27 July 2014

On Liverpool's Centerback Pairings

I was indirectly asked about Liverpool's center-back pairings on Twitter this morning. Which seems relevant, as Lovren's signing is apparently imminent, and Agger's perpetually rumored (emphasis on "rumored") to be moving on. So here's a quick comparison from last season's league fixtures.



There are, of course, a handful of caveats.

You can discount three of those immediately: Toure-Sakho, Toure-Skrtel-Agger, and Skrtel-Agger-Sakho, each appearing for less than 25 minutes at the end of matches, with Rodgers making substitutions to either shore up the defense or, in the case of Toure-Sakho in the last 18 minutes of the home loss to Southampton, remove a defender for an attacker.

Of the four pairings (well, three pairings and one trio) that played in six or more matches, the Skrtel-Sakho duo appeared in the hardest fixtures, by far.

The average league position of the opponents Skrtel and Sakho faced was 9th. Most notably, they played the full 90 minutes in both matches against City and Chelsea, Liverpool's two closest competitors, with Toure left on the bench for all four, and Agger left on the bench for three of the four. The opponent's average league position was 11.5 for Agger and Skrtel, 11.1 for Skrtel and Toure, and 11.5 for Toure-Skrtel-Sakho. In addition, nine of Skrtel-Agger's 13 matches were at Anfield. Just five of Skrtel-Sakho's 12 were.

Part of that was due to each player's availability – both Sakho and Agger missed matches they probably would have started in if fit at times last season – but Skrtel-Sakho did seem Rodgers' most-trusted pairing.

However, in their six matches against top-eight opposition (away to Everton, home against Tottenham, home and away against both United and Southampton), the Skrtel-Agger pairing conceded just four goals – three at Everton, one against Southampton – keeping clean sheets in the other four wins. So it's not as if they played badly against tougher opposition. You know, aside from allowing three goals at Everton. Although all four of those goals at least started from a set play, if not came directly from said set play. Which isn't good.

I am slightly surprised we never saw Toure-Agger again after clean sheets in the first two matches, but the pairing allowed more shots per 90 than any other CB duo that played at least one full match, and, to be fair, those wins and clean sheets came against Stoke and Villa.

The full list of each grouping's opponents (click to open in new window as it's necessarily quite wide):



I've complained about Opta's definition of a defensive error (doesn't necessarily include own goals or penalties conceded), but as it's the best I've got at the moment, a list of who partnered whom when each defender made a defensive error.

Skrtel (4): Toure and Sakho, Agger, Toure, Sakho
Agger (3): Skrtel, Skrtel, Skrtel
Toure (3): Skrtel, Skrtel, Skrtel
Sakho (2): Skrtel, Skrtel

Unsurprisingly, Skrtel's on the pitch when Agger, Toure, and Skrtel made all their errors. Because Skrtel was almost always on the pitch. He played 3221 minutes (out of 3420 possible) last season. Sakho played 1477, Toure 1447, and Agger 1420. Skrtel committed his errors no matter who he partnered. So, yeah, that doesn't help much.

Long story short: if you account for the strength of opposition, there doesn't seem a whole lot of difference between Skrtel/Agger and Skrtel/Sakho; there's room for improvement no matter which center-backs are on the pitch; and Skrtel-Sakho appears to be Rodgers' preferred pairing (if, of course, Sakho can stay healthy). For now.

19 July 2014

Liverpool 2-1 Preston North End

Goals:
Brownhill 45+1'
Suso 74'
Peterson 77'

Once again, recap in the form of various notes, because preseason. All the usual "it's preseason" caveats obviously apply.

• Aside from the result, that was an awful lot like Wednesday's friendly. Liverpool lose a starter we're eager to see early on (taken off as a precaution), Liverpool struggle to get shots off, Liverpool concede a regrettable first-half goal (this time from a set play). Liverpool reply in the second half, and are much better after making wholesale substitutions. This time, Liverpool got a quick second with Preston rattled, and never looked close to conceding a second.

• Liverpool began in the 4-4-2 diamond, with both Can and Lambert making their Liverpool debuts, but soon switched back to the now-preferred 4-1-2-3 when Can went off with a calf strain in the 21st minute, replaced by Jordon Ibe.

