Louis van Gaal, one of the game’s greatest coaches, was criticized before the World Cup for being too defensive for a nation that loves attacking play.
His decision to field five defenders against Spain, though, proved a masterstroke.
His team thrashed the defending world champions 5-1 Friday in Salvador, Brazil, with a clinical display of counterattacking football that had Spain chasing shadows at the end as Dutch fans roared “Ole!” each time their team passed the ball.
“If you see how he prepared us, and how he predicted the game would go, and you see how it went — unbelievable,” said Robin van Persie, whose stunning header to equalize just before halftime turned the tide of the match and lit up social media accounts around the world. “It went exactly as the entire technical staff predicted.”
It was Spain’s worst loss in the tournament since a 6-1 defeat to Brazil in 1950.
The Dutch performance shocked even casual fans on the second day of the World Cup, showing why Manchester United was so keen to sign Van Gaal to rebuild the storied club.
He starts work at Old Trafford when the Netherlands leave Brazil. If they keep playing this way, he could keep Manchester fans waiting until mid-July.
The 62-year-old Dutchman has a history of getting the best out of teams and blending youth with experience, taking Ajax to the Champions League title in 1995.
He is bidding to make the Netherlands world champions for the first time after losing three finals — including four years ago when Andres Iniesta’s extra-time goal won it for Spain.
It wasn’t shocking for the Dutch to get revenge for that loss, but the way they demolished Spain — the dominant world football power since 2008 — sent a signal that the run of this generation of Spanish stars may be coming to an end.
Spain, which won the last two European Championships and the 2010 World Cup, will probably have to beat Chile and Australia to qualify for the next round, where a likely date with favorite Brazil awaits.
“They were better than us in the second half, you have to recognize that,” Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque said. “It’s a delicate moment for us. We need to find solutions now.”
Spain showed flashes of its slick-passing, ball-control, “tiki-taka” style, but never recovered from Van Persie’s masterful goal.
“The equalizer was very crucial at that point,” Netherlands midfielder Jonathan de Guzman said. “I think we took advantage of that.”
In the second half, Spain’s usually rock-solid defense crumbled in the face of wave after wave of Dutch attacks, many starting off of long passes from defenders.
Veteran goalie Iker Casillas shouldered the blame.
“It wasn’t one of my best games, I wasn’t at the level I needed to be,” he said. “I have to accept all criticism.”
Van Gaal always insisted his five-man defense wasn’t as negative as it sounded, and he was proved right.
Left back Daley Blind surged forward to provide two pin-point accurate passes for assists — Van Persie’s header and Arjen Robben’s first goal. Center back Stefan de Vrij, who caused the penalty that gave Spain the lead, cropped up at the other end of the pitch to push in Wesley Sneijder’s free kick for de Vrij’s first international score.
Even Van Gaal was stunned by the margin of victory.
“To be quite honest, we did not expect it,” he said. “This has got to do with strategy and the dedication of the players to execute with conviction.”
Chile 3, Australia 1
Alexis Sanchez produced a dynamic performance to lead Chile to a win over Australia in, scoring one goal and setting up another for one of the dangerous outsiders in the tournament.
Chile threatened to run away with the game in muggy Cuiaba when Sanchez poked home from close range in the 12th minute, before setting up Jorge Valdivia barely a minute later for the playmaker to finish from the edge of the area.
But Australia recovered well, responding with a trademark headed goal by star forward Tim Cahill in the 35th and giving the Chileans a string of scares in the second half. However, Jean Beausejour put the game away for Chile in injury time.
Mexico 1, Cameroon 0
Mexico overcame the torrential rain and two disallowed goals to beat Cameroon in Natal, picking up the three points it needed to have any chance of advancing from a tough group at the World Cup.
Oribe Peralta scored in the 61st minute, giving Mexico its first win over an African team at the World Cup and justifying coach Miguel Herrera’s decision to start him ahead of striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, arguably the country’s best-known player.
Giovanni Dos Santos twice put the ball in the net in the first half-hour, only to have both efforts called back. He was ruled offside in the 11th minute and his header from a corner in the 29th was denied when referee Wilmar Roldan apparently called a foul in front of Itandje.
“We could have scored more, but unfortunately we’re not used to these conditions,” Herrera said. “Frankly, the refereeing took away two clear goals, but at the end of the day you’ve got to work for it, and we get to the next match with three points and very high spirits.”
Tournament host and favorite Brazil leads the group after a 3-1 win over Croatia in the opening game.