What Went Right? Expert at direct attacking quality. Not nearly as fluid or flashy as “Total Football” but effective nonetheless. No side made use of the flanks more than this one. Used their speed to great use, breaking down defenses on the wings. Their forward attack was so fast and effective that they didn’t need to go forward in numbers. Best attacking flankers in the game, their wingers could score from any angle and did. Were so good on the flanks that they could switch possession from side to side in the blink of an eye. The 4-5-1 they employed was more of a 4-2-1-2-1, and it was that “diamond” attack up front that made them go offensively. The Dutch did not dilly-dally around; when they got possession they got the ball to their forward flankers quickly and without preamble, yet still had a majority of possession in every game except the final. On the rare occasions where they patiently built up an attack they did it on the flanks and were expert at beating the offside trap. One of the two or three best sides in the tournament in counterattacking, especially on the flanks. Not the best at getting the ball into the box but one of the two or three best sides at taking quality long shots from outside the box that were on target. One of the two best sides at taking advantage of opposition mistakes in the back. They didn’t spend a lot of time in their own end, preferring to take the game to their opponents and playing in the attacking end. Despite their lack of height they were fantastic in the air and on 50-50 balls. Pretty decent at reading the game and anticipation in the back, and their backline wasn’t afraid to take on anybody who came into the penalty area. From the start they were going to let everybody they played know that they were going to take them on, and exhibited a physicality and nastiness not seen in previous incarnations. To that end they played with a bad disposition, making hard tackles and getting a body on any opponent who had the ball. Didn’t sit back and wait for their opponents to attack, choosing instead to close them down and take the ball away from them. Next to Spain the surprisingly second best goalkeeping in the tournament.
What Went Wrong? As great as they were on the wings they were just as soft in the center on both sides of the ball – and in the end it mattered. In an era when a suffocating defense is the linchpin to success at the international level the Netherlands gave up way too many goals for a World Cup finalist. The center of the defense had way too many mental lapses, were surprisingly easy to break down, and played with a certain nastiness that bordered on dirty. The same can be said about their defensive/holding midfielders, who contributed virtually nothing going forward, were pretty slipshod about distribution and attacking orchestration, and showed no defensive finesse in taking on opposition attackers before they got to the backline. While both fullbacks were proficient in contributing to the attack, there were too many times when they were just embarrassed by an opposition winger on their rear flanks who juked them out of their pants, leaving the back exposed to efficient service into their box. Not the world’s most effective use of the center of midfield going forward, and needless to say they were just average at getting service into the box, although when they did it usually was one of their wingers or Wesley Sneijder who got on the end of it. Relied way too much on just two players, Sneijder and Arjen Robben, instead choosing to play a three-man game in attack that also included Robin van Persie (before Robben was healthy in the knockout round the three-man attack consisted of Sneijder, Dirk Kuyt on the left flank and van Persie up front). Worst of all, they chose to get away from what worked for them prior to the final and practically mug Spain, playing like they were thugs. It was nasty, unattractive and embarrassing. If they had just played their game and attacked like they had been they may have been holding that 13 pound trophy instead of Spain.
Who Stepped Up To The Plate? Who else? Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben. Four years ago under coach Marco van Basten, it was Robben on the left flank, van Persie on the right flank, and Ruud van Nistelrooy as the target man up front in the three man game, with the midfield getting circumvented entirely. It didn’t work; the Netherlands were easily ousted in the Round of 16. It was a stroke of genius to move van Persie up front, bring Sniejder inside in the space just behind van Persie, make a winger out of Dirk Kuyt on the left, and switch Robben to the right side. Once Robben was back and healthy, they were so good at switching play and working the triangle game on the flanks that you just didn’t know where they were coming from, and that made them hard to defend. This more than anything is why the Netherlands were playing for a championship. There was arguably nobody harder in the midfield to displace than Nigel de Jong and Mark van Pummel, er, Bommel, who were the best thing defensively about the Netherlands. Thirty-six year-old left back Giovanni van Bronckhorst was at his level best getting forward on the left flank and breaking off some great service inside. Nothing spectacular from keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, but he was steady, reliable, didn’t make any mistakes and actually managed to make quite a few stellar saves, and that was enough to make him the second best goalkeeper in this tournament. On the rare occasions when he got in Rafael van der Vaart created some good opportunities for Robben and Sneijder to convert; why he wasn’t on the pitch for every minute of every game is beyond me. They lost absolutely nothing going forward on the flanks when they brought in Eljero Elia, whose speed alone just created so much space for an attacker to run into. And 36-year-old Andre Ooijer and Khalid Boulahrouz were actually better in the center of defense than anybody they had starting.
