A team’s opening World Cup fixture is rarely easy, no matter how good you are. Just look at the shocks Argentina and Germany experienced at the hands of Saudi Arabia and Japan respectively.

That’s why the Netherlands should feel optimistic following their 2-0 win over Senegal. The Oranje engine was stuttering and spluttering rather than purring but a victory in what is on paper your hardest group game when you are not playing well is a sign of a good team. 

There were several justifications for the beaming smile on the face of Louis van Gaal, who has now become the most successful Netherlands manager ever based on wins. However, there were undoubtedly also some areas for concern that pour just a few drops of cold water on van Gaal’s punchy pre-tournament claims that the Dutch can win the tournament. 

Ahead of the game against Ecuador, where a win could put the Oranje into the second round with a match still to spare, what were the five main things we learned from the Netherland’s first World Cup 2022 fixture?

Build the attack around Gapko 

The Dutch currently have a problem in attack. The man who will soon break Robin van Persie’s international record, Memphis Depay, is still not fully fit, whilst Steven Bergwijn is in an ill-timed slump that he needs to be quickly extradited from. Meanwhile, the more traditional forwards – Vincent Janssen, Luuk de Jong and Wout Weghorst – have never been prolific. 

It’s therefore fortunate that van Gaal has an in-form, versatile and highly talented forward at his disposal in Cody Gakpo. Going into the tournament, the main query about Gakpo was whether he could perform on the biggest stages, away from the less intense glare at PSV Eindhoven. He’s answered that question in just one World Cup appearance. 

The best players come alive when they are needed most and that was what Gakpo did with his brave header to open the scoring, coming at a time when Senegal had his team on the back foot. Whether it is still in the number 10 position or as one of the two strikers, the Dutch players need to build their attacks through him against Ecuador. Traditionally, van Gaal likes players to stick firmly to their assigned jobs but if he wants his side to show more of a threat then giving Gakpo a freer attacking role would be wise. 

De Ligt looks like a square peg in a round hole 

There is no doubt Matthijs de Ligt is a fine player with real potential – just consider how he has slotted into Bayern Munich this season – but at international level, he still does not look comfortable in the way the team is set up defensively. The former Ajax captain’s last tournament contribution was getting sent off in the Euro 2020 defeat to the Czech Republic, and his performance against Senegal did not exactly suggest he has regained the necessary composure in the famous orange shirt.

The real issue is that, in a back three, the central role most suited to De Ligt’s game is taken by his captain Virgil van Dijk. Going up against Ismaïla Sarr, it was clear that he doesn’t have the natural mobility required to play on the right side of a defensive three. The majority of Senegal’s attacks came down that part of the pitch, with De Ligt struggling to get across to cover the channel. This consequently left too much space for van Dijk to handle and negated the invaluable attacking potency of Denzel Dumfries, who had to do a far bigger defensive job than he would have wanted from wing-back. To give more balance to the side, it is crucial that van Gaal opts for Jurien Timber ahead of De Ligt, whose best hope of game-time is if van Dijk is rested or his manager reverts to a back four. 

Time to release Frenkie 

That Frenkie de Jong did not have his best game but was still one of the Netherland’s better performers says everything about his quality. Significantly, the superb assist he provided for Gakpo’s goal came after van Gaal had introduced Teun Koopmeiners to add some required midfield solidity. Having a defensive or holding midfielder alongside de Jong, be it Koopmeiners or his Atalanta teammate Marten de Roon, will give the Barcelona star the freedom he craves on the ball and maximise his vision and passing ability, 

For a lot of the game, with Steven Berghuis as his partner, de Jong was spending far too much time putting out attacks rather than catalysing them. His passing was not at its best yet this was partly because he was being given little support and trying to do everything himself, often winning the ball before driving forward to try and start something offensively. It is true de Jong often likes to drop deep but he is not a defensive shield. He is an offensive weapon. On his day, Frenkie de Jong is one of the best creators at this World Cup. He won’t be able to show that without someone else being around to do the dirty work for him. 

Blind has justified his selection 

As written previously, the selection in the squad of Daley Blind received a lot of criticism by Oranje fans. And it is true that much of it is justified. However, in his 95th cap for his country, Blind similarly justified the other reasons for why van Gaal values him so highly. 

In the opening stages, when he was turned a couple of times, you could almost hear the knives being sharpened. Yet over the course of the 90 minutes Blind put in a good performance, dovetailing nicely with the quicker and increasingly impressive Nathan Aké. He was rarely caught out of position, was defensively solid and offered a good outlet on the left-hand side. Indeed, his final pass accuracy was 86% (higher than de Jong’s) and he had the 4th highest number of touches of those in Orange. 

The doubts over how he will cope against better sides will remain, particularly when confronting fast wingers, and we may see him switching positions with Aké at some point. Blind has at least ensured that those knives have been put back in the drawer for the time being.  

The goalkeeper question marks remain

One of the great features of World Cup’s are the individual player stories that accompany them. The tale of Andries Noppert is certainly one to remember. To go from being clubless and almost retiring two years ago, to being a back-up goalkeeper for Go Ahead Eagles only last season to now starting for your country in a World Cup is remarkable. And in the biggest game of his career Noppert did everything that was required of him, with a couple of important saves in the second half just as their opponents seemed to be building momentum. 

Nonetheless, one dose of medicine doesn’t provide the cure to van Gaal’s goalkeeping conundrum. If Noppert makes an error against Ecuador or has a poor game, how will he recover? Will he be able to handle the pressure of a World Cup if the intensity goes up a further notch? And if not, does van Gaal stick with him or instead ruthlessly turn to  Remko Pasveer or Justin Bijlow, who have their own question marks hanging over them? In fairness, Noppert was not tested greatly against Senegal, so could still lay down a marker in the next match. At the same time you could see that the familiarity and trust with the likes of van Dijk is not yet there. 

We still don’t know if the selection of Noppert will ultimately prove an inspired gamble or a costly mistake. 

Joe Baker (15 Posts)