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Holland’s van Gaal wins chess match over Chile in World Cup

Coach van Gaal points the way for Holland
Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images

Monday, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Holland’s Louis van Gaal masterminded a strategy that kept the Chilean team at bay for 70-75 minutes, in their World Cup Group B match, then he brought in the reserve pieces of his arsenal for the 2-0 win. The result puts the Dutch atop the group and Chile in second place. This means that Chile will probably have to meet Brazil in the Group of 16 while the Dutch will play either Mexico or Croatia.

In a game the Dutch could afford to draw and still progress in first place to the next round coach van Gaal devised a simple strategy to maximize his chances without his key suspended player Robin van Persie. He began by playing an ultra-defensive formation that included sacrificing both Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, playing the latter in a more defensive role, and leaving the former as the lone striker with the occasional support of Jeremain Lens, the second striker, who actually played behind Robben and was more a high-up defensive disturbance than an offensive threat.

The first half of the game was thus unsurprisingly one sided as the Chileans asserted themselves and the Dutch, though intent on defending, seemed nevertheless surprised by the technical ability and creativity of their opponent. But the game’s chances were even given the individual threat that the speedy Arjen Robben alone provides, and the manner in which the Europeans’ counterattacking clicked to support him time and again to produce enough dangerous plays to keep Chile honest.

The half ended 0-0 but not for lack of chances as both sides could have scored.

The second half saw Chile try to duplicate its first half offensive dominance, but the Dutch had now seen what else it took to stop the avalanche. The fine tuning that van Gaal needed at half time was minimal as the four-part strategy could begin to be discerned early with some parts evident through the latter part of the first halt.

First, play defensively all of the first half--check. Second, erase Alexis Sanchez. You may have noted that he was fouled by no fewer than six players on the Oranje team, no matter where he played on the pitch. Check. The next piece of the puzzle was complementary but more delicate and challenging to achieve, one would assume.

The much taller Dutch team made sure that most aerial confrontation concluded with both the ball, and any foul called, going their way. This latter objective was achieved at first by simply playing countless aerial balls and beating their shorter opponents to the ball, but it then became a matter of playing to the inexperienced team of Gambian referee Bakary Gassama. Coach van Gaal could be seen playing to the fourth official from the first contested ball involving Robben all the way to when Dirk Kuyt fell to the ground feigning cramps and being substituted, priceless lost time later, at the 89th minute.

Meanwhile, the internationally recognizable Sneijder and Robben kept complaining to Gassama each time he blew the whistle for or against them. The results of the strategy were evident in the number of critical fouls called in Holland’s favor that either stopped Chilean attacks or maintained Dutch pressure. But the most evident example came at the 91st minute when Chile was flooding the Dutch half, pressuring for a tying score, when a clearance by the Dutch was achieved with a header obtained via foul on a Chilean just outside the box. The ref ignored the infraction and the Dutch raced down the field. In a matter of seconds, with the Chilean defense tilted toward attack and thus out of position, and the fresh 69th minute substitute Memphis Depay keeping pace with the speedy Robben, the Dutch lethal counter resulted in Depay’s second late goal of the tournament. Check.

But credit must be given when credit has clearly been earned. Coach van Gaal’s crowning achievement came with the fourth and final part of the strategy. This was the 69th to 75th minute substitutions. It was at that point, that, had the Dutch held the Chileans scoreless, the Oranje was planning on going on the attack. The brilliant stealth move was to bring in as a substitute the 6’2” Leroy Fer for the 5’7” Sneijder and then have Fer play offensively. The by then normal aerial delivery came 84 seconds after the substitution and “go” order. A simple corner, a blown coverage, a towering header, and Holland was ahead 1-0 at the 76:24. That was the checkmate move; Depay’s role, and the other officiating details handled, were merely the insurance any good strategic planner always takes out.

The smiles and knowing looks that the coach and his assistants could be seen exchanging after Fer’s score was the smile of a brain trust that has worked the numbers down to a near-scientific certainty. If van Gaal and company have thought it through, the next opponent should not be as difficult and the team and coach should get a respite. Then it will be time to really strategize again, at the quarterfinals, when the next tough challenge will come up. Then again, this is the cup of surprises, so no one knows what will happen next no matter the plan.