Obviously, since I'm Dutch, I'm extremely happy to see the Dutch national team playing so well. They play attractive, attacking football, and they've outscored Italy and France -- both 2006 World Cup finalists -- by a combined score of 7-1. As I said in my last notebook, they play a variation of Total Football, the strategy popularized by Rinus Michels at Ajax Amsterdam in the 1970s and the "Clockwork Oranje" Dutch national team of the '80s, where every player on the field is interchangeable and can contribute to the attack.
Current coach Marco van Basten played under Michels on the national team in the '80s, but he has added some of his own philosophies to this team. It's far from the free-flowing style we saw in the '70s. I've spent some time with van Basten (he actually has a very keen interest in how soccer is developing in the U.S.), and he explained to me what he is trying to accomplish with this current group. He modeled much of this team on the great Brazilian World Cup-winning squads of 1958 and '70, and somewhat on the French team that lost in the '06 World Cup final to Italy.
Unlike those Dutch Total Football teams in the '70s -- which required technical efficiency and tactical brilliance from every single player -- van Basten has emphasized the counterattack, which is the key to success in the modern game. You want to be able to exploit your opponents' lapses in judgment because you don't get many of those opportunities. Five of Holland's seven goals have come off the counterattack and have taken advantage of the incredible speed on the squad.
Van Basten's team looks very different on defense than it does on the attack. On Holland's half of the field, there are two holding midfielders in front of the back four, which creates a stiff defensive block of six. That spreads the numbers and puts less responsibility on the central defenders, allowing the team to grab a loose ball and break on a counterattack.
When that happens, the team shifts from that 4-2-3-1 formation to a 4-2-4, where even the wing backs are involved on the attack. Giovanni van Bronckhorst is a good example: He's a left back, but has assisted two of the Holland's seven goals and even netted one of his own. When you can break with speed, as the Dutch have done, there isn't much you can do to stop them, as evidenced by Robin van Persie'sbrilliant goal against France. Ruud van Nistelrooy passed along the sideline to Arjen Robben, who coolly crossed it from the left side to a streaking van Persie.
That said, it exposes the Dutch on several fronts. Even though both France and Italy were beaten soundly, they still were able to shed some light on Holland's vulnerabilities. Namely, defense: The Dutch defenders don't have the same athleticism as the attackers and are often vulnerable in one-on-one situations. Van Bronckhorst and Andre Ooijer, in particular, are easier to beat, and we haven't seen the Dutch face an offense like theirs; they're vulnerable to the counterattack themselves.
That's the key to beating the Netherlands, the most impressive team so far at the European Championship. With the group stage coming close to an end, here's what I think can bring down the other three top teams:
Portugal: Paulo Ferreira may be a suspect fullback, but in central defender Pepe, you've got perhaps the best defender in the field, so Portugal's back four is solid. Behind them, though, Ricardo is the weakest goalkeeper of the top four teams. He doesn't manage the 18-yard box or play off the line nearly as well as guys like Spain's Iker Casillas or the Netherlands' Edwin van der Sar, and he's very vulnerable on set pieces.
Croatia: Slaven Bilic has organized perhaps the best-disciplined team in the tournament. They're tactically sound, patient and make few mistakes. Like a chess player, they're always looking a few moves ahead. If you don't match their work rate and discipline, they'll outlast you. Germany learned this the hard way.
That said, Croatia doesn't have the go-to guys that Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands do. Beyond playmaker Luka Modric (and maybe Ivan Klasnic, back from a kidney transplant) there aren't many guys who can make an individual difference. If you lock him down, you can beat Croatia by unleashing your most skilled players.
Spain: Out of the top four teams, Spain has perhaps the weakest back four, especially if Carles Puyol misses more than one game (he'll be out against Greece on Wednesday). With Puyol out, there's no rock in back -- he's the man on that defense and the verbal leader who barks out orders and holds it together.
Of more concern is right back Sergio Ramos. I know he's a young star who is still proving his excellence, but the 22-year-old Real Madrid man makes some bad decisions and fouls too often. He's not as good a man-marker as people give him credit for, either -- Zlatan Ibrahimovic really exposed him on Saturday, out-muscling him to the ball and scoring Sweden's goal. If you run at Ramos and force him to foul, you can expose perhaps Spain's biggest weakness.