FORTALEZA, Brazil (AP) — The inexperienced Dutch defense looked to be the weak link coming into the World Cup. So far, though, it’s holding up well enough to keep the team winning.
Again showing he is not afraid to make changes, Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal gave defender Paul Verhaegh only his third international appearance against Mexico in the second round, replacing Daryl Janmaat at right back.
The Augsburg player struggled early against pacey Mexico wingback Miguel Layun, but the Netherlands’ defense conceded only one goal on Sunday and its lethal front line came to the rescue late to salvage a 2-1 victory.
“I wanted better position play and better buildup in the first and second phases,” Van Gaal said. “I thought that that succeeded. We had much more of the ball than in any other game.”
If there is a lesson for Costa Rica ahead of the quarterfinals on July 5 in Salvador, it is that the Dutch defense often looks shaky when it is put under pressure.
And in the next match, the Netherlands may be without key defensive midfielder Nigel de Jong. The AC Milan forward had to come off in the ninth minute on Sunday with a groin strain.
Then there is Robin van Persie. The Manchester United striker scored three goals in his first two matches, then sat out a game through suspension and was ineffective against Mexico until Van Gaal — showing that nobody is above being substituted — replaced him with Klaas Jan Huntelaar.
Van Gaal said Van Persie, who was injured before the World Cup, still has trouble lasting the full 90 minutes, especially in the strength-sapping heat of Fortaleza.
But it is the defense that appears to worry Van Gaal the most, and he has repeatedly tinkered with it in Brazil.
The coach gave Dirk Kuyt his first ever match at left back in the final Group B match against Chile and it paid off, with the Dutch neutralizing one of the most potent attacking forces at the World Cup in a 2-0 victory.
Then he put Verhaegh in for Janmaat against Mexico and Daley Blind moved from defense to his favored spot in the midfield in another of Van Gaal’s savvy tactical switches in the second half at the Arena Castelao. That got the Dutch going forward and took the pressure off the defense after it had conceded a 48th-minute goal by Giovani Dos Santos.
Kuyt, a veteran always considered a utility player in attack or midfield, made his 100th appearance against Mexico. It was his second match as a defender, but he is prepared to go anywhere.
“In tournament football it is about one thing: Winning,” Kuyt said. “It doesn’t matter how, when or how late in the game, you just have to win and we’ve done that and it gives the team an enormous boost.”
One of the best ways of easing the burden on the defense is to go on the attack. Van Gaal did just that when his team went a goal down, making the tactical switch from a 5-3-2 to a 4-3-3 formation as he replaced Verhaegh with winger Memphis Depay.
The chances came, but the goals didn’t, so Van Gaal switched again, to what he calls his “Plan B,” effectively a four-man attack: Kuyt shifting to center forward alongside Huntelaar while Arjen Robben and Depay send crosses at them.
It paid off, with Wesley Sneijder scoring in the 88th minute to level the game.
Looking to consolidate — and demonstrating that he never stops thinking about changing his team — Van Gaal then switched back to 4-3-3 and that helped produce the winning penalty in stoppage time.
The resilient Dutch have now come from behind in three of their four matches in Brazil.
“We’re not doing it on purpose,” Sneijder said Monday. “It is all about team spirit.”
Associated Press writer Derek Gatopoulos in Fortaleza and AP Sports Writer Graham Dunbar in Rio De Janeiro contributed to this story.
Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.