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Dutch still to hit their top stride


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 Robert Vittek making it 2-1 with a late penalty, it was comfortable enough, but again this was far from the fluency achieved in the warmup games.

The big positive was the return to the starting lineup of Arjen Robben, who lasted 70 minutes, was by far the Netherlands' most creative player and, intriguingly, was deployed in a right-sided role with Dirk Kuyt on the left. Rafael van der Vaart was absent with a calf strain, which conveniently spared Bert van Marwijk having to make a decision on which one of his highly-gifted front five to leave out. In terms of raw talent, Kuyt is probably the least of them, and there is an argument that Van der Vaart is a more natural fit on the left than him, but Kuyt's energy and diligence are important to the Netherland's balance. Besides which, for all the slightly grudging admiration he tends to be afforded, he does pose an attacking threat even when playing in an unfamiliar role on the left.

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 Wayne Rooney in wide positions, asking whether a forward was more dangerous when he started central and moved wide in the search for space, or when he started wide and drifted infield.

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, Rafa Benitez had Alvaro Arbeloa do against Lionel Messi when Liverpool beat Barcelona in 2007. For now, though, inside-out wingers such as Messi and Robben (Cristiano Ronaldo is actually right-footed, but is so good with his left than he functions as both orthodox and inside-out winger) are very much in vogue.

The Netherlands' opener showed just how dangerous the ploy can be. Nigel De Jong's pass wasn't quite Frank De Boer to Dennis Bergkamp against Argentina in 1998, but in the shape of the move, the sweep of the ball from deep on the left side of the Dutch half to a center right-position in the opponent's, there was at least a resemblance. There was still a lot for Robben to do when the ball reached him, but as Robin Van Persie made an excellent decoy run, he came in onto his stronger left foot and shot low inside the near post.

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 Jan Mucha to prevent Robben repeating the trick early in the second half and, from the resulting corner, he showed his threat from the right side, his low cross to Jonas Mathijsen drawing another excellent, albeit probably involuntary, save from Mucha.

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 Robert Vittek, with Marek Hamsik, Erik Jendrisek and Miroslav Stoch breaking, but with Zdeno Strba suspended, Hamsik was forced into a deeper role and Slovakia never quite seemed to have the same menace. Only midway through the second half did it suddenly spring to live.

Stoch, coming in off the left wing onto his right foot, forced a fine save from Dutch keeper Maarten Stekelenburg, and then Vittek, gifted an opportunity by a flawed offside line, pinged a shot straight at the goalkeeper. Briefly, the Dutch seemed hesitant -- the defensive weakness that had been highlighted before the tournament snapping into focus, and Vittek gathering another pass in a central area wasted another opportunity as the ball got stuck under his feet.

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 Mark van Bommel and De Jong effectively neutralized Slovakia's three midfield creators. It's probably unfair to condemn a side that has won four out of four for failing to live up to the extraordinary aesthetic standards of the warm-up, but given its potential it is hard to avoid the feeling the Netherlands has disappointed so far.

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.