Monday, June 28, 2010
Still work to do for the Big Two
With seemingly a minimum of effort against Slovakia, Netherlands qualified for the World Cup quarter-final thanks to a great Arjen Robben goal and another defensive mistake by their opponents. In the post-match analysis a comparison was drawn with with the Harlem Globetrotters and it seems a fair one, looking at the workrate of some of Bert van Marwijk's attackers.
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In the run-up to the tournament Robin van Persie talked about the Big Four of the Netherlands team, which was was comprised of himself, Wesley Sneijder, Rafael van der Vaart and Arjen Robben. He meant they were the four players who should be guaranteed a regular starting role.
Due to injury, Robben and now Van der Vaart have been absent at times, leaving a Big Two in charge. However, Van Persie and Sneijder are currently strutting over the South African pitches like a pair of prima donnas. A chip here, a backheel there and the occasional brilliant move.
Meanwhile, the team behind them are working their socks off to keep possession or fill the gaps they leave behind. On Monday, Dirk Kuyt seemed to be everywhere to pick up the pieces, even making the second goal with a well-timed run from a quickly taken free kick. Yes, finally, there was one.
In the first half some free kicks were immediately given away, while others had no effect whatsoever. Set pieces are not the Dutch's forte at the moment, even though the Big Two never miss a chance to get behind them.
Maybe we can even speak of a Big One as Arjen Robben stole the show with his trademark goal. After being opened up by an admittedly brilliant Sneijder long ball, the Slovakian rearguard joined the long list of defenders who knew exactly what the Bayern Munich star was up to, but just could not make their body bend to the will of their mind.
Robben can stop and turn so quickly when running that it is almost impossible for someone charging alongside him to react in time. Everyone knows he is cutting inside, but he is just a touch faster. To the outside viewer the defenders look like fools, but they are more or less helpless when Robben keeps control of the ball.
The first goal came out of nowhere, but did not help the Dutch to settle down. They kept control over the game defensively, but the Big Two never had enough space to do their thing.
In defence, the wing backs looked unconvincing. Gregory van der Wiel had a nervous game, once kicking a free kick backwards into touch, then losing possession on the halfway line. His strength is surging along the byline, in Dani Alves style, to become an extra winger, but the Slovaks prevented him from doing so.
As an ordinary defender Van der Wiel could well be replaced by Khalid Boulahrouz, who is ruthless and more experienced. The chances for Vittek in the second half only came because Van der Wiel was keeping him onside. On the left Gio van Bronckhorst tries to stay as anonymous as possible, just doing his defensive job. Whether he can keep up in the quarter-final is the big question.
Van Marwijk has no choice though, with only Celtic's Edson Braafheid as cover. He has hardly played a decent game in months. Behind them Maarten Stekelenburg nervously flapped at some long shots, which were not on target anyway, then produced two excellent saves to deny Vittek. He has not had much to do in the tournament, but the World Cup sparked into life for him in the closing quarter of the game. Conceding a penalty with the risk of giving away a red card was far from convincing.
Looking to the positives, the Dutch are strong through the middle. Joris Mathijsen and John Heitinga have everything under control, with two holding midfielders, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, shielding them.
Van Bommel is having a great tournament and seems to have cast aside his annoying kicks and tricks. Quipping with the linesman and constantly charming the referee have kept him off the yellow cards list. Meanwhile he is the driving force of the team and much more in charge than any of the Big Two.
With the quarter-final coming up, the big question is if Van Persie and Sneijder can raise their game. They might find themselves with more space against opponents like Brazil or Chile, but if these teams are clever they will just wait for the Dutch to come to them.
But while the Big Two are showboating in the middle, it leaves Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt on the wings to suddenly burst onto the scene with some dangerous runs. Maybe, for the Big Two, the tournament has started.