The Netherlands justified odds-on favouritism in Group A with two wins and a draw, to run out group winners. Defensively, they performed far better than at the Euros, aided by the presence of Virgil van Dijk, who missed last summer’s tournament. The Oranje averaged 56.7% possession in their three games against Senegal, Ecuador, and hosts Qatar, but only registered eight shots on target while allowing 11. Attacking midfielder Cody Gakpo has continued to grow the reputation that has led to interest in the PSV man from many of Europe’s top clubs. He joined a select group of Dutch masters to have scored in three consecutive World Cup matches: Johan Neeskens, Dennis Bergkamp, and Wesley Sneijder. Coach Louis van Gaal has also managed to gradually reintroduce a key attacking component, Memphis Depay into the tournament, after injury. Depay has scored 21 goals in his last 22 appearances for the Dutch. The Netherlands’ serene progress through the group shouldn’t come as a surprise — the Oranje haven’t lost a competitive match (in 90 minutes) during the various stints under the managership of “The Iron Tulip” since 2001, and their current unbeaten run is now at 18 matches.
The USA’s path to the last 16 was always going to be more difficult. The FIFA Rankings suggested there was little to choose between the USA in 16th, Wales who were ranked 19th, and 20th-ranked Iran in the race to join England in escaping Group B. So, it proved, with all three nations in contention to qualify, going into the final set of matches. The USA didn’t trail at any stage of their three games. They led Wales on Matchday 1 before Gareth Bale’s 82nd-minute penalty meant they had to settle for a draw. They kept an England team which scored 9 goals in their other two games, goalless at the Al Bayt Stadium, and avenged their 1998 loss to Iran, to seal their place in the last 16. The USA averaged 51.3% possession in the Group Phase and had 7 shots on target and allowed the same number.
Van Gaal has consistently opted for a 3-4-2-1 formation for the Netherlands, who are ranked eighth in the world. Gregg Berhalter has generally preferred a 4-3-3 system for a team that has displayed great energy and athleticism. The USA won the last meeting between these two teams, 4-3 in a 2015 friendly, but the Netherlands have won all the other encounters, and start as solid favourites to progress to the Quarter-finals.