Louis van Gaal isn’t going quietly. For the foreseeable, he isn’t going anywhere at all after the Netherlands became the first side into the last eight of this World Cup as their master manager completely outsmarted Gregg Berhalter and the young Americans at Khalifa Stadium.
Van Gaal had relished jostling with Dutch journalists on the eve of their return to the knockout stages of this tournament which he is adamant they can win. They have accused his side of being much too ‘boring’ here in Qatar. They were indeed boring for some stretches on Saturday, but they were brilliant in a couple of bursts too as the US defence was stretched and shown to be much too naive for a stage like this.
Memphis Depay scored a wonderful early opener before later calamitously opening the door to the Americans, who cut the deficit to one with 14 minutes remaining. But right-wing back Denzel Dumfries, who had himself a fine Saturday evening in Doha, grabbed a Dutch third to go with his assists to Depay and Daley Blind.
The Dutch march on and now have a six-day rest before their quarter-final date with either Argentina or Australia. They may be ugly at times but that was also the case in 2010 and they made it all the way to a final.
Van Gaal’s side are aging in some key areas, callow in others. They navigated Group A without defeat and with only a single goal conceded. Yet they still arrived here to kick off the knockout stages soaked in red ink, pundits’ here and beyond circling this one as the most likely last 16 tie to throw up a victory for the underdog.
But the sense coming in was that all may not have been as it seemed with the US either. Along with the Dutch, they were one of just five teams to make it through their first three games unbeaten but as energetic and enthralling as their young midfield trio had been, could we say that the defence had been tested? Could we argue that the attack was firing?
Berhalter changed his central striker for the third time in four games, which answers the latter question, Jesús Ferreira of FC Dallas leading the line. In defence another MLS product, Walker Zimmerman, returned alongside Fulham veteran Tim Ream. The test would indeed come, and the duo would fail it miserably.
For much of the first half Van Gaal succeeded, without too much difficulty, in completely disrupting the US rhythm and pacy approach. They were kept at a walking pace and once slowed, gave us all time to look closer at Berhalter’s team. It didn’t look good. It would be only 2-0 at the break but the Dutch had barely attacked. They didn’t need to.
It might have been different had Christian Pulisic made the most of a fortunate opening after just three minutes. As the Dutch defence stepped out, Blind played the Chelsea winger on as he latched on to a ball and fired first time at Andries Noppert but the giant goalkeeper reached out a left leg to stop it.
The Dutch would be ahead before the 10-minute mark. It was a gorgeous move, but they had the free run of Khalifa to make it. Depay released Cody Gakpo who in turn found the galloping Denzel Dumfries, his cut back to the edge of the box cut out the entire American defence and found Depay, left untracked by Tyler Adams. The finish was perfectly placed, a fitting end to such a staffing move. For the sake of the Netherlands’ hopes of moving up a gear for more challenging battles, getting their talisman back among the goals, with his 43rd in 85 caps, was just as satisfying.
The US tried to pick things up with varying degrees of failure over the next 30 minutes. Frankie de Jong was a passenger but a willing one. Sure, the Dutch could have been more adventurous, could have shown more imagination but they were beating what was in front of them, Virgil van Dijk and the excellent Nathan Ake untroubled alongside Jurrien Timber.
A rasper of a drive from Tim Weah was beaten away by Noppert on 42 minutes but could have been a spark for the underdogs. Instead, they fell back into a slumber and fell two behind right before the interval. Dumfries took a throw-in near the corner and looked more than happy to see it out to the whistle, but Ferreira offered him the ball back and space to use it. Just like the first, his cutback left the entire American defence exposed and Blind, of all people, raced in to score.
When Daley Blind is scorching in on your defence, do you really belong among the last 16 of one of these things?
Berhalter cycled his striker again, finally handing Dortmund teenager Giovanni Reyna some game time when it was likely too late. His side had marginally more success yet barely troubled Noppert.
At the other end the Dutch broke frequently with Steven Bergwijn adding more pace. They really ought to have done more with the openings, Depay stinging Matt Turner’s fingers on the hour with the best of them. The Arsenal backup pulled off a brilliant double-save from first Teun Koopmeiners and then Depay.
Then their leading man inexplicably put them on the back foot. Under no pressure, Depay’s 76th-minute back pass was much too short and Haji Wright ran on to it and around Noppert but the ball was forced out for a corner. When Pulisic’s delivery broke to the edge of the box, Depay pulled out of a winnable tackle and Pulisic crossed for Wright to somehow spoon the ball with the outside of his right toe sending it looping over Dumfries and in to the net.
The US were suddenly back in it…and just as suddenly out again. Blind was left under no pressure five minutes later and sent a booming cross into the back post where Dumfries met it beautifully.
Van Gaal gave PSV wonderkid Xavi Simons his debut as his side saw out the last ten minutes without trouble.
Are they firing on all cylinders? No. Will Van Gaal care? Also no. He’s doing it his way. It’s worked plenty of times before.
Noppert 8; Timber 7, Van Dijk 7, Aké 8 (De Ligt 90); Dumfries 8, De Roon 5 (Koopmeiners HT, 6), F. De Jong 6, Blind 7; Klaassen 6 (Bergwijn HT, 5); Gakpo 7 (Weghorst 90), Memphis 8 (Simons 82).
Koopmeiners, De Jong.
Turner 6; Dest 4 (Yedlin 75), Zimmerman 5, Ream 4, Robinson 4 (Morris 90); Adams 4, Musah 5, McKennie 5 (Wright 67); Weah 5 (Aaronson 67), Pulisic 5, Ferreira 3 (Reyna HT, 5).
Wilton Sampaio (Brazil)