• That Liverpool again struggled to get into shooting positions, to fire efforts on goal, is slightly concerning, even considering all the typical preseason caveats. Liverpool looked good on the ball in the first half in the middle third of the pitch: Lucas, Allen, Can, and Coutinho – especially Coutinho – comfortably in possession, but they had next to no attacking threat. Liverpool took its first shot in the 28th minute, a Lambert effort straight at Preston's goalkeeper, but only added one more concrete chance before the interval: excellent hold-up play from Lambert, set up by Coutinho, but the shot fired over by Ibe.

• Fabio Borini has played 109 minutes in these two friendlies, most of them as an out-and-out striker. By my count, he's taken one shot: an effort saved in the 29th minute at Brøndby, one in the flurry of three where Liverpool somehow failed to score. Again, it's preseason etc, but this seems to confirm some of the fears about Borini, and it's little surprise to see Liverpool snap at Sunderland's £14m offer.

• For the second consecutive friendly, Jordon Ibe was Liverpool's most impressive player, despite that missed chance in the 34th minute. It's no coincidence that Ibe has assisted all three of Liverpool's preseason goals so far, by far the most willing to attack in the fearless, direct manner that suited Liverpool so well last season. It's a facile comparison, but he reminds me so much of Sterling when Sterling was that raw; able to do that much damage based on pace and ability on the ball. The difference is Sterling was much more likely to cut in from the left and shoot, Ibe has been creating chances and assists from those positions. Sterling's chance creation has improved by miles since; hopefully Ibe's shooting similarly improves.

• Suso's goal was really, really pretty.

• Special mention for Jordan Rossiter as well, outstanding in the holding role in the final 30 minutes, playing as the deepest midfielder despite Coady also coming on in the 64th minute. Preston also swapped its entire XI in the second half, but Rossiter was a massive reason why the home side's chances evaporated. All the Jordons/Jordans. Forever.

16 July 2014

Liverpool 1-2 Brøndby

Goals:
Nørgaard 23'
Peterson 48'
Hasani 90+1'

Some quick notes, because yes it's preseason and yes it's the first preseason match and yes Liverpool played a lot of kids but Liverpool are back. I can't help myself. Feels like I've got to write something.

• A team playing its fourth preseason match at home with a mostly full-strength XI looks better than, and beats, a team with a lot of reserves and kids playing its first preseason match. Color me stunned.

• That said, both Liverpool goals conceded were regrettable. The first, featuring failed clearances by Suso and substitute Kevin Stewart, was yet another preventable goal from a Liverpool mistake. I don't care if it's preseason; that's a trend that's got to stop. But it didn't help that Liverpool were forced into a change less than a minute before, with Stewart coming on for the injured Ilori. The second came with tired players wanting to go home, but Hasani – fresher than anyone else, on as a late substitute – ran around and past four Liverpool defenders while I screamed "TACKLE HIM, YOU FLAT-FOOTED NINCOMPOOPS" at the television. I'm mainly looking at you, Martin.

• Liverpool played 4-3-3 in both halves, despite a full XI of changes during the interval. That's supposedly Rodgers' preferred formation, and you can probably expect that it'll be Liverpool's regular formation now that the team's not built around getting both Suarez and Sturridge in the same side.

• Coutinho was, by far, the best player in the first half (and I'm still baffled that he didn't get in Brazil's World Cup squad). Jordon Ibe was the most impressive in the second half, faster than a speeding bullet, responsible for Liverpool's goal, but twice shooting tamely at Brøndby's goalkeeper when he should have scored including when Liverpool had a two-on-one in the 80th minute. Otherwise, the senior players mostly looked like senior players and the untested kids looked like kids.

• Liverpool struggled to create chances in the first half; aside from three quick saves on Borini, Smith, and Coutinho in the 29th, everything came from outside the box and missed the target. Liverpool, aside from the goal, struggled to convert in the second: Ibe had two shots saved, Peterson one. The side, mainly because of personnel – read: Ibe's pace – focused on the counter-attack in the second half, while Coutinho, Suso, and Lucas dominated possession without much penetration in the first half. This will surprise no one after last season, but Liverpool looked more dangerous on the counter-attack.

• Liverpool's goal was 100% because of Jordon Ibe's pace: a superb turn at midfield, then tearing past two defenders to hit the byline before cutting back to Peterson for a tap-in. Bottom-half PL clubs and top-half Championship clubs should be lining up to taking him on loan next season. He needs it, and they need him.

