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Posted: Thursday July 8, 2010 5:22PM ; Updated: Thursday July 8, 2010 7:40PM
Jonathan Wilson
Jonathan Wilson>INSIDE THE WORLD CUP

Dutch team is effective not stylish

Story Highlights

Under Van Marwijk Dutch are more pragmatic and solid on defense

Key for the Dutch is the use of two holding midfielders to protect its defense

Dutch will rely on Sneijder and Robben to prise open Spain

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Mark van Bommel
Midfielder Mark van Bommel's task is to protect the Dutch back line by any means necessary.
Christophe Simon/Getty Images
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There is a great line at the start of James Ellroy's American Tabloid.

"Mass-market nostalgia gets you hopped up for a past that never existed," he writes. "Hagiography sanctifies shuck-and-jive politicians and reinvents their expedient gestures as moments of great moral weight." Replace "politicians" with "coaches," and you have soccer's history: some have more idealism than others, but nobody is immune from expediency.

Some critics have expressed their disappointment at Bert van Marwijk's Netherlands side for not being Rinus Michels' side of the seventies.

As Raphael Honigstein has pointed out, the comparison is misplaced. You may as well criticize a politician for not wearing a wing-collar and top hat. That was simply the fashion of another age.

Whenever the Dutch play well, and achieve notable results, as they did in the group stage at Euro 2008, the tendency is for the media to apply the Total Football tag. This is ludicrous; well as the Dutch played at times in Euro 2008, it was essentially a counter-attacking team. Just because its orange doesn't make it Total Football, and just because it's Total Football doesn't make it morally superior; it too, had its cynical streak, and it too played that way because it won matches. In fact, that it revelled rather too much in the demonstration of its superiority arguably cost the Netherlands the 1974 World Cup.

Where disappointment is more valid is in a comparison between the Netherlands as it has been in the finals and the Netherlands as it was in its final three friendlies before the World Cup, when it beat Mexico, Ghana and Hungary, racking up 12 goals in the process. The injury Arjen Robben sustained in the last of those three games meant he missed all but the final 17 minutes (plus injury time) of the group stage, and it may be that the loss of his invention cost the Dutch their flow.

There has also, though, been a tactical tweak, the reasons for which became obvious in that final 25 minutes against Uruguay in the semifinal; the Dutch found their flair again, began passing the ball at pace, swept forward, and looking terrifyingly vulnerable at the back. A game that seemed over at 3-1 with 20 minutes remaining suddenly became in the final minutes an edgy siege. Credit, then, to Van Marwijk for recognizing the weakness of his back four and protecting it: you can score three and still not win; concede none and you'll never lose.

The two center backs remain a worry, oddly for a team that has conceded only four goals in six games (three in five with the first-choice pair of Joris Mathijsen and Johnny Heitinga). As both Brazil (albeit against Andre Ooijer rather than Mathijsen) and Uruguay showed, once space is opened in front of the back four, the Netherlands becomes extremely vulnerable. The fullbacks -- Gregory van der Wiel or Khalid Boulharouz on the right and Giovanni Van Bronckhorst on the left -- looked as though they might be weak links before the tournament, but by playing a relatively restrained role, they have prospered. Even when he scored his wonder-goal in the semifinal, Van Bronckhorst wasn't exactly bombing forward on the overlap. Maarten Stekelenburg, the goalkeeper, is no Edwin van der Sar, but his misjudgement of Diego Forlan's equalizer in the semi-final aside, he has been solid enough.

So the back four defend and little else, and so too do the two holding midfielders. Both Mark van Bommel and Nigel De Jong, who will surely return for the final after suspension, have had excellent tournaments, but aside from the raking pass from De Jong that set up Robben's goal against Slovakia, neither has done much in the attacking sphere.

Unless, that is, you count the unpunished Van Bommel foul on Walter Gargano in the build-up to the opener in the semifinal. That was typical of the man, a tough, Machiavellian figure whose ability to escape yellow cards until being booked for dissent in injury-time on Tuesday has arguably been the phenomenon of the tournament.

Then there is Dirk Kuyt, the world's most pragmatic winger. Robin van Persie said before the tournament that "the real party" came when he, Rafael van der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder and Robben, the so-called "Fab Four" were together, but Kuyt's running is vital to link the back six to the front three. He offers balance and control and, as he demonstrated both with his goal against Denmark and his movement wide to cross for Robben's goal against Uruguay, he is a far more astute reader of the game than many give him credit for. A poacher in his days at Feyenoord, he has reinvented himself as an industrious wide forward at Liverpool, but his instinct for space remains undiminished; if Sergio Ramos gets caught too high upfield in the final, he could take advantage. It was notable, too, how the Netherlands prospered against Uruguay once they had begun to trust Kuyt as an attacking force rather than directing everything through Robben.

Nonetheless, Robben's battle with Spanish fullback Joan Capdevila will be key. Robben is a classic example of the inside-out winger, playing so as to cut in onto his left foot, opening up shooting angles. The danger is that, against a right-footed left-back, such as he found in Uruguay's Martin Caceres (Capdevila is left-footed), Robben is neutered and needs an overlapping player outside him to prevent the fullback constantly showing him inside. Neither Van der Wiel nor Boulahrouz have done that, but it is notable how often Sneijder has appeared on that right flank to take a simple pass when Robben has been forced to check back. Sneijder himself has been the ball-playing link between midfield and attack, and -- thanks to a large dose of luck -- has contributed five goals. His battle with Sergio Busquets will largely determine whether the Dutch can make anything of the limited possession they are likely to be afforded on Sunday.

That leaves Robin van Persie, who, frankly, is yet to hit the heights in this tournament, as perhaps the injuries that dogged him last season have still not entirely been shaken off. He remains, though, the prototype of the complete modern center forward, able to hold the ball up, happy to drift wide and, although he's barely shown it in this tournament, a fine finisher.

Three of the front four, perhaps, live up to the attacking ideals of the past, but the others do not. If the Dutch do win this, it will feel a little like Martin Scorsese winning the best film Oscar for The Departed: you don't begrudge him it, but you feel his best work came in the seventies. This Dutch side is generally admirable. It's a professional, well-put together piece whose effectiveness is hard to deny, even if it lacks a certain spark, the dash of radicalism and invention that enraptured the world three and a half decades ago.

This, though, is a different age and historians of the future may be as enraptured by Van Bronckhorst's strike against Uruguay, as those of today are by Arie Haan's strike against Italy in 1978. They may come to compare Robben's headed third against Uruguay to Theo De Jong's diving header against Bulgaria in 1974. Only Brazil in 1970 has won every game it played in World Cup qualifying and then the tournament itself, and for that Brazil it meant 12 games; if the Netherlands were to do it, winning 15, even if that includes games against Macedonia and Scotland in UEFA qualifying, would be a staggering achievement. Just because the Dutch failed to live up to the bogus template of 1974, it shouldn't be held against them.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.

 
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