Louis van Gaal's Netherlands flex tactical superiority to outlast USA

Sean Walsh
Van Gaal's men are through to the World Cup quarter-finals
Van Gaal's men are through to the World Cup quarter-finals / BSR Agency/GettyImages

Every time the United States reach the knockout stages of the World Cup, there's a feeling that this is the time where the sport really takes off in America.

There was good reason to think that 2022 was a different case. Gregg Berhalter has a lot of young talent at his disposal and the next World Cup will be stateside. This is merely the prelude to their homecoming.

After deservedly advancing undefeated from a group featuring England, Iran and Wales, the Stars and Stripes got their hopes up again about their latest batch of heroes. Could they topple a Netherlands outfit who were stuck in a malaise, who came unstuck against a similarly youthful and energetic side in Ecuador?

Well, as it turns out, they couldn't.

Louis van Gaal's Oranje came to Qatar as outsiders to go all the way, but at the same time you wouldn't want to bet against them losing. The last time the Netherlands lost by more than the odd goal at a World Cup came in the 1978 final after all.

They tried to stay true to their 'Total Football' roots in the face of push-and-run soccer in Saturday's 3-1 win, even if that meant surrendering possession because they weren't in much danger without it (Haji Wright's freak goal perfectly symbolic of that). Their old head at the helm successfully identified where the US's weak points were - notably the space left behind their advancing full-backs - and took advantage.

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The Netherlands' first goal - a 21-pass move from back to front finished by Memphis Depay - was as Dutch a goal as you could imagine, luring the US into a false sense of security before popping the ball around them like they were training cones. It wasn't a coincidence that their second featured similar patterns of play and the third exploited those clear weakness once more.

Van Gaal spoke pre-match about how he has been blessed with the squad at his disposal for one last hurrah. He has the chance to leave a lasting legacy as a new era of Dutch football takes shape, and this last 16 tie was proof that old tactical habits still have a place in the modern game, even when up against sides superior physically.

In Cody Gakpo, they have one of the tournament's breakout stars. In Frenkie de Jong, a unique midfielder who starts for pretty much any team in world football. In Virgil van Dijk, one of the game's leading defenders even when he's in a slump.

We're back at the place we started with. How would the Netherlands win the World Cup? But equally, why couldn't they?