Assessing Netherlands and Chile
RIO DE JANEIRO -- They're both among the seven teams to have won both their World Cup matches thus far. Plus, they both beat the stuffing out of the reigning world champions. Does it mean Netherlands and Chile are viable candidates to go all the way?
A premise, first of all. Today's clash in Sao Paulo likely won't tell us much either way. Beyond the usual, predictable coachspeak about wanting to win the group -- and the carrot about avoiding Brazil in the round of 16 (assuming Brazil win their group, which is by no means a given and something Netherlands and Chile won't know when they take the pitch) -- the stark reality is that both have earned the right to take their foot off the gas.
You definitely won't see suspended Robin van Persie for the Netherlands, and you probably won't see Arturo Vidal for Chile. The fact that each side will operate without arguably its best player will inevitably affect the teams' performance and the way they play. Jorge Sampaoli and Louis van Gaal are savvy enough to know that what matters is what happens in the 90 minutes (or possibly 120, more if there are penalties) of the last 16, rather than the 90 minutes on Monday.
Both teams can improve and get stronger as the tournament progresses. Equally, both have areas in which they need to improve in double-quick time.
Chile are perhaps the World Cup's best side to watch, thanks to Sampaoli's high-intensity, uber-tactical approach. They play like banshees controlled by artificial intelligence. In fact, both are a result not of good genes but of outstanding coaching and buy-in from the squad. Sampaoli is one of the deepest, most creative thinkers in the modern game, going back to his time at Universidad de Chile, and his teams reflect that.
The problem with a team that relies on intensity and tempo is that, when it runs out of gas, the level drops dramatically. Against Australia, Chile looked on their way to demolishing the Socceroos -- they were 2-0 up inside 15 minutes -- only to suffer late in the second half and nearly allow their opponent back in, before Jean Beausejour's goal put the game out of reach. It never got to that point against Spain because the opposition imploded. Still, it must be a concern.
Then there's the size issue. Sampaoli's tactical wizardry has enabled the Chileans to play with a back three composed of two holding midfielders and a right-back where the tallest player -- Francisco Silva -- is 5 feet, 10 inches. You can do that -- to a point -- against a 34-year-old 5-10 centre-forward (albeit one who seemingly has springs on the soles of his boots) such as Tim Cahill or against a team that seemingly never crosses the ball, like Spain. Other opponents, however, will present an entirely different challenge, and that's an area in which Sampaoli's men remain untested.
The good news? Every hour that passes, Vidal is getting stronger. He was at less than 50 percent in the opening two games and, as his fitness and his strength grow, will become more and more valuable to this side. If they make it to the quarters, he could be the difference-maker.
As for the Dutch, the main concern is personnel. Some pieces don't look good enough; others might be good enough but don't fit together well. Their issues here underscore the fundamental difference between what can be done at club and international level. Were the Dutch called "FC Netherlands," they could easily address their woes via the transfer market or, at the very least, Van Gaal would have enough time -- measured in months, not days -- to tweak a system into place that masks the flaws and multiplies the strengths (which is what tactics are all about).
At the back, there's a stunning lack of international experience. Apart from Ron Vlaar, who has 26 caps, nobody in Van Gaal's back five has played for the Oranje more than 18 times. The starting centre-backs and wing-backs have 90 caps among them; the three reserve defenders boast a combined six and the keeper, Jasper Cillessen, has 10.
Youth obviously has pros and cons, and Van Gaal, more than most, isn't shy about chucking in youngsters. Yet there's a difference between doing so at club level, where you can work with them every day, and the national side, where time is both limited and precious. Compounding the issue at the back is the lack of outstanding individuals (relative to what the Dutch have up front).
Daley Blind is intelligent and technically gifted, but he's also athletically limited. The fact that Vlaar might be the best passer out of the back three tells its own story, as was made evident in the first half against Australia. A committed high press wreaked all sorts of havoc, with the Dutch struggling to get the ball out of defense and unable to regularly service Van Persie and Arjen Robben. This was compounded by the lack of a midfielder capable of dictating the play.
Van Gaal addressed this against the Socceroos by switching from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3, sending on Memphis Depay (who was outstanding) and dropping Wesley Sneijder deeper to collect the ball. But, as with all shifts in formation, you benefit in some areas and are weakened in others, which is why he had opted for a three-man defence before the tournament in the first place.
The other concern is that, thus far, the Dutch have looked far too dependent on individuals, particularly Van Persie and Robben. There's nothing wrong with riding your stars when they're on a hot streak; the problem is that both, particularly Robben, have shown an ability in the past to go cold all of a sudden. What's more, because they're so far up the pitch most of the time, even when they're in great form, you still need to figure out a way to get them the ball.
That said, the Dutch, like the Chileans, have another level to which they can ascend. Sneijder has been peripheral thus far. If you get him more involved, you can solve some of your supply problems. Or perhaps Van Gaal can find room for Jordy Clasie, who might be undersized and off-form but has the vision and personality to take the midfield by the hand.
You can poke holes in just about any contender in this World Cup. Indeed, apart from Costa Rica and maybe France, no team has played at its potential for 180 minutes thus far. Netherlands and Chile have obvious flaws they might or might not be able to correct. But, even with the aspects that aren't great, what they do well is so effective that both could go on a serious run and -- why not? -- win it all.
Gabriele Marcotti is a columnist for ESPN FC, The Times and Corriere dello Sport. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.