So far in this tournament the Netherlands has been respected more for what they might deliver than for what they actually have. Victory over Slovakia took the Dutch to the quarterfinals with a fourth successive win, and despite Slovak striker
The big positive was the return to the starting lineup of
Robben, of course, is used to playing on the right for Bayern Munich, cutting inside onto his stronger right foot. This use of wingers on the "wrong" flank, so they naturally come infield rather than trying to beat their fullback on the outside to cross, is one of the great trends of the modern game, and it in part explains the glut of goalscoring wingers. This is a point Sir Alex Ferguson made last season when defending his use of
There is also a feeling that, when most sides field at least one and often two deep-lying midfielders, center forwards can easily be crowded out. A wide forward, though, even with a fullback pressed tight against him, will usually find space on the diagonal, attacking the fullback's weaker foot. It may soon be that fullbacks are used on the "wrong" side to counter wingers playing on the "wrong" side -- as, for instance,
The Netherlands' opener showed just how dangerous the ploy can be.
Could Slovakia have been more aware of his tendency to come inside? Perhaps, but it is difficult for defenders in the heat of the game to overcome the instinct drilled into them for years, which is always to show wingers inside onto their theoretically weaker foot. It took a fine save from
When Robben scored, the game was threatening to be pleasingly open, but the goal killed it. The Dutch seem intent in this tournament in conserving energy, and with Slovakia lacking much in the way of creativity, it was easy enough to shut up shop. Against Italy, Slovakia's basic tactic was the long forward pass to
Stoch, coming in off the left wing onto his right foot, forced a fine save from Dutch keeper
Mucha had kept Slovakia in it at the beginning of the second half, but in the end it was a misjudgement from the goalkeeper that confirmed the Netherlands' victory. Kuyt, industrious as ever, chased a long free-kick, got there before Mucha, and was unselfish enough to square the ball for Sneijder, relatively subdued until then, to roll in. Van Persie also had a quiet game, and if the Dutch are to catch fire as it did in hammering Ghana and Hungary in pre-tournament preparation, it needs at least one of those two to return to form.
For all its forward talent, this was a game won by the toughness and resolution of the back of the midfield, as
Major tournaments, though, as countless pundits have said, are all about peaking at the right time, and it may be that the Netherlands' best is yet to come. So far the Dutch have been all about economy of effort, doing just enough; in the quarterfinal in Port Elizabeth just enough will be rather more than has been needed so far.