14 July 2014

Visualized: Germany 1-0 Argentina aet

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except average position locations from ESPN FC.


It's an obvious statement, but a tight, defensive contest will almost always be decided by the better finisher.

Each side took 10 shots. Germany hit the target with half of theirs, which is their average for the tournament. Argentina hit the target with none: nine off-target, one blocked. Five of Germany's shots came in the danger zone. Just two of Argentina's did. Argentina had three big chances to Germany's two, but Argentina put all three off-target: Higuain missed a one-on-one, Messi missed a one-on-one, and Palacio missed a one-on-one. Germany hit the woodwork with their first (yet again, from a set play), scored with the second.

This, from Squawka, sums it up nicely.



That's horrific. There's just one shot remotely close to the goal frame: Messi's header with three minutes to play, which Neuer had completely covered.

Argentina's attack failed to fire in the first half, but they had the better chances: most notably Kroos' gift put wide by Higuain, but also both Higuain unnecessarily offside for Lavezzi's excellent cross and Boateng's last ditch clearance when Messi broke through down the right in the 40th minute. A change seemed unnecessary; they were coping well at back, and while chances were few and far between, they'd had the better of them. Even worse, the change Sabella made actually made Argentina worse: Agüero sent on in place of Lavezzi.

Lavezzi, for all his faults, is made for a counter-attacking match because of his pace, especially cutting in from out wide, exploiting the channels. Agüero, not fully fit to begin with, plays more centrally and at a slower pace, which is drastically slower when he isn't healthy. Argentina now had three central attackers – Agüero not fully fit, Messi seemingly not fully fit, and a misfiring Higuain – as well as no width because both Zabaleta and Rojo were needed in defense while Perez needed to help in midfield. Argentina created next to nothing aside from Biglia throughball to Messi in the 47th, again put wide, until Palacio's entrance in the 78th minute: a player willing to provide the needed running, but yet another erratic finisher. And, of course, Palacio put his one golden chance wide when presented an opening.

Yet again, Germany also pressed well, with 12 of 31 tackles and five of 17 interceptions in the opposition's half, compared to two tackles and two interceptions for Argentina. Germany needed just two tackles in its penalty box to keep Argentina from scoring, even if they were helped by Argentina's finishing; Argentina made two tackles and five interceptions inside its own box.

So yes, Germany could have easily lost yesterday. Argentina were again excellent in defense, holding Germany below its average in shots, clogging the space in the final third through Mascherano's superlative holding play and a deep back four. Germay, who averaged 17 crosses in the tournament, attempted 25 yesterday, leading to just three chances – although yes, one of those chances led to the goal. And to think that the defense was Argentina's biggest question mark prior to the tournament.

As in 2010, the best team won, even if they needed extra time in the final to do so. The team that tried to play more football, better football won. And Germany are deserved winners: the most consistent side and winning the most memorable game, the better side in every single one of their matches despite narrow victories over Algeria and the USA as well as a draw against Ghana.

Most impressive is the squad's depth. Reus, Gündoğan, and both Benders missing the tournament, neither Khedira nor Schweinsteiger fit for every match, and coping well with Kramer's concussion yesterday, which required a change in both shape and tactics. Their strength in depth is terrifying, and only Klose and Lahm are over 30; five usual starters, as well as both Schürrle and Götze, are 25 or younger.

Be afraid, everyone else. Be very, very afraid.

11 July 2014

On Luis Suarez

We had the best of times, we had the worst of times.

While at Liverpool, Luis Suarez scored 69 league goals and tallied 23 league assists in three and a half seasons. In all competitions, his total jumps to 82 goals.

While at Liverpool, Luis Suarez was suspended eight games for racial abuse, one game for giving the finger to Fulham fans, two games for yellow card accumulation, 10 games for biting, and has a four-month ban for another bite looming.

While at Liverpool, Luis Suarez became one of the best players in the world, deservedly mentioned in the same breath as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

With Luis Suarez, you get the angel and the devil, each precariously perched on a shoulder. You get Dr Jekyll, the supremely talented footballer, devoted family man, and a player conscientious enough to pen this farewell, and you get Mr Hyde. You remember what Hyde did.

