There aren't many people who wouldn't class the attack of the Netherlands as being one of the best in the world. When their stars are healthy, they're lethal going forward—it's tough to stop a healthy trio Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, and Robin van Persie—but the same simply cannot be said about their back line.
Louis van Gaal's last defensive unit with the Dutch national team will be anchored by Aston Villa's own, Ron Vlaar. "Concrete Ron" enters the World Cup at 29 years of age and holds 24 national team caps to his name but unfortunately for the Oranje, he's their second-oldest and most-capped defender. And if they're going to make it out of a tough group that includes defending champion Spain and talented dark horse Chile, (well, and Australia but... yeah) they'll need their defensive unit to be surprisingly strong.
Caps: 24, Goals: 1
Service for Netherlands: Ron Vlaar made his debut for the Netherlands against the Czech Republic in 2005 but didn't start featuring regularly for his country until 2012. He missed out on the World Cup in 2010 thanks in part to nagging injury concerns but would go on to feature for the Oranje in a disappointing Euro 2012 campaign that saw the Dutch crash out with three defeats in the group stage. Vlaar started and played the full 90 minutes in the Netherlands' 1-0 and 2-1 defeats to Denmark and Portugal respectively while he was an unused substitute in his country's 2-1 defeat to Germany in the group's middle match.
After the disappointment in Ukraine, the Netherlands embarked on an impressive qualifying campaign that saw Vlaar appear in 7 of their 8 victories en route to accumulating 28 points in the 10 qualifying matches. Granted, the Netherlands' group wasn't strong—Romania, Hungary, and Turkey battled for the second spot—but conceding five goals in 10 qualifiers is still a tough task for a defensive line.
Vlaar has just one international goal at senior level with the Netherlands—in a Euro 2012, 6-0 warm-up victory against Northern Ireland—but can be a threat for Holland off of a corner kick or set piece.
What makes him interesting: Ron Vlaar might be the closest thing to a known quantity at defense for the Dutch national team and well, that's interesting in and of itself. With Louis van Gaal expected to roll out a five-man defensive unit in Brazil—at least in the opening match with Spain—Vlaar's going to have to play well in order for his country to have a chance. He'll likely be surrounded by four defenders all younger than 25 and reunited with former Feyenoord teammates Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi as his fellow centre-backs. The pair are 22 and much like what Vlaar's had to do with Villa, he'll have to be in control of a young defensive corps. His leadership ability could be what makes or breaks the World Cup for the Netherlands.
What to expect in Brazil: The Netherlands might be the biggest risk/reward bet at this year's World Cup. On one hand, they're in a group with Spain and Chile and if they get out of the group are likely to run into host country Brazil in the Round of 16. But on the other hand, they're the defending runners-up at the competition and sit at 28/1 odds to win the tournament at Sky Bet—that's the type of bet I'd consider if I've got £10 to burn.
But as for Ron Vlaar and the Netherlands' defense, there's not much of a guide as to what to expect. Vlaar's easily been Aston Villa's best defender since arriving in 2012 but then again, that's not saying much—Villa have conceded 130 goals over the last two Premier League seasons. At the same time though, Villa's defensive performances with and without him are vastly different—without him, Villa hardly look organized at the back and it's only a matter of time until a mistake costs Villa a chance at the points. But with him, Villa occasionally look competent at the back and at the very least are better organized.
If the Netherlands make a deep run in the tournament, they'll likely have gotten a strong performance from Vlaar. That would—in one way or another—be a great result for Villa. Either Vlaar would return to Bodymoor Heath full of confidence, ready to push on for the next term or someone could be conned into overpaying for his services, something that wouldn't at all be bad for Villa given their current situation. On the flip side, if Holland crash out of the World Cup like they did Euro 2012, it's likely to be in part due to a poor defensive performance. We'll just have to wait and see what happens for Ron Vlaar this year in Brazil.