After an eight-year absence on the grandest of stages, the Netherlands are back with a bang as they beat Senegal by two goals to nil in the opening encounter of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Despite going into the game as favorites, Louis Van Gaal’s side were tested throughout the ninety minutes (probably over 100 minutes) by Senegal’s stern defensive shape and their pacy attacking threat.
Van Gaal’s shift to a back five has been the hallmark of the team’s success during his third spell as the country’s manager. His side came into the tournament playing fluid and free-flowing football, but interestingly, their out-of-possession tactics stood out against Senegal. They adopted a man-marking approach that caused their opponents a few problems when they looked to progress the ball through the middle. While the Champions of Africa were direct and targeted the channels, the Dutch’s approach out of possession restricted their opponents extremely well.
The Netherlands successfully used a complete man-marking approach against Belgium in both of their Nations League games recently. The setup was certainly similar, especially as the midfielders tightly looking after Senegal’s midfield three, whilst the front two (Bergwijn and Janssen) closed down the center-backs. The Dutch’s wing-backs – Dumfries and Blind, meanwhile, stayed behind when the ball was in Senegal’s half.
Bergwijn and Janssen used their cover shadow while pressing the center-backs, so Mendy often looked to pick out the full-backs, who were the free players. However, when the ball moved wide, Dumfries immediately pushed forward, with Janssen and Gakpo for company, therefore squeezing the space for Senegal. The same happened on the other side with Blind, Bergwijn, and Berghuis trying to compress their opponents’ right side. In this situation, Janssen eventually wins the ball, and the Netherlands turnover possession in midfield.
Senegal ultimately went long when the wing-backs advanced, but the likes of Virgil van Dijk, Matthijs de Ligt, and Nathan Ake were content in dealing with the high balls coming their way. This could probably also be the reason De Ligt started over Timber in this game. Although the Bayern Munich man struggled to contain the wide threat of Ismaila Sarr, he has better physical attributes compared to Timber, which helped the Netherlands win possession back.
When Koulibaly looked to carry the ball centrally, the Netherlands’ midfield closed the gaps and once again overloaded the middle of the pitch by being aggressive during the press. As a result, Senegal targeted De Ligt’s side via through balls to the left channel, with Sarr usually winning the second ball and running at the Dutch backline.
Moreover, the Lions positioned their wingers high and wide, so Blind and Dumfries naturally stayed back to protect their center-halves, which in turn meant that the forwards had to commit to Senegal’s fullbacks as seen in the image. In the situation below, Koulibaly plays the pass to Sabaly as Bergwijn closes down the fullback.
Bergwijn is caught stranded as there is a 2v1 overload in the first line. As Sabaly returns the pass to Koulibaly, he has the time and space to pick Sarr’s run in behind De Ligt. Both Dumfries and De Ligt struggled to deal with Sarr in the first half, with the Watford winger getting the better of them. Here, Sarr receives the ball, cuts inside, and has a go, but Van Dijk made a crucial block to deflect it to a corner.
That said, Netherlands’ midfield were well drilled and communicated to perfection when Senegal rotated their midfield to disarm the man-marking approach. The central stability meant that Senegal often looked to pick their striker with a long ball, but all three of the Dutch center-halves were on top of their game in terms of duels contested in the air.
Van Gaal will seek improvement in possession as his team struggled to progress the ball and burdened De Jong with the task of progressing centrally. But they showed their decisiveness in front of the goal, with a moment of magic from De Jong and Gakpo sealing the deal in what was a crucial victory against a tough opponent.
Next up, the Oranjes will face Ecuador on Friday, in what will be another important game. Ecuador won their opening encounter against Qatar and look like a side that possesses confidence. But if the Netherlands can snatch another victory, they will be on their way to top the group. Van Gaal’s side undoubtedly has a strong defense to rely upon and will hope that Depay can be back to full fitness to lead the attack.