At last. It took until three quarters of the way through its 3-2 semifinal victory against Uruguay, but the Netherlands that sparkled in its last three pre-tournament friendlies finally arrived at the World Cup on Tuesday. It is not the fluency of Oranje myth (which hasn't existed since 1974), but there was finally a pleasing crispness to the passing of the front four, a directness and an incisiveness that had been absent in South Africa, and it wrenched a game that had seemed to be slipping away back into Dutch hands.
Perhaps its form was awakened by the introduction of Rafael van der Vaart in the holding role after halftime; following a shaky start, he provided a better link between the back six and the front four and a better quality of ball to the forwards. Or perhaps it was simply that the Dutch suddenly realized that attacks didn't have to be all directed through Arjen Robben. By marking him as tightly as it did, Uruguay's defense possibly did the Netherlands a favor by forcing it to turn to other possibilities.
It was Demy De Zeeuw who replaced the suspended Nigel De Jong as the Netherlands started with its usual 4-2-3-1, with two negative holders in midfield. Uruguay, as coach Oscar Washington Tabarez had said he would, played with the same 4-4-2 that had started the last round against Ghana, but with Edinson Cavani pushed from midfield into a left-sided attacking role alongside Diego Forlan.Presumably, Cavani was tasked with pulling wide and trying to expose Khaild Boulahrouz, who replaced the suspended Gregory van der Wiel. He never quite managed it, and Boulahrouz, who can look flat-footed, had a fine performance.
As the game settled into a pattern, the Dutch began to dominate possession, which was only to be expected. As a basic axiom, when all else is equal, a triangle will dominate a line, at least in terms of retaining the ball: The 4-2-3-1 shape of the Dutch, with its central W, presents a series of three interlocking triangles as opposed to the flat line of the Uruguayan 4-4-2.
The opening goal came after a sustained spell of passing, but the key to creating the space was a foul by Mark van Bommel that the referee let go, an ugly, over-the-ball challenge on Walter Gargano as play was worked across from the right. That left Diego Perez holding his position, worried about leaving space inside by getting across to Giovanni van Bronckhorst. Given the captain had scored just five goals in 104 appearances before the semifinal, it probably didn't seem too much of a risk. But one of those five was a terrific angled strike against the Republic of Ireland in 2000, and Van Bronckhorst conjured a repeat Tuesday, a marvelous, unstoppable drive from about 35 yards that flicked the post on its way in.
That was tough on Uruguay, not merely because of the foul in the build-up, but because it had largely achieved its objective of shutting down Robben. Without the suspended Jorge Fucile, the regular left back who had done such a fine job of negating Mexico's Giovani dos Santos, Tabarez opted for Martin Caceres at left back, with Alvaro Perreira doubling up from midfield. Caceres spent much of last season at Juventus playing at right back, and is stronger on his right side than his left. Although Robben beat him once on the outside early, he was largely able to stop the Bayern Munich winger cutting inside onto his stronger left foot; the solution to inside-out wingers (that is, left-footers playing on the right and vice versa) may well be inside-out fullbacks.
That ploy, in fact, indirectly led to the equalizer. Frustrated, Robben tried his luck on the left, switching with Dirk Kuyt, and, briefly, through the middle, with Robin van Persie moving out to the right. With neither tracking back, the Netherlands was left square in midfield, almost as though it were playing 4-4-2. Forlan dropped into the space between the two lines, Gargano slipped a pass through to him from deep -- a ball not dissimilar to that with which Felipe Melo opened up the Dutch in Friday's quarterfinal -- and the Atletico Madrid forward checked back onto his left foot to arc a shot at goal. Maarten Stekelenburg probably should have saved it, but the lesson of this World Cup is that with this ball any shot on target poses a danger. Forlan certainly seems to have realized that: He is the first player since Lothar Matthaus in 1990 to score three goals from outside the box in the same World Cup tournament.
Uruguay began the second half the better as well, and Forlan drew a fine save from Stekelenberg with a dipping free kick. But the game turned on a seemingly aimless up-and-under midway through second half. It fell for Van Persie, who laid it off to Van der Vaart, and Fernando Muslera made a fine save. Even though the Dutch didn't score, that sequence led to a shift in strategy. Whereas everything in the past two games had been worked down the right, the Dutch suddenly began to attack on the left. Caceres had seemed to be the fullback who would need support, but it turned out that Maxi Pereira was left a little exposed.
It was Robben, though, who was the architect of the Dutch's second goal, cutting in from the left flank. Prevented from turning toward goal by the excellent Caceres, he carried on along the top of the box, and the ball was worked to Sneijder. His shot was deflected, passed under Van Persie's foot and squirmed past Muslera. If Van Persie was offside, he was surely interfering and the goal shouldn't have stood, but the decision looked borderline and, given the guideline to give the benefit of the doubt to the forward, was probably -- just about - fair enough. Two minutes later another flurry of passes created space for Kuyt on the left; he crossed superbly and Robben buried a fine header.
Suddenly the sharpness was there again, and the Dutch could have had two or three more. As soon as the Netherlands began sweeping forward, though, it became defensively vulnerable, and the goal it conceded to Maxi Pereira, bending in a quickly taken free kick in injury time, was down entirely to a lack of concentration.
That will have to improve if the Netherlands is to win the final, but it's hard to be too critical about a side that has won six out of six and seems slowly to be moving through the gears. If a historical parallel is to be found, it is not with the Total Footballing Netherlands side of 1974, but perhaps with France of 1998, whose momentum built with each passing round until it became unstoppable in the final.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.