This is no slight (well, a little slight) to Fernando Torres and Michael Owen, but Luis Suarez was the best striker I've seen in a Liverpool shirt. Not the best player – the current club captain still wears that crown – but undoubtedly the best attacker. Suarez's bag of tricks is a mile wide and two miles deep. With Owen and Torres, you knew what you were going to get. They each did it superlatively before injuries robbed them of their powers, but each relied on one trick: overwhelming pace. That was it, and when that pace was gone, they were gone. But Suarez could do everything, anything, scoring goals I'd never dreamed possible. There was no shot too audacious, no nutmeg he couldn't pull off, never too many defenders between him and the goal.

Last season, Suarez won the PFA Player of the Year, FWA Player of the Year, FSF Player of the Year, Premier League Player of the Year, Premier League Golden Boot, and tied for the European Golden Shoe. He either scored or assisted 43 of Liverpool's 101 goals – an unthinkable 42.6%.

He's gotten better in every season he's played for Liverpool, and is currently at the apex of his powers.



Since we're here, and since I've got no more use for them, I might as well post these GIFs of Suarez's Premier League goals for Liverpool. Made them about a month ago, then THE BITE PART THREE happened, then this transfer saga happened. Sigh.

Each minute that Luis Suarez played is equivalent to approximately 0.05 seconds in each GIF. The GIFs are each 55 seconds: 48 seconds of "action," seven seconds held on the last frame to catch your breath. There are two GIFs. First, an easy-to-follow chart, with one circle representing each goal and a running total of goals scored, minutes played, and goals per 90 minutes. The second is the familiar pitch view of goals scored that I've used a fair amount over the last few months.






And here is a link to the spreadsheet listing all of his PL goals.

Anyway. Memories are painful sometimes.

This was bound to happen. Sooner or later, bound to happen. I'm actually surprised "sooner" wasn't the case. Players will leave when Real or Barcelona come calling. Especially Spanish-speaking players, and especially those whose wife's family still lives in Barcelona. But pretty much any players. It happened with McManaman and Owen. It happened with Lineker, Beckham, and Bale. It is the nature of the beast. English Premier League, best in the world, etc etc.

Luis Suarez did not leave in the dark of the night to join Chelsea. Luis Suarez did not run down his contract and leave on a free transfer. Liverpool recouped £75m – either the third or fourth highest fee in history depending on the accounting for Neymar's transfer – for a player who's currently banned from all football activity until November. Luis Suarez left after giving Liverpool one of its best seasons in recent history, refusing to sulk after last summer's transfer ordeals.

Of course, I can't help but make the tangential comparison to the summer of 2009, when Xabi Alonso was sold to Real Madrid. And there's also a whiff of "Spurs replacing Bale" in the mix. I trust Liverpool infinitely more than I did in 2009, and infinitely more than Tottenham, but it's still worrisome. Good players are hard to replace. One of the best in the world is even harder.

Make no mistake, whatever his sins, Liverpool are not better off without Suarez. Liverpool will try to replace him with a handful of players, because replacing him with one is impossible. And Liverpool may succeed. But the odds are against them, and what's more likely is a period of adjustment, at best, as a team attempts to form to replace the one player who shone brightest.

Liverpool still have some very good attackers – Sturridge, Sterling, Coutinho, Lallana – and are now more likely to play Rodgers' preferred 4-3-3 formation rather than wedging themselves into the 4-4-2 diamond which Suarez and Sturridge's presence required, because Suarez simply could not play as well when out wide (PS: good luck with that, Barcelona). Liverpool have spent somewhere around £40m so far this summer, and will now spend the Suarez £75m. Brendan Rodgers, with his work both on and off the pitch, has earned the right to have a little bit of trust in this department.

But next season, the season where Liverpool are supposed to push on from its second-place finish, just got a lot harder and a lot scarier.

Good luck at Barcelona, Luis. Thanks for all the memories. The good ones, which will live a very long time, but also the bad ones.

09 July 2014

Visualized: Brazil 1-7 Germany

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except average position locations from ESPN FC.

Nota Bene: As all six substitutions were fairly involved, all are included in the passing networks. Substitutes are outlined in gold.


Well, that was emphatic.

This will sound presumptuous, and somewhat akin to comparing a delicious meal to the best meal you've eaten in your life, but Liverpool fans will recognize large parts of that match.

