• Saturday, 3 July 2010

    Van Marwijk wins battle of the pragmatists

    The Netherlands v Brazil. One of the classics. Total Football v Brazilian brilliance. Even the 1974 World Cup clash between these two sides in Hannover - effectively a quarter-final coming, as it did, at the end of the second group stage - seems fresh in the memory given the scintillating football on show.

    Times have changed. Bert van Marwijk would love to play Total Football, but given that he's got Ooijer, Kuyt and van Bommel to work with rather than Neeskens, Cruyff and Rep, it's going to be difficult. Likewise Brazil, though they could probably play that 1982 style were it not for Dunga and his dogged devotion to doing it his way. His way had been pretty effective, if not exactly pleasing on the eye, but anyone who saw him play can have been under no illusion that it was ever going to be anything other than this.

    The two sides lined up with identical formations, the very much in vogue 4-2-3-1, and the fear was that they'd cancel each other out. Needless to say, there are special players on either side and it was clear from the off who Brazil had identified as the main Dutch danger. Arjen Robben, for it was him, got his first boot from behind inside three minutes as Dani Alves, as the cliché goes, 'let him know he was there'. It presaged a first half that was less football fiesta than Fight Club. Johnny Heitinga gave Robinho a boot up in the air, Robben was being kicked black and blue and Mark van Bommel was doing what he does best, i.e. foul everyone, wind everyone up and try to referee the game.

    Some football did break out. Heitinga was caught terribly flat-footed and Gregory van der Wiel out of position as Felipe Melo's delicious through ball found Robinho who tucked it past Maarten Stekelenberg. The Dutch keeper pulled off one of the saves of the tournament to deny Kaka later in the first half, but as they trooped off for the interval, it felt very much like Brazil's to lose. Robben's frustration was obvious. He constantly had four men on him, some a little too close, as when Michel Bastos should have seen a second yellow for a particularly malicious foul. Contact doesn't have to be huge for Robben to go down wailing and this was further winding the Brazilians up. From the free-kick, Wesley Sniejder got it back off Robben and curled it goalwards where a huge communication breakdown saw Melo nick it past Julio Cesar for the leveller.

    Brazil lost their shit. Melo was at fault again for the second Dutch goal, Sneijder left alone in the box to nod in from five yards before the Brazilian enforcer was sent off for stamping on Robben. Bastos had already been withdrawn by Dunga before he got himself dismissed. The Dutch should have finished it off when Klaas-Jan Huntelaar dallied too long over picking a pass in the box and the cover got back, but they closed it out with relative ease.

    Dunga would have faced a stiff task to keep his job even if he'd won the competition. Losing in the quarters made his departure inevitable and it was announced within hours of the final whistle. Van Marwijk, on the other hand, has a bit more freedom. All those years of tippy-tappy football brought no reward as the nation chased the halcyon days of the mid-70s. Van Marwijk has brought organisation, solidity and unity and it's got the Netherlands a lot further. Whether he'll be loved back home for it is a matter for a day when the euphoria of beating Brazil has worn off.

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