Pragmatism and Dutch style may be enough

Solid Mexico side with strong team spirit likely to pose difficulties for Netherlands

Netherlands’ Robin van Persie scores a sublime goal during the match against Spain. The Dutch striker returns from suspension for the last-16 tie with Mexico. Photograph: AP/Bernat Armangue

Netherlands’ Robin van Persie scores a sublime goal during the match against Spain. The Dutch striker returns from suspension for the last-16 tie with Mexico. Photograph: AP/Bernat Armangue

Sat, Jun 28, 2014, 11:00

You might expect that, with three wins out of three, 10 goals scored, a 5-1 win over the world champions, and a route to the semi-finals more navigable than anyone dreamed possible, Louis van Gaal would have to battle his way to training every day through garlands of praise.

In fact, the Netherlands will play Mexico in Fortaleza tomorrow facing more questions about their style of play, and its relationship to traditional Dutch values, than seems fair.

Figuratively speaking, Dutch commentators have been throwing their pencils across the room, like Eamon Dunphy literally did in 1990.

The question is whether Van Gaal’s team have been too counter-attacking, too unwilling to keep the ball in their new 5-3-2 system. In De Telegraaf, columnist Valentijn Driessen suggests criticism by former Belgium international and PSV forward Marc Degryse about lack of movement in the Dutch team and frequent long balls is galling: “If even the Belgians are concerned about negative Dutch football then we really have something to think about,” he writes a little snidely. Driessen warns of what might happen if Holland come up against opponents who “want to play football just as little as Oranje have so far in the tournament”. Might we find out tomorrow?

Former Denmark manager Morten Olsen – an ex-Ajax coach and a lifelong admirer of Dutch football – critically uses the term reactievoetbal (reaction football), saying that “Holland have always tried to keep the ball, but this has now changed”.

In Spain’s El Pais newspaper, former Argentina international and football philosopher Jorge Valdano is crueller, calling Van Gaal’s approach a “betrayal” of attacking football: “I prefer a brave fool than the intelligence of Van Gaal.”

Johann Cruyff, who has history with Van Gaal, has been critical too: “The results are there – now for the football.” The word in widespread circulation is poldercatenaccio – low-lying Dutch land meets Italian catenaccio.

Van Gaal has bristled at the questions about style, characteristically turning them back on his critics when he can. “Could you give me a definition of attacking football? That’s my question to you,” he spat at one journalist after the Chile game. “I’m asking you, if you have such a clever question . . . If you’re going to ask me questions, I’m going to ask you questions.”

Savvy Van Gaal Famous pragmatists, the Dutch historically insist that their football marries beauty to practicality. What they seek are elegant solutions. Van Gaal’s trouble is that, with a group of players arguably incapable of providing

elegance and pragmatism, he has decided that winning has to take precedence. He now looks only for solutions. The 5-3-2 system was chosen ahead of traditional 4-3-3, after all, as a late response to the injury to key midfielder Kevin Strootman. And in the process Van Gaal has inarguably maximised his attacking talents, and Arjen Robben’s in particular, by allowing space for them to run into.

“You have to evaluate a strategy that will help you win, and this is the proof in the pudding,” said Van Gaal after the Chile victory. “We’re not giving away games . . . we’re winning.”

But Van Gaal’s problem is cultural. In a brilliant interview with David Winner in the Blizzard, Dennis Bergkamp once encapsulated this Dutch hunger for an elegant solution by describing his preference for the lob: “People always said of me ‘but he only scores nice goals, he doesn’t score ugly ones’. But I gave myself a rule. When I played in Holland, with Ajax, I always tried to lob the goalkeeper. People said, ‘Oh, you’re trying to make a nice goal, a beautiful goal.’ But I said, ‘Listen, if the goalie is a little bit off his line, how much space do you have on his left or right? It’s not a lot. And how much space do you have above him? There is more.

“It’s a question of mathematics . . . So that’s why I often did that. You can say it’s not really effective. But I say it is.”

One of the main reasons why the Netherlands victory over Spain was so enjoyed back home was because of Van Persie’s extraordinary first-half header. In its practical beauty, its incredible technique married to the deeply pragmatic decision to lob the goalkeeper with the header, it was perhaps the perfect Dutch goal.

Van Persie’s comments afterwards were remarkably similar to Bergkamp’s: “I love good football, nice football but it has to mean something. It has to bring me somewhere. And that’s what happened with this goal.”

Inspirational header The country’s imagination was captured. People all over the Netherlands took photographs of themselves in the goalscorer’s superman pose. Even Van Persie’s 93-year-old grandfather, Wim Race from Prinsenbeek, splayed himself on the sitting-room rug.

Can the Dutch find an elegant solution in Fortaleza? You would think they might find a solution. Van Persie is back from suspension and the players, who continue to be allowed the freedom of mixing with their families during the tournament, look focused. Especially in defence, the weakest and most inexperienced part of Van Gaal’s team, which the 5-3-2 system counteracted brilliantly against Chile.

Mexico have been knocked out in the last 16 in the last five World Cups, but their haul of seven points from Group A illustrates how the tournament’s most charismatic and lowest-paid manager – Miguel Herrera’s salary is $210,000 (€154,000), compared with Fabio Capello’s $11 million – knows how to bring the best from his players. Holding midfielder Jose Juan Vazquez will miss this game through suspension, with the likelihood that the veteran Carlos Salcido will take his place.

The battle could be won and lost out wide, which both sides like to exploit. You also feel that whoever gets ahead may stay there. For Van Gaal and the Netherlands, another win would be a virtue in itself.

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