It all started with an early set play, taking the lead because you know how to take advantage of dead ball situations. It was almost the exactly same time that Germany scored their lone goal against France, and was Germany's fifth set-play goal of the tournament, if you count Müller's rebound against the US. They've scored on a set play in every game except the Round of 16 match against Algeria. As if Liverpool's previous season didn't emphasize this enough, set plays matter, and matter very much.

And that early lead led to five goals before 30 minutes – surpassing those Liverpool matches against Arsenal, Everton, and Tottenham – and absolutely destroyed any idea of an opposition comeback with two-thirds of the match still to play. I guess France's defense is better than Brazil's. At least Brazil's defense without Thiago Silva.

It's cliche, but Germany did it with ruthless efficiency: taking full advantage of their opportunities, seizing on the opposition's weaknesses and then fully exploiting them.

Until Germany's second goal, Brazil had much more possession, attempting 120 passes to Germany's 89, completing 86% to Germany's 72%. But Germany got that early set play goal, and had also created two open play chances. Brazil created none. And when Germany's counterattack earned a deep throw in Brazil's half, they made it count: Müller's movement, Klose's poaching. But it doesn't end with the ball in the back of the net if Fernandinho doesn't whiff when trying to intercept Müller's pass to Kroos, immediately fed back to Müller to set up the goal, played onside by Marcelo while the other three defenders stepped forward. Even in a 7-1 romp, football is decided by those small margins.

But from there, demolition. Utter, utter demolition. The third goal took 20 seconds: from Neuer's arms to Kroos' shot from just inside the box, sliced and diced through a broken midfield then down the right flank. The fourth goal took five seconds: Kroos pressing Fernandinho into a giveaway, to Khedira, back to Kroos. The fifth goal took 11 seconds: Hummels' run forward after gaining possession thanks to Luiz's hopeful long ball solely designed to relieve pressure, to Khedira to Özil to Khedira. As an aside, that's why progressive managers have stopped thumping the ball out of defense. It frequently doesn't relieve pressure.

"Blitzkrieg" was one of my go-to adjectives when describing Liverpool counterattacks last season. It seemed to perfectly encapsulate how fierce and how fast they blindsided the opposition. Well, it may not be smart to use that word when writing about the German national team, but I guess I'll take my chances. Those were blitzkrieg attacks. Also, Credit Where Due File: Khedira's pass to Kroos and Özil's pass to Khedira on the fourth and fifth goals. Both assist providers had space for the shot, but both were unselfish enough to find a much better placed teammate. Team work makes the dream work.

The second half sixth and seventh were icing on the cake: more deliberate, more patient, but again taking advantage of a poorly marshaled defense. Schürrle, the scorer of both goals, the only player going full out, attempting to play his way into contention for the final. Again, like Liverpool, the foot off the gas, controlling the tempo, but still happy to pillage if you give the chance. The sixth: Marcelo rashly overcommitting, and missing, followed by six Brazilians in the box watching the ball rather than Schürrle or Müller's runs from outside the area. The seventh: Dante dragged well out of position by Müller's tireless running, Luiz unable to keep up with Schürrle.

David Luiz: fun to watch and maybe worth a bunch of money if you have Thiago Silva (or *groans* John Terry, for that matter) to babysit him (*waves at PSG*). Probably worth a fair amount less if he's the stalwart and captain of your defense, seemingly taking all responsibility for Brazil's performance and utterly losing his mind after going five goals down. Which, I guess, is slightly understandable. It is also no coincidence that the second, third, and sixth goals came down Germany's right, Brazil's left. Marcelo, like a fair few others, had a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Germany scored seven goals from 14 shots, an unbelievable 50% conversion rate. 10 of those 14 shots were on target. Nine of those 14 shots were in the danger zone (the center of the 18-yard box): six goals, one other on-target shot, one off-target shot, and one blocked shot. Schurrle's second goal was the only non-DZ goal, scored from a tight angle on the left side of the box. That is the definition of attacking efficiency.

It's also a fairly impressive division of responsibility by Germany. The five attackers attacked, and were responsible for all 14 shots and 11 of the 14 chances. The five defenders defended, except for Lahm, who created three chances leading to two assists; again, able to exploit Brazil's vastly weaker left flank. Although, considering the average position diagram, you could probably consider Lahm an attacker. Schweinsteiger and Kroos, attempting and completing more passes than their teammates, were the metronomic links.

