Brazil, Spain, Germany and Argentina are the consensus favorites for the 2014 World Cup. In this series I assess the chances of possible dark horses outside the big four.
The Netherlands has an impressive résumé coming into this World Cup. The Dutch team reached the final in 2010 and took Spain to extra time. It qualified for Brazil with ease, taking 28 points of a possible 30 from a reasonably difficult group. Its attack features Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie, the star forwards of European giants Bayern Munich and Manchester United. But I think it is at great risk of crashing out in the group stage.
First, the Dutch résumé has some holes. Most notably, this team came into the 2012 European championships as one of the favorites but failed to even make the knockout rounds. Holland went down 1-0 in a must-win opener to lowly Denmark and never recovered. Losses to Germany and Portugal followed and the Dutch exited the championships without securing a single point.
Their talent is also more dubious than the superstar front line suggests. The 2010 Dutch side was already an old team. Soccer players, with the exceptions of center-backs and keepers, generally peak around the ages of 25 or 26, and they hit the downslope hard by 30. The eight starters from that team beside the CBs and GK had an average age of 27.6. By age, 2010 was the end of their window.
While aging is normal for a World Cup squad, the Netherlands has not been able to replace these players with a new generation. Its midfield was expected to be anchored by Kevin Strootman and Marco van Ginkel, but both young stars will miss the Cup with knee injuries. Jetro Willems, who stepped in at fullback for Euro 2012, is likewise unavailable for selection. The Netherlands will not be able to fill the gaps in their squad with elite young talent.
There’s a bit of a problem here, however. If the issue for the Netherlands is the aging of their squad combined with a run of injuries, then what happened in the qualifying rounds? How did they dominate their group? My numbers suggest that a hot run of shot conversion, combined with a cold run for Holland’s opposition, played a big part. By expected goals, the Dutch side was not even top of their group. These are goals ratio and expected goals ratio for Group D, with games against minnows Andorra removed.
This is a side that has had problems for several years, but whose qualifying campaign papered over the cracks. Manager Louis van Gaal has shifted his tactics before the World Cup, in response to both the injury problems and perhaps the earlier struggles with quality of play,
The Netherlands will play in a 3-5-2 rather than the 4-2-3-1 they have run out in most recent competitions. Without the talent he expected in midfield, van Gaal will add another central defender and try to pack the deep areas of the pitch with bodies.
He is counting on Robben, van Persie and WesleySneijder to carry the attacking load while the other seven men defend and look for chances to play on the counter. I do not want to count out van Gaal, one of the great tactical minds at this World Cup, and this adjustment could carry the day. The final two Dutch friendlies, against Ghana and Ecuador, featured two of the Netherlands’ best expected goals performances. The following shot chart has all the shots from these two games, sized in relation to their expected goals value.
They have a chance if Van Gaal’s adjustments are successful. But that is just two good matches, both in Holland. The longer record of this squad is not as good, and there are clear holes in the roster. Drawn into a group with defending champions Spain and dangerous Chile, the Netherlands rates as the third best team and thus at high risk of going home early.
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All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.