Concrete Ron – Vlaar emerges from the World Cup a hero
It was a nervous, tense moment. After 120 minutes of goalless action, Netherlands and Argentina were set to battle it out over a penalty shootout to decide who would go on to face Germany in the World Cup final. With the Oranje set to take the opening penalty in the shootout, coach Louis van Gaal had asked two as of yet unnamed players to step up first, but both refused. The magnitude of the task, the pressure, the expectations, the severity, it was all too much for two players from a nation of arrogant and defiant people. The occasion was just too big for them, but not for one man.
It was a shock and a surprise, then, when the shootout began and from the cluster of orange jerseys in the centre-circle, stepped forward Ron Vlaar.
With Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt and Georginio Wijnaldum available, it was the understated centre-back who had to set the tone for the shootout.
While the defender missed, having his poor penalty saved by Sergio Romero and the shot stopper saved Wesley Sneijder’s effort to secure Argentina a place in the ultimate clash, Vlaar’s reputation has only been boosted by the tournament in Brazil.
He deserved a much better ending to the game than seeing his shot from 12-yards stop at the hands of Romero and bounce back to just touch the line, creating a lot of debate over what may have happened had it crossed it, as he had enjoyed a remarkable 120 minutes against the South Americans. In fact, his whole tournament has been fantastic.
When the Netherlands’ final 23-man squad for the World Cup in Brazil was revealed, many thought it was laughable that their most reliable and by far most experienced centre-back was Aston Villa stalwart Vlaar. Using a system which required three sturdy centre-backs, the combination of the unremarkable defender with two players unknown to the rest of the world in Bruno Martins Indi and Stefan de Vrij, it seemed the Dutch were set to be torn apart by Spain, Chile and Mexico. They were, on face of it, finally going to live up to their expectations – this time by crashing out at the group stage or at the very latest the second round.
With 22-year-old defenders De Vrij and Martins Indi highly rated in the Netherlands, the World Cup presented them with a stage to show their potential and skill to the world as they look to secure a move away from Feyenoord. While De Vrij was outstanding in each of the seven games he played, it was Vlaar who gave the best account of himself in Brazil.
Having joined Aston Villa two years ago after spells at AZ and Feyenoord, the 29-year-old has never played for a huge club at the highest level and has always been seen as a rather ordinary player. Heading into the World Cup, he was viewed as one too slow and simply not strong or intelligent enough to lead the young and inexperienced Dutch backline in an undistinguished squad set to crash and burn.
Oranje, though, proved the rest of the world wrong. And importantly, surprisingly and impressively, so did Vlaar.
Without a dynamic midfielder, Louis van Gaal opted to utilise a 5-3-2 system instead of a 4-3-3 to help protect the Dutch defence and, locked in a group stage with Spain, Chile and Australia, Netherlands had to be ready to come up against and hold different styles of attacks. The need was then bolstered further in the knockout stages when they faced Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina and Brazil, conceding just one goal across those four matches.
Commanding, strong, sensible and brave Vlaar, who was overlooked for the squad four years ago in South Africa, bolstered the Oranje defence immensely. His all-round game was superb in the tournament. He tracked his runs well, timed his tackles perfectly and was decisive in the air. Only Ezequiel Garay made more clearances in the World Cup this year, overtaking him through his display in the final, with Vlaar racking up 63 in his seven games. He was also the second most effective in the air – with Garay making five more than the Dutchman’s 38 headed clearances.
His bravery and anticipation were excellent too, with 21 interceptions, a number only bested by Luis Gustavo (23) and De Vrij (25), while he blocked five shots. Vlaar was calculated and sensible in his tackling, as well. His figure of 17 is nothing special (De Vrij made 26 and Blind made 22), but his success rate of 88% is quite impressive and shows that he was effective and chose his moments well. Furthermore, he has shown to be comfortable and composed on the ball, maintaining an accuracy of 91%, although the vast majority of his passes were to defensive partners Martins Indi and De Vrij or Daley Blind and Nigel de Jong as Oranje looked to build quick attacks against their opponents.
Vlaar was a pivotal piece of the Netherlands team which conceded just four goals in the tournament, two of which were penalties. The Hensbroek-born player has been consistently good for Aston Villa throughout his two years at the Birmingham club but has shown he has the leadership abilities, strength and defensive talents to shore up back-lines at a higher level.
The Dutch were impressive and inspiring in the competition, with Robben showing to be a devastating player in a team which scored 15 times. However, defensively they were much better than expected, having never suffered a defeat in regular or extra-time and critical to it all were Vlaar.
In a young, inexperienced and belittled team, Vlaar’s experience, composure, strength and defensive stability played a key role in them securing third place in the competition.
In Brazil, he showed exactly why the Dutch call him Concrete Ron.
*All stats from WhoScored