Yes, Brazil missed Neymar in attack – his replacement, Bernand, created just one chance and took one shot in 90 minutes – but I find it hard to believe Brazil concedes half that total, if that, with Thiago Silva on the pitch. A defense disheveled on the set play first, disheveled on the second when Müller cut into wide-open space in the box, disheveled on the third, nowhere to be found on the fourth and fifth goals. Those goals don't often happen when Thiago Silva plays.

Germany's attacking third passes clearly exploited the space where Dante and Marcelo were.



Germany looked a shade better than mediocre against both Algeria and France, just good enough to advance. Germany looked the best side ever against Brazil. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. And they got an awful lot of help from the hosts, thanks to injury, suspension, personnel, and tactics.

It goes without saying that Sunday will not be this easy, no matter who Germany's opponent is.

06 July 2014

Visualized: Netherlands 0-0 Costa Rica aet

As always, match data from Stats Zone, except average position locations from ESPN FC.


Two managers and teams cancel each other out tactically, then one manager springs a psychological surprise in the penalty shoot-out.

Van Gaal knew his side had to be patient, keeping possession in defense and on the flanks, passing, poking, and prodding. The Netherlands didn't take a shot until the 20th minute despite constant possession. All four of their first half shots were on-target, seven of their 10 shots in normal time were on-target. Costa Rica weren't allowing many chances, but the Netherlands did well to get decent chances, denied by excellent keeping yet again from Keylor Navas. Holland didn't become desperate until extra-time, firing 10 shots from every angle – the same amount in the final 30 minutes as in the previous 90 minutes – with only one of the ten requiring a save (two were off-target, seven were blocked, but two also hit the frame of the goal).

Yes, the Netherlands is a vastly more-talented team, but that they didn't win in normal time is no slight on the side or van Gaal. Costa Rica allowed just one open play goal in this World Cup, in 510 minutes against Uruguay, Italy, England, Greece, and the Netherlands, and that was with 10 men: Greece's scrambled rebound equalizer in injury time in the last round. Navas was immense yet again, making seven saves, while Los Ticos also rode their luck, with Holland hitting the woodwork three times, with one of those woodwork strikes scrambled off the line by Tejada.

Costa Rica caught the opposition offsides 41 times this tournament; it happened to Holland 13 times yesterday. Only two other teams caught their opponents offsides more than 13 times in the entire tournament: Germany on 17 occasions, the USA on 15. In Costa Rica's previous matches, Uruguay were caught offside six times, Italy 11, England just once (Hodgeball!), and Greece 10 times. That's an offside trap that even makes Villas-Boas drool in delight, made much more impressive because it's happened in international competition, where managers have much less time to drill their players compared to when with their clubs.

And van Gaal's 3-4-3 system did well to deny the counter-attacks which saw Costa Rica beat Uruguay and Italy. Los Ticos took just six shots, and put just one of those six shots on target – Ureña's fast break with just three minutes remaining, smartly denied by Cillessen. Costa Rica were allowed just two danger zone shots, both from set plays and both off-target, the Dutch defenders doing just enough to prevent a clear chance.

So I guess it's fitting that the match was decided by a quirky decision from van Gaal, switching to backup keeper Tim Krul for the shootout. Full credit where due. I absolutely hated the move when it happened – maybe it's the former keeper in me, who'd be beyond furious to be removed at that point; maybe I'm just reactionary, as it's something that almost never happens. It's no surprise that van Gaal's smarter than I am, and I guess it's not surprising that it worked. It's an impressive call even if just for the psychological advantage, but Krul, two inches taller than Cillessen, also guessed correctly on all five spot kicks, saving the two weakest from Ruiz and Umaña. All four of the Dutch spot kicks were unstoppably placed: van Persie and Kuyt stuck theirs directly into the low corners, Robben and Sneijder's were high enough to avoid Navas' dive.

And those are the small margins that decide such a tight contest. Costa Rica have been the surprise of the tournament, and deservedly so, expected by almost everyone to finish last in their group. Jorge Luis Pinto did a wonderful job. But, up against the toughest opposition they'd faced in this tournament, the Netherlands' talent and van Gaal's tactics were just enough, barely enough, to eke out a win in the end.