There have been a number of extraordinary matches so far at the World Cup -- it's not a stretch to say that it's already been the best tournament in recent memory -- but Australia's game against the Netherlands is certainly up there. After demolishing Spain in the opening match of Group B, the Dutch were on a high, but Australia played them very tight for most of the opening half and held out at length in the second despite Louis van Gaal changing shape following Bruno Martins Indi's unfortunate injury.
Australia (4-2-3-1): Mathew Ryan; Ryan McGowan, Alex Wilkinson, Matthew Špiranović, Jason Davidson; Mile Jedinak, Matt McKay; Tommy Oar, Mark Bresciano, Mathew Leckie; Tim Cahill.
Netherlands (3-4-1-2): Jasper Cillessen; Bruno Martins Indi, Ron Vlaar, Stefan de Vrij; Daley Blind, Jonathan de Guzmán, Nigel de Jong, Daryl Janmaat; Wesley Sneijder; Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie.
Unsurprisingly, the Netherlands made no changes following their 5-1 win over defending champions Spain. Beating a side many considered to be the best in the world is not generally followed by a lineup shake-up after all. But that meant all the problems were still there -- a shape that relies too heavily on the wingbacks, a decidedly unimpressive defence, and a midfield pivot that most decent sides would turn their noses up at.
Of course, having a relatively underpowered supporting cast doesn't matter much when both Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben are on form and blowing teams apart. That's what happened against Spain, who promptly curled up in a little ball and cried themselves to death. But against Australia, who didn't have any expectations to speak of anyway, Robben beating Alex Wilkinson on the turn before slotting past Matthew Ryan didn't really have much of an impact on the game. The Socceroos rebounded immediately and would hold out for another 50 minutes before going down for good.
In their 3-4-1-2, the Netherlands are reliant on their wide players (particularly Daley Blind, who provided two assists against Spain and had the second-most touches of any Dutch player on Wednesday) to both contribute to the attack and cover on defence. Doing both effectively is difficult, and the wingbacks' positioning against Australia was very aggressive. That left space, most notably between Blind and Martins Indi, and Matthew Leckie was hardly shy about exploiting it -- the fact that Australia Ryan McGowan had no direct opponent to play against also let him push up high in support as well. The whole left flank was a mess.
The Netherlands really didn't have a ready answer to that problem -- and in fairness no tactical tweak imaginable could possibly have stopped Tim Cahill crashing that volley in off the crossbar -- but after struggling with Leckie for a half they were forced to completely change their shape. Cahill felled Martins Indi, who fell awkwardly and needed substituting, and so van Gaal switched to 4-3-3, introducing PSV Eindhoven winger Memphis Depay.
The Netherlands and 4-3-3
The switch to 4-3-3 didn't solve all of the Dutch problems -- Australia were still pressing hard, keeping their shape well and threatening intermittently -- but it won them a game, barely, in which they were looking wobbly. Depay's contributions to the scoresheet are obvious: he set up van Persie's goal after Mile Jedinak's penalty and then scored the winner ten minutes later, but there were more subtle changes too.
The most important was Blind dropping back into a defensive four neutralised Leckie as a creative threat, reducing him to a (not particularly good finisher), but one shouldn't overlook the Dutch midfield slowly squeezing the life out of Australia. The Socceroos saw far less of the ball after the Netherlands had taken an extra body out of defence and moved it to the midfield, and although they were still dangerous when they had possession, chances dried up simply because the Dutch were holding the ball more.
By the hour mark, it was increasingly obvious that the Netherlands would win comfortably should they score again, and Depay's long-range effort wrapped up the game. Australia were too exhausted to reply effectively, and only managed a pair of blocked shots between going down 3-2 and the end of the match.
This is the version of the Netherlands most were expecting before the tournament began. They're incredibly potent going forward but they're at least a little vulnerable at the back, and that they were pushed hard by Australia -- they were incredibly lucky not to go down 3-2 just before Depay's goal -- is a sign that the knockout rounds won't be plain sailing by any means. But barring an upset against Chile, and you'd fancy van Persie over La Roja's rather weak excuse for a central defence, they'll top Group B. That's already a very good result for the Oranje, and you never know what might happen in the knockouts.
As for Australia ... well they haven't embarrassed themselves, and that means they've exceeded expectations too.