Shape-shifting Dutch baffle World Cup opponents
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The Netherlands has come from a goal down to win three of their four World Cup matches so far thanks in part to their swift system swaps.
Louis van Gaal is largely relying on a 5-3-2 formation in Brazil, with two wing backs expected to push forward in quick-fire counter attacks. But the team has been reverting to the traditional Dutch attacking 4-3-3 system if it goes behind and Van Gaal also has what he calls "Plan B."
Quarterfinal opponent Costa Rica will have to be nimble to keep up with the Dutch shape shifting when they meet Saturday in Salvador.
The Dutch will have to rebuild their midfield after Nigel de Jong suffered a groin injury against Mexico that has put the rest of his World Cup in serious doubt.
De Jong sat on the touchline of the Dutch training ground Wednesday, ice strapped to his groin, doing some light stretches. A possible replacement, Leroy Fer, also only did light running as he recovers from a hamstring strain.
Dirk Kuyt could be in contention to replace him in the midfield -- he's played almost everywhere else in two appearances at the World Cup.
Against Mexico, the versatile veteran started the game at left wing back in a 5-3-2 formation. When the Dutch went a goal down, Van Gaal switched him to right back in a 4-3-3 system. That produced pressure on Mexico but no goal, so Kuyt was pushed forward again to play as a center forward in "Plan B" -- which was effectively a four-man front line of Arjen Robben on the right wing and Memphis Depay on the left pumping crosses into the penalty area for Kuyt and Klaas Jan Huntelaar to chase.
When that finally produced an 88th-minute goal for Wesley Sneijder, the team reverted back to 4-3-3 and, as they continued to press forward, Arjen Robben forced a penalty that Huntelaar converted for an unlikely win.
"Yes, it was an escape. But in the second half ... we created far more chances with 4-3-3 and Plan B," Van Gaal said. "So we played three formations and it is a great compliment that players can immediately execute that, but we saw that against Australia, too."
Sneijder, who finally scored his first goal of the World Cup against Mexico after notching five in South Africa four years ago, said the Dutch players are adaptable enough to execute Van Gaal's plans.
"It's all about the team spirit and just to believe in it and go for it," he said. "We are very confident so it's good to come back after being 1-0 down."
Dutch football purists lamented Van Gaal's choice to use a 5-3-2 system ahead of the World Cup, saying it does not produce the free-flowing attacking football that earned the Netherlands a reputation as the Brazilians of European football.
Van Gaal, who has long been a proponent of the 4-3-3 system used by great attacking Dutch teams in the past, defended his decision by arguing he does not have the players to play that way.
Both sides of the argument seem to have been vindicated so far in Brazil.
Van Gaal's more defensive system has meant that his inexperienced defense has managed to restrict two of the tournament's most attacking teams -- Chile and Spain -- to just one goal between them. The system also helped thrash Spain 5-1, with defender Daley Blind providing long passes to Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben for a pair of stunning goals.
But when he has made the switch to 4-3-3 it has helped the Dutch pull off unlikely wins.
"We've been behind three times in this tournament, against Spain, Australia and Mexico," central defender Rob Vlaar told Dutch magazine Voetbal International, "and each time we managed to turn it around because we keep believing in a good result and, above all, kept going."
Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press
This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index
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