Today with Holland v England and USA v Senegal, we begin analyzing and predicting the eight Round of 16 matches.
If you have followed Papa’s analyses and predictions, you will note that the sixteen teams chosen to progress from the Group Stage are paired up—not as EA Sports has it—but as follows: Group A-1—Holland plays Group B-2—England, and A-2—Senegal plays B-1—USA; then Group C-1—Argentina plays Group D-2—Denmark, and C-2—Mexico plays D-1—France; then Group E-1—Germany plays Group F-2—Belgium, and E-2—Costa Rica plays F-1—Croatia; then Group G-1—Brazil plays Group H-2—Uruguay, and finally G-2—Serbia plays H-1—Portugal.
Holland v England
The Dutch expected their first knockout game to be easier than most of the ones in their Group Stage, but, oh well. The Brits, who thought they would likely be playing Senegal are now bracing for a much more known and uncomfortable quantity. The good news for both is that the winner will have eliminated a potential cup contender and in doing so marked themselves worthy of wearing the remaining mantle.
England’s 3-4-3 is perfect for this match and Holland’s 5-3-2 would seem the mirror strategy to counter their UK opposition. But Netherlands coach, Louis van Gaal, places playmaker Frankie de Jong with stoppers Davy Klaassen and Steven Berghuis in midfield hoping that the speedy overlaps of Denzel Dumfries on the right and Daley Blind’s passing on the left provide the support and offense he needs to deal with Southgate’s choices around the center circle. It soon becomes a clear mismatch given England’s modified lineup.
Southgate takes his first gamble of the cup and though he keeps Luke Shaw on the left of midfield to handle an expected winger attack, he then places Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham in the middle with Mason Mount on the right. The younger trio of Brits will probably be too fast and skilled for their lumbering opposites, and if so, they will take a lopsided control of two-thirds of the pitch. That control could also negate Dumfries’ strength as he would be forced to defend more, and be pulled out of position if his teammates are overrun.
The plan includes using the speedy Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling whose pace should be more than Nathen Ake and Jurrien Timber can handle. The two Dutch defenders who are no slouches will likely be caught either out of position or overwhelmed by England’s rampaging midfield when they overload either side with added troops. If this too works, it will require Virgil van Dijk to put out fires right and left. The barrage, if successful, will soon become unsustainable for the Dutch and van Gaal will have to decide between wholesale replacements or tinkering with positioning. Knowing him, the coach will find a way to go with a bit of both.
The Netherlands have been as inconsistent in the cup as they had been coming into it and coach, van Gaal’s wiles have not been enough to goad them to a higher level of performance. Their only Group Stage win was over Qatar and their other two results were draws against Senegal and Ecuador. England, by contrast, started poorly against Iran, lost their nerve against the USA, but found their mojo against Wales. The Brits come into this match off a better arc and with a better frame of mind than the Dutch. With that added momentum England starts with more confidence and it shows, increasingly, as the match unfolds.
All of Gareth Southgate’s work comes to fruition in one stellar match as his lineup gamble results in the best English National Team performance in ages. The Three Lions dominate the first half but squander several chances before Sterling puts them ahead toward the latter part of the first half. The Dutch are not playing poorly but have had problems dealing with the English midfield who have wrested control and the majority of possession. Most troubling though, the Orange have not found a way to put any real pressure on English keeper Jordan Pickford as the Brits’ defense is mostly fresh since their midfield is not allowing any sustained Dutch attack.
In the end, van Gaal’s choices are stymied by the ongoing action on the pitch, and by half-time, he has to change his mind again to focus on making up what has become Holland’s one-goal deficit. As the second half unfolds, it will become obvious that his tactical tweaks and substitutions are not poorly thought out, but by the time they can exert any meaningful influence on the game, the Brits recapture their first-half rhythm and still have the young legs to run the Dutch off the field.
The English also score first in the second half and the Dutch need to split their efforts and energy between preventing a third and clinching goal and scoring their first, which would diminish the dual pressure while sliding it across the pitch to the Brits who would then have to worry about a second and tying score.
