Dutch fail to convince in opener
Dutch have moved away from their fabled 4-3-3 system to a 4-2-3-1
Duo of holding midfielders gives Dutch forwards the platform
Forward Dirk Kuyt provides balance to the Dutch creavity with his work rate
Given its history, given its qualifying form, given the way it played in the warmup friendlies, there was perhaps something slightly disappointing about the way the Netherlands began the World Cup on Monday.
The 2-0 victory over Denmark was comfortable enough, and has given the Dutch control of the group, but it didn't shimmer with the quality of the 4-1 win over Ghana or the 6-1 win over Hungary that they achieved in the days leading up to the tournament. And no nation's fans, with the possible exception of Brazil's, are so demanding of not merely winning, but victory with style.
In a sense, the Netherlands, like Brazil, is burdened by history.
Every Dutch side will be compared to the Rinus Michels team that delighted the world at the 1974 World Cup, and every time the Dutch begin to play well it will be heralded as the rebirth of Total Football. That, though, was a specific form of football played at a specific time, based around the intermovement of players and a hard-pressing high offside line. Those aspects set a template for the future, and their influence can be seen on the likes of, say, Barcelona and Arsenal today. To press and overlap is no longer radical, though, and as the shock of the new has worn off, so the Dutch have found themselves competing with teams that understood what they were doing, and so were able to combat them and, in some cases -- as with Russia at Euro 2008 -- to outclass them at their own game.
Whatever the Netherlands is doing at this World Cup, it is not playing Total Football. The great leap forward it has made over the past couple of years is to accept that it is possible to play good football without sticking to a 4-3-3 formation. As 4-3-3 has become a more popular formation, the Dutch, paradoxically, have embraced 4-2-3-1, a system that first emerged in Spain in the early 1990s.
It serves them well, though, the holding pair of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong providing a solidity that should, in theory, allow them to play all four of their most gifted forwards: Robin van Persie, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sniejder and Arjen Robben.
That, as Van Persie commented last week, in the first hint of any of the internal conflicts that alternately energize and enervate the Dutch, is "where the real party is." Which is a little harsh on Dirk Kuyt, an angular and muscular fizz of energy to whom coach Bert van Marwijk often turns to provide balance. Whether he would have played against Denmark had Robben not suffered a tweak to his hamstring is unclear, but as Robben sat on the bench, his old man's face set in its usual frown, it was Kuyt who was buzzing about on the right, making life unpleasant for Simon Poulsen.
In a way, Kuyt is the Dutch Emile Heskey, a player who delights coaches, but who fans perceive as being about little but work rate.
Yet a quick glance at the statistics shows that, when both were on the pitch, the Dutch had fractionally more than double the amount of possession on the right, where Kuyt plays, than on the left, where Van der Vaart operated. The arrival of Eljero Elia and Ibrahim Affellay as second-half substitutes suggested a depth in attacking talent that must terrify other nations.
To suggest Kuyt had any direct influence on Poulsen's own goal would be stretching things, but equally it would be no great surprise if the sense of confusion that led him to head Van Persie's cross back across goal and in off the back of teammate Daniel Agger was in some way stimulated by have been chasing a blond blur all game. The goal Kuyt did then score was a classic of his time at Feyenoord, where he was far more of a poacher than the workaholic winger he has become at Liverpool. Perhaps goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen was unlucky that, having got a hand to Elia's shot, it deflected off the post, and Kuyt was then probably lucky that the ball bounced back straight to him. Or perhaps he just read the bounce better than the Danish defenders.
Even if the two goals were fortunate, though, Denmark could hardly complain that the Dutch victory was undeserved. The Netherlands enjoyed more than 60 percent of possession, and in terms of meaningful attempts on goal -- even if Robert Green and Faouzi Chaouchi have rather redefined what that means -- Denmark was reduced to one header from Nicklas Bendtner. Even that, though, was perhaps enough to raise fears about the Dutch defensively; impressive as their wins over Mexico, Ghana and Hungary were, they conceded a goal in each, and the suspicion is that they may be vulnerable to aerial assault.
There are also question marks over the fullbacks: Giovanni van Bronckhorst was hardly an assiduous tackler even in his days as a young midfielder; as a left back he still doesn't entirely convince and at 35 he is presumably not going to be able to make too many surging runs. Given how important attacking fullbacks have been to each of the last four World Cup winners -- Branco and Jorginho for Brazil in 1994; Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizerazu for France in 1998; Cafu and Roberto Carlos for Brazil in 2002; and Gianluca Zambrotta and Fabio Grosso for Italy in 2006 -- and, indeed, how key they are to Dutch tradition, that could be a concern, particularly given Gregory van der Wiel at right back is a converted central defender. That said, Van der Wiel showed admirable poise against Ghana, when his finely calibrated pass to Van der Vaart led to the late penalty. A subdued but solid performance against Denmark was inconclusive.
As Soccernomics author Simon Kuper has pointed out, the other fear about the Dutch defense is the lack of a long-range passer in the manner of Ruud Krol, Ronald Koeman or Frank De Boer to turn defense into attack rapidly. Then again, Van Persie is a rather more rugged figure than he is often given credit for, and can operate as a sort of demi-target-man, feeding on scraps and holding the ball up. It was his hold-up play, having run on to a Sneijder through-pass, that led to the first goal against Denmark.
This Dutch team, in fact, resembles a slightly more fluent version of the so-called broken teams that dominated Italy in the late '90s, in which roles were clearly defined: some defended, some attacked and the divide between the two was clear. Mark van Bommel, pushing on from the back of the midfield, can provide some sort of bridge between the two, but this, for all its talent and its capacity for wonderful football, remains a team far removed from the ideals of old. Just because it looks good and wears orange doesn't make it Total Football.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.