Louis van Gaal took a couple of chances with his team selection for the Netherlands against Senegal, but it all worked out in the end.
They got there in the end. It took two late goals to break the deadlock and deliver the Netherlands a first win of the tournament from a thorny-looking opening game against African champions Senegal, the win ultimately determined by some intelligent positioning and movement, and a goalkeeping performance which left something to be desired.
Louis van Gaal took a gamble on his team selection. Memphis Depay and Davy Klaassen both started on the bench, while Justin Bijlow of Feyenoord and Remko Pasveer of Ajax were both overlooked in goal in favour of a first international cap for Andres Noppert of Heerenveen, a man who’d been on the point of quitting the professional game just a couple of years ago.
As the Netherlands faded in the second half, their defence became increasingly reliant on Noppert, who made a couple of decent saves in the second half as Senegal began to assert themselves and the Netherlands started to wilt in the heat.
Late bursts of energy from Cody Gakpo and Davy Klaassen saw them home, but it was a close shave.
Over the course of the first 45 minutes there was plenty of nice football on display without too many goalscoring chances. It looked rather as though the Netherlands could do with a number nine (who wasn’t Vincent Janssen) while Senegal could do with a number nine (who was Sadio Mane). Both teams managed to get the ball into dangerous positions without having anyone to get on the end of the half-chances they created, and neither goalkeeper was unduly troubled.
Ismaila Sarr was a disruptive presence on the Senegal left, a glimmer of the potential that the team has in attacking positions, but the Netherlands dominated possession in a half which was the first played in this tournament between what looked like two fairly well-matched sides.
The little flashes of skill ended up being largely subsumed by what followed. More than once, the ball found its way into a dangerous-looking position in the Senegalese penalty area without the Dutch attack being able to get a foot on it.
But whereas the first half had been enjoyable for all the lack of clear opportunities, with the feeling that things might be nicely teed up for a more entertaining half to follow, the second was altogether scrappier. Virgil van Dijk headed narrowly over from a corner at one end and Krepin Diatta and Sarr brought decent saves from Noppert at the other, but the Dutch experiment with Janssen ended with 20 minutes to play. He was replaced by Depay, who perhaps should have been starting despite perhaps not quite being 100% fit.
If anything, the biggest highlight of the second half prior to the deadline being broken was the stadium announcement that the attendance for this game had been 41,721, a figure not only 1,700 above the stadium capacity, but also one which looked slightly absurd when everybody could see – for the third game in a row – a growing number of empty seats around the place as the game progressed. The ticketing app let a lot of people down before the start of the England vs Iran match. The same thing seemed to happen for this one, too.
And with six minutes to play, the Netherlands got a breakthrough that their second-half performance didn’t really warrant. Frenkie de Jong’s diagonal ball into the penalty area required a run timed to perfection to make anything of it, but Gakpo delivered exactly that, chasing through to beat the onrushing Eduoard Mendy to the ball and flick it past him and in.
Mendy may have been a little slow in coming out, but the ball from de Jong was so perfectly measured as to make the goalkeeper look slightly foolish when really there was little that he could have done. The cross and run were an oasis of excellence in an otherwise broadly undistinguished second half.
But Van Gaal is usually a manager with his plan, and his substitutions were validated in the 99th minute when Depay broke on the right, saw his shot spilled by Mendy, and Davy Klaassen stabbed the ball into the empty goal to put the result beyond doubt. It was pretty shonky goalkeeping from Mendy, from whom Senegal have a right to expect better, considering he is a Champions League and AFCON-winning player.
Without Sadio Mane, Senegal have a clear and evident problem. His energy and movement can make Senegal look dangerous every time they break, and although Sarr was as mischievous a presence that he could be, this is a team that has struggled a little for goals in the past. In their three group games at AFCON 2021, they only managed one, and could only score nine in the seven games they played in the tournament in total. They’re a good team but they seldom seemed to really threaten the Dutch goal, even though they created the better chances throughout much of the second half.
Losing to the Netherlands isn’t a disaster for Senegal. They play Qatar in their next match, and winning that would put them right back into contention to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition. But the potential issues in front of goal that were feared after Mane’s absence was confirmed seemed evident. Perhaps having their next game against a host nation who looked absolutely hapless in their first match will give them some much-needed shooting practice. On this occasion, even with a generous eight minutes of stoppage-time added at the end, the Dutch defence seemed safe.
But the Netherlands are up and running, and no-one remembers if you looked a little ring-rusty for 80 minutes of your opening game, should you work your way through to the latter stages of a tournament. Considering that they’ve never been eliminated from the group stages of the World Cup, perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised that they eventually found what they needed to grab a win against talented and determined opposition. Senegal have a way back into contention in the group, but their second game with Qatar now falls into the category of being a ‘must-win’.