In the early going of the second half, the English hold off the expected Dutch onslaught, their defense playing better than most critics credited them with being able to do. And then the back-breaking moment arrives. It is reached when Saka takes advantage of the consistently advancing Dutch lines and catches them off guard latching on to a pretty over-the-top Mount pass that results in a breakaway down the wing. The striker finishes with a classy chipped goal. The score is a near-death blow to van Gaal’s guys, but they keep trying, and toward the latter stages of the second half, in a rare corner opportunity, Matthijs de Ligt heads one back for the Dutch. But it is too little too late as the English hold on for the win.
USA v Senegal
No one expects the Spanish Inquisition…eerrr…the Yanks to be in this match and each and every Senegalese, in and out of team uniform, in Qatar and back in Dakar, is wearing their brightest cat-that-ate-the-canary smile. Meanwhile, the entire USA team and entourage are still giddy and hung over from having performed so well in the Group Stage that simply being in the Round of 16 seems prize enough. Pity, but they will all mature, right?
Senegal is ranked 18th in the world by FIFA and the USA is ranked 13th and there, in a nutshell, is the delusion of the FIFA rankings system. The Senegalese have 22 players employed at European clubs, most are in the top five leagues, and about half are club starters. The USA have 15 players in the top five leagues and maybe a third are club starters or get meaningful minutes. The bottom line is that Senegal has twice as many seasoned, technical players and their Africa Cup of Nations puts them in tougher competition than the CONCACAF Gold Cup or Nations League can provide.
Position by position the Senegalese are mostly a better team than the Americans. The Yank’s nods would go to ChristianPulisic, Weston McKinnie, and Sergino Dest. As good as other individuals in the starting USA lineup may be, most of their African counterparts are better in the other eight positions. This is a difficult fact to overcome for USA coach Gregg Berhalter. The best he can do is place his top guys out there in some semblance of a strategic setup and hope things work out.
Senegal coach, Aliou Cisse, has been tempered by tougher continental competition and has better players to line up with, but his team has also not encountered much opposition from outside Africa so the Americans will be a different riddle. What he can count on is knowing the Americans have no one to compare to striker Sadio Mane, keeper Eduoard Mendy, defender Kalidou Koulibaly, and midfielder Idrissa Gana Gueye. These world-class performers occupy the leadership positions in each of the Senegalese lines and likely will be the difference makers at the game’s end.
The Americans’ Group Stage accomplishments cannot be overstated and their confidence coming into this match is not hubris or swagger but the buzz of knowing they belong—and they do. The Yanks have arrived just in time to host the 2026 World Cup and feel they are rightfully non-qualifying participants. The Senegalese feel this is their cup to progress further still and to showcase Africa’s growing possibilities. They know the Yanks are not at their level but are aware that most thought the USA was not at the level of the Brits, Welsh, or even Iranians.
The match begins with a tough tenor and the tackling goes from fair to chippy in short order. Fortunately, and simply by happenstance, FIFA has assigned one of the world’s true top refs for the match and in short order—a few judiciously balanced yellow cards later—the match devolves to a greater percentage of technical rather than physical exertion. The effort expended, though, is monumental, as less technical players attempt to keep up athletically with their betters and manage a tacit standoff of sorts. But in what eventually begins to seem an unrelenting inertia leading to an inevitable destination, Mane scores halfway through the first half and the Yanks need every inch of their remaining grit to finally find a way to breach the defensive battlements of the Lions of Teranga to feed starter Brenden Aaronson for the score that deflates the Senegalese and buoys the Yanks on the way to their respective locker rooms.
The second half action shows the effort expended in the first, but the Africans seem to have a bit more oxygen in the smothering environment. It is Sane, again, who pushes his troops to the brink, and they follow to watch him score a stellar goal and thus put his teammates on an easier street. The Yanks have used up what they had but fight on valiantly. Yet, their effort is devoid of the energy or resolve to bring them back from that same brink. As the minutes pass the inevitable outcome dawns on both sides and the Senegalese are grateful, knowing they were in a fight, while the Yanks seem only partly disappointed.
Somehow, at the 90th minute, all contestants are still standing if eleven have their heads down in relief and the others have theirs down in a dual and incongruous appreciation of their opponents’ achievement and their own evolution. In the end, Senegal won, as expected and deserved, but the Yanks reached an objective they thought would only be achieved if they progressed to the latter stages of this tournament or the next—they got respect.
Photo: Senegal’s Eduoard Mendy, Shutterstock ID: 1843650193, by Vladimir Koshkarov.
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