Gregg Berhalter has no time to rest.
After the USMNT secured their spot in the knockout stages of the World Cup with a tense 1-0 victory over Iran, they have four days to prepare for their next opponents — the Netherlands.
Louis van Gaal’s side finished top of Group A and forward Cody Gakpo has become one of the stars of the tournament. It will be a difficult test, but the Netherlands possess weaknesses which the US can exploit as they attempt to reach the quarter-finals for the first time since 2002.
Limit space and service to Gakpo
Gakpo has scored nine goals and registered 12 assists in 14 league matches for PSV Eindhoven this season, but has elevated his performances in Qatar.
The 23-year-old has become an integral member of the Netherlands’ squad. He normally plays on the left-wing for PSV, yet has been used up front or as a central attacking midfielder by Van Gaal.
Netherlands’ average position and pass matrix for their win over Qatar shows how Gakpo is asked to occupy high, central areas for the national team, in contrast to how he is deployed at PSV, where he spends most of his time on the left.
Gakpo is comfortable dropping deep to receive the ball, dribbling past defenders and making dangerous runs into space.
He scored in all of the Netherlands’ group stage matches, including a header and a shot from outside the box on his, supposedly, weaker left foot. It is easy to see why Leeds United and Southampton tried to sign him during the summer and other clubs will surely be interested in January, too.
Wout Weghorst, Gakpo’s international team-mate, told The Athletic after the Netherlands’ 2-0 victory over Qatar that he is “really important” for them and “brings a lot of energy and danger”.
It will be vital for Tim Ream, Walker Zimmerman and Tyler Adams to be in constant communication to limit the space he can operate in and nullify the threat he poses.
Cody Gakpo has had three shots at this year’s #FIFAWorldCup.
He has scored from all three.
— The Athletic | Football (@TheAthleticFC) November 29, 2022
Dest must restrain attacking urges
Gakpo opened the scoring against Qatar in a move which was initiated on the left-wing by Memphis Depay, and that has become one of the features of the Netherlands’ play at the World Cup.
Against Qatar, 43.7 percent of their attacks came down that side, according to Opta. Daley Blind would stick to the touchline and attempt to get in behind Qatar’s right-sided centre-back Pedro Miguel. There were several occasions, especially during the first half, where intricate passing triangles between Blind, Frenkie de Jong and Davy Klaassen opened up promising crossing opportunities.
Sergino Dest likes to position himself high up the pitch for the US to support Timothy Weah, but he will have to be careful not to leave too much space behind for Blind to take advantage of.
Contain — then counter-attack
Dest played so high up against Iran because the US had to win to avoid being eliminated. When Berhalter’s side play the Netherlands, they will probably have less possession and be more conservative, which could work in their favor.
Although the Netherlands have scored five goals in three matches, they have not looked convincing going forward. Their strike partnership has changed in every fixture as Van Gaal struggles to work out what the best combination is. Depay started his first game of the tournament against Qatar and dovetailed nicely with Gakpo, but he has been struggling with a hamstring injury over the last two months and is not fully fit.
They had only had two shots during their 1-1 draw with Ecuador while Edouard Mendy’s goalkeeping error helped them defeat Senegal 2-0 despite only recording an xG (expected goals) of 0.67, according to Opta.
Apart from Gakpo and Depay, the Netherlands lack genuine quality up front. Weghorst told The Athletic attacking is “normally our biggest strength” yet “it’s been difficult with creating chances and that’s definitely something we need to improve”.
If the USMNT keep it tight and defend in a low block, they should find it easy to frustrate their opponents and can then counter through the speed of Weah, Christian Pulisic and Josh Sargent if he is fit. The only goal they have conceded at the tournament was a penalty by Gareth Bale.
Bypass the wing-backs, target the centre-backs
Van Gaal has used a 3-4-2-1 formation in all of the Netherlands matches in Qatar and the obvious area the US should look to exploit is behind the wing-backs.
Blind likes to get forward while Denzel Dumfries is even more aggressive on the right. Dumfries has been directly involved in four goals for Inter Milan in 15 Serie A appearances this season and is key for his country, too. The US needs to isolate the back three to have the best chance of progressing in the competition.
Ismail Mohammad, Qatar’s right wing-back, caused Nathan Ake problems by bursting into that channel. Mohammad, and Abdelkarim Hassan on the opposite flank, repeatedly got into good positions but were let down by a lack of options in the box.
Berhalter’s team needs to find the right balance between being pragmatic and being brave enough in transitions to push forward in numbers.
Play on Dutch anxiety
It is easy to forget that, like the US, the Netherlands are making their first appearance at the World Cup since 2014. They were knocked out by the Czech Republic in the round of 16 at the European Championships last year so their squad does not contain a lot of experience in the deeper stages of a tournament.
Van Gaal’s team will be favorites to reach the quarter-finals but it will be tight, with the US buoyed by navigating a tricky group. The Dutch, by contrast, did not really have to get out of second gear to progress to the knockout phase.
Virgil van Dijk, the Netherlands captain, says the tournament “really starts” now and Ake insists “there is more to come,” while Klaassen has a warning for the rest of the competition.
“There is a lot of confidence,” he said. “We felt a lot of urge to win (against Qatar). But we know we have to play better, keep winning and we will see what happens. You have to feel that (you are capable of beating any team). If you’re not that confident you are never going to win it.”
That sounds like a challenge the US will be more than ready for.
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(Top photo design: Eamonn Dalton)