Brazil vs Netherlands quarterfinal matchup is potentially a classic
Brazil and Netherlands have participated in some classic World Cup clashes
Both teams play with a more defensive setup than their predecessors
The key for the Netherlands will be containing Brazil's Robinho
Brazil against the Netherlands is one of the great World Cup fixtures. They have met three times before in the tournament, and each time produced a classic: the Netherlands' 2-0 win in an astonishingly violent game in 1974; Brazil's 3-2 quarterfinal victory in 1994, when Branco's late free-kick finished off a Dutch team that had come from 2-0 down to level at 2-2; and Brazil's penalty-shootout win in the 1998 semifinal after Patrick Kluivert had canceled out Ronaldo's opener.
The two sides have much in common. Both are burdened by a history of attacking, attractive football to which modern incarnations cannot hope to live up. Both have sacrificed the romantic style of the past for a more pragmatic approach. And both, via very different roots, have ended up playing a form of 4-2-3-1, even if Brazilians may deny it.
Describing Brazil's formation is fraught with the dangers of cultural conditioning. Europeans looking at how the Brazilians played against Chile would tend to see it as a 4-2-3-1, with Gilberto Silva and Ramires holding, and, from right to left, Dani Alves, Kaka and Robinho providing attacking midfield support for Luis Fabiano. Brazilians, though, see the system as a diamond, with Silva at the base, Alves and Ramires shuttling on either side, Kaka as the playmaking tip and Robinho as a support striker for Fabiano.
In a sense, both are right, for Brazil operates an odd combination of the two systems. Robinho, although a support striker who usually plays in front of Kaka, clearly operates from the left, in what is effectively a reinvention of the role occupied by Gigi Rivera in the classic Italian system of the '70s. Equally, Alves, chugging forward from a deeper position, can be seen as a variant on the tornante (returner), the winger-who-defends position that was vital to the Catenaccio (defensive-oriented system) because it permitted the right back to act as an auxiliary center back and is vital to Brazil for precisely the opposite reason, because it allows the right back, Maicon, to attack.
The reason Europeans and Brazilians see the system differently is cultural. The European 4-2-3-1 derives from 4-4-2 (which is why it is such an ideological leap for the Dutch, whose default formation since the '70s has been 4-3-3). A center forward is withdrawn, and the roles of the midfield become more precisely defined, the wide players advancing and the central players retreating, although the wide players still have a responsibility to counter the attacking intentions of the opposition fullbacks.
In Brazil, the default for several years has been the 4-2-2-2, first in its flamboyant form as at the 1982 World Cup, when Falcao and Cerezo operated as deep-lying playmakers behind Zico and Socrates (the magic square, as it was known). After a flirtation with 3-5-2 under Sebastiao Lazaroni in 1990, the 4-2-2-2 returned in far more defensive form at the 1994 World Cup, at which Dunga, the present coach, operated alongside Mauro Silva at the back of the midfield, with Zinho and Mazinho in front of them as trequartistas (three-quarters, players who operate between midfield and attack), and Bebeto and Romario as the center forwards.
The evolution of that system to 4-2-3-1 has come about by pulling one of the center forwards back and wider, while one of the trequartistas shuffles a little wider and deeper -- on the other side to accommodate him. Robinho is thus a forward playing to the left looking to cut infield, whereas a European version of the system would have a winger or a midfielder there. So while the Dutch play in three relatively straight lines with Robin van Persie at the point, Brazil has a back four, with a diagonal line of two (more advanced to the left) and a line of three parallel to that before Fabiano.
The key question for the Netherlands is probably how to counter Robinho, whose position means that he plays neither so high that a fullback can comfortably track him nor so deep that he comes into the zone of a right-sided midfielder (which the Dutch don't really have anyway). Gregory van der Wiel, the Dutch right back, will presumably be given the job of picking him up, with Mark van Bommel drifting across from holding midfield to offer support. That, though, leaves Nigel de Jong to pick up Kaka, with Giovanni van Bronckhorst, the left back, asked to track Alves even though he plays even deeper than Robinho. And then there is the problem of Maicon's breaks from fullback; Dirk Kuyt, tough and industrious winger that he is, will be stationed on the left to block him, even if Rafael van der Vaart recovers from a calf injury.
Given that set-up (and assuming that with Elano out, Felipe Melo returns from injury to replace the suspended Ramires as the slightly less defensive of the two holding players) that intriguingly means both sides will prefer to attack down the same flank. Just as Robinho sweeps in from the Brazilian left, so Arjen Robben scuttles in from the Dutch right. How Michel Bastos deals with him will be key. The left back plays as a midfielder for Marseille, and has yet to really be tested in this World Cup by a top class winger (when Brazil played Portugal, Cristiano Ronaldo played centrally, and the game anyway drifted along in dull but mutually beneficial stalemate).
The Dutch may also fancy the chances of Van Persie against Lucio and Juan. They are probably at their best when dealing with physical strikers; Lucio relished his battles against Didier Drogba when Internazionale played Chelsea, and no less so against Ivory Coast in the group stage. But the two center backs are less assured dealing with a forward who drops off and pulls wide to create space, whether for Kuyt or Robben coming in from wide -- the first goal against Slovakia showed how intelligent Van Perise's off-the-ball running can be -- or for Wesley Sneijder coming from deep, although he will have to cope with the combined attentions of both Silva and Melo.
That is where the advantage of playing Robinho deep can really be seen; Brazil is good enough at breaking from deep -- particularly when it effectively lures the opponent on -- that doing so barely affects its attacking potential (unless the opponent, like North Korea, sits deep with little intention of attacking themselves), while essentially giving it an extra man in midfield.
The Netherlands' best chance is to win the battle on the right, negate Robinho and allow Robben, who profited against Slovakia from long diagonals of the sort that might exploit the space behind Melo in the slanted midfield, to isolate Bastos. Then again, Brazil's midfield discipline is such that De Jong might never be given the time to weight such passes.