the US keep this momentum going? Or will the Dutch, led from midfield by the mercurial Frenkie De Jong, bring that dream to an end?
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ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura and ESPN Netherlands’ Bob Ligthart break down Saturday’s game.
What has worked for the US at this World Cup? And what hasn’t?
If every team in the World Cup were judged based on how they’ve played in the first half alone, the United States would be considered one the best teams in the tournament.
On a per/first-half basis, they rank No. 5 in chances created (5.3), No. 10 in xG (0.7) and No. 6 in goals (0.7). Defensively, they haven’t conceded and allowed just one first-half shot on goal. That’s largely a credit to the tactics and team selection of Gregg Berhalter, but mainly to the midfield trio of Tyler Adams, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie, which has drawn praise from all corners of the world. The US midfield has been nearly impossible to play through early in games, even nullifying England’s Jude Bellingham and Mason Mount in that 0-0 draw.
However, the US have been significantly worse after halftime in each game, too. Looking at the same stats as above for the second halves, the US rank No. 29 in chances (2.3), No. 30 in xG (0.2) and are one of just four teams not to score. The drop-off isn’t as steep defensively, as the only goal allowed came on a penalty, but opposing teams have six second-half shots on goal and more than triple their xG.
Part of that is due to game state. Against Wales and Iran, the US were protecting a lead in the second half and adopted a more defensive approach — especially against Iran, when they went to five in the back in the 82nd minute (with 10 minutes of stoppage time). However, what was more clear during each game is that when McKennie and Musah began to tire, everything else suffered. And other than Walker Zimmerman’s insertion against Iran — he entered the game in the 82nd minute and was an assertive, dominant force in the air — not a single substitute made a tangible positive impact. — Bonagura
What has worked for the Netherlands at this World Cup? And what hasn’t?
If you’re asking about whether the Dutch are living up to expectations, the reality is that they are underperforming. Their group stage matches (against Senegal, Ecuador and Qatar) were considered dull and more like “walking football” — the opposite of what they usually try to show during the World Cups, where they aim to play fun, attacking and enjoyable football.
The biggest spark of Dutch fun and energy came in the form of Cody Gakpo. He was Louis van Gaal’s superstar from the group stage. The attacker, who has also been used as an attacking midfielder in Qatar, scored in all three group matches, making him the fourth Dutchman in history to score three games in a row at the World Cup after Johan Neeskens (1974), Dennis Bergkamp (1994) and Wesley Sneijder (2010).
Andries Noppert, Van Gaal’s choice as goalkeeper, has also turned out to be a smart pick, with the Heerenveen keeper conceding only one goal. At 6-foot-8, he is the tallest player at the World Cup and played his best against their toughest opponents, Senegal. Yet this robust defense is also down to who’s playing in front of him: the center-back trio of Virgil van Dijk, Nathan Ake and Jurrien Timber (or Matthijs de Ligt) is solid and has not run into many problems.
The issue in need of most adjustment is the midfield, which has been Van Gaal’s biggest headache in Qatar: only De Jong can count on a starting spot with certainty.
Van Gaal has also been purposeful in not rushing players into the team. Memphis Depay, for example, started in only the last group match because he brought a minor injury with him into the World Cup. Lucky for him, and the Dutch fans, is that this squad feel fit and healthy just in time for the grueling knockout phase. — Ligthart
Where will the game be won and lost?
It’s fair to say that neither side has been able to consistently create good scoring chances. The main difference is that the Dutch have Gakpo, and the US don’t have anyone, really, who has shown — and not just at this World Cup, but going back months — an ability to consistently finish difficult chances. So, not much should change for the US when it comes to their defensive approach (zero goals allowed from open play!) but they do need to pay particular attention to the PSV star.
I don’t think either team is going to batter the opposing goal; rather, it will come down to which team is able to capitalize on momentary breakdowns or which individual player(s) can create on their own.
That tense, well-balanced dynamic is why the “Case of the Missing Gio” is such a talking point. Only Christian Pulisic — who was last seen exiting the field before a visit to the hospital — is in Gio Reyna’s class when it comes to being able to turn nothing into something.
It’s hard to allow for the possibility that injury isn’t the reason Reyna hasn’t featured more than the brief cameo against England, but let’s go ahead and assume he is available. Why not let him play as the No. 9? Josh Sargent put in a workmanlike shift against Iran trying to hold the ball up, but Reyna can do that just as well — if not better — and is more of a threat. Maybe his pressing isn’t what Berhalter wants, but Haji Wright appeared lost when it came to that instruction, too. — Bonagura
Both teams have solid defenses, so as Kyle said, the question is who can create those scoring chances. The Netherlands have already used most of their squad at this World Cup, particularly in midfield, albeit with several variations depending on the opponent. Van Gaal has tried an aggressive, attacking midfield and a more defensive setup. Against USA’s closed defense, an offensive attitude with creativity in midfield could be the key to success.
Memphis Depay is fit again and is expected to start as one of the two strikers. The question is whether Van Gaal chooses Steven Bergwijn as a second striker and uses Gakpo as attacking midfielder, or uses Gakpo as that second striker just like he did against Qatar. If Van Gaal takes the latter approach, Steven Berghuis and Davy Klaassen could provide an offensive impulse in midfield, leaving De Jong free to create and pick his passes.
The fitness of the teams is also an important factor. Van Gaal indicated previously that his team is fit just in time for the knockout phase, having been able to rest some key players against Qatar. Meanwhile, the US are coming off a grueling game against Iran, in which Pulisic hobbled off with a “pelvic contusion” — he’s day-to-day in terms of being ready for Saturday — and most of US coach Gregg Berhalter’s best players put in heavy work.
The Netherlands must deal with this smartly and let the opponent tire out; that way, they can make a difference later in the game if needed. — Ligthart
US 1, Netherlands 1: US advance on penalties. The Dutch have the better talent and the better history, but at no point in the group stage did they appear like a team gearing up for a deep run. The US, though, are brimming with confidence and have a chance to score an all-time famous win. — Bonagura
US 0, Netherlands 2. I think the Netherlands will win the match 2-0. Van Gaal’s team has played not great so far, but gave little away, too. Gakpo is flying and Memphis is back just in time for the business end of the tournament. This team is rested and ready. — Ligthart
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