Who Didn’t Show Up? For the most part John Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen played pretty well, but on way too many occasions you could tell they just weren’t communicating with each other and Stekelenburg – and that’s when they were the most prone to breaking down their defensive shape in front of goal. As good as he was going forward, van Bronckhorst was just as ineffectual in the back, allowing too many attacking wingers to come in and break him down in the back. Still, he was much better on the left than Gregory van der Wiel was on the right; he didn’t do anything particularly well. De Jong and van Pummel, er, Bommel were virtually useless going forward; their entire existence was simply to mug any opposition player that came into their area, get the ball out to the flankers and then get out of the way. They could have done so much more.
How Was The Coaching? As ugly as that final game was, Bert van Marwijk actually coached pretty well. Previous incarnations of the Dutch national obviously had much better players with much better flashy creative flair and magical ball skills, but they also lacked a backbone and refuse-to-lose quality. This wasn’t “Total Football”, the fluid movement-intensive system that transformed Dutch football, but “Total Football” didn’t win them any championships, either. So I’m not going to blame van Marwijk for using a more direct attacking approach and instilling a crunching hardness into this side. Still, there are two reasons to be critical of van Marwijk. One is he could have gotten a lot more creative in the center of midfield if he either (1) had one or both of de Jong or van Pummel, er, Bommel go forward and attack some, or (2) replace either de Jong or van Pummel, er, Bommel with van der Vaart, arguably the best creative midfielder the Dutch have (and somebody I’ve been saying for more than four years now needs to see a lion’s share of time on the pitch). Secondly, you don’t change your game in response to the other team’s tactics. That’s what the Netherlands did when they played Spain, got away from the attacking side that had got them there and turned into these maulers and mashers who hit and kicked Spain at every turn. YOU NEVER CHANGE YOUR GAME! You always make the other team bend to your will. By turning into thugs van Marwijk was basically saying he had no confidence in his defense. This is the Netherlands, for God’s sakes. They should be able to attack, attack, attack at will. Sure it would have been a track meet, but the Dutch would have put some goals in the back of the net, gotten into Spain’s head and shook their confidence. Instead we got stuck with this war of attrition, a trench warfare that looked like something out of a bad World War I movie. That I lay solely at the feet of van Marwijk.
Did They Finish Where They Were Expected? No they did not – and that is exactly the point. The Netherlands got further than anybody thought they’d get. The Dutch are creative and offensive enough to beat anybody on the planet. Before this tournament, if I had thought the Netherlands was going to play in the final I’d have given them better than even odds that they would win. They instead turned into something ugly that defied football sense. Yet even at that the Dutch had way too many chances to win the final. Kudos for getting where nobody thought they would, but they should be the ones celebrating a world championship in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. That Spain’s long football ignominy is finally over and Holland’s continues I just don’t have any sympathy for.
What Now? As critical as I am of their tactics, coaches and finish, I can’t help but be very positive of the Netherland’s football future. There is as much talent on the ground in the Netherlands as there ever has been, and they clearly are now steeped in coaches that can instill a certain tactical rigidity when they need to. Plus, they manage to integrate new players into the national side when they need to. On the tactical side I would just suggest that they find some defenders who can play with just a little more finesse and a little less brutishness, and they could get a little more creative offensively in the center of midfield.