With a win over Cameroon the Dutch kept maintained their 100% record to advance into the next round and a tie against the surprising Slovakians. But this seemingly easy passage into the knockout phase has garnered mixed reviews back home.
The team has not stumbled in the first round of any tournament since Euro 1980, so the public's expectation usually goes beyond the opening weeks. This does not feel like an accomplishment for the spoiled home support. No, the team has to play with style and anything below the standards of the Total Football of 1974 and 1988 is frowned upon.
National coach Bert van Marwijk has taken a more cautious approach for the time being. A defensive line of four is shielded by another two defensive midfielders. This system worked perfectly in the qualifiers in which the team only conceded two goals, which was on average the best performance of all World Cup participants.
Unfortunately all the DVDs of their qualifying games were widely available for all the other technical staff working at the tournament. All of these coaches have meticulously studied each team's tactics. Hours of analysis were used to concoct a strategy to neutralise the opponents. Denmark's Morten Olsen and Japan's Takeshi Okada fielded one striker and five midfielders against the six defensive-minded Dutchmen. The result was a stalemate.
Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong kept their position near the halfway line, leaving four creative Orangisti caught between two lines of at least four defenders. They never found any space to move, not even after Netherlands took the lead early in the second half on both occassions.
To develop a team into a defensive force in less than a month is difficult enough. To have them switch to an alternative strategy is almost impossible. These national coaches lack the time and maybe the right players for that kind of flexibility, so it is not that easy to just change tactics and go forward when the whole team is built on destroying the opponent's game. The result were two stalemates, only to be interrupted by a couple of defensive errors.
We'll never know the initial plans of Cameroon's coach Paul Le Guen if his team needed points to go through. As they were out already, the match evolved into a fun game with enough chances to keep the viewers amused.
That the Dutch team has been involved in some of the most dreadful games at this World Cup has not gone unnoticed at home. One of the fiercest critics is Wim van Hanegem, now a pundit. Last Saturday, he decided to leave his TV set early to make it to the studio and listened to the remaining 20 minutes of the game against Japan on his car radio. He was appalled by the lack of depth and courage.
"We are Holland," he said. "They are afraid of us. Why don't we just put pressure on the Japanese defense from the kick-off and roll them over. Now they tell us that we did well because Japan hardly had a chance. Why boast about that? We had six men marking the tiny Keisuke Honda, a lone striker. Should they have given away any chances, that would have been appalling. Ha!"
In Van Marwijk's defence we can say that he is the first Dutch coach to take maximum points from the group games. Secondly, his World Cup tactics were painfully undermined when Arjen Robben pulled his hamstring five minutes before the end of the final friendly. He decided not to change his system and just put Rafael van der Vaart on Robben's position on the left.
Van der Vaart did his best, but does not have the speed and quality of the Bayern player. Against Cameroon, Robben returned for the last 20 minutes, be it on the other side as Eljero Elia had already taken Van der Vaart's place on the left during the game. In his first contribution Robben hit the post after utilising his accelaration that has left so many defenders for dead this season. Again it worked, although he only hit the inside of the post. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar took the rebound to score the winner.
Van Marwijk used two forward lines in the game as if he was an ice hockey coach. His attacking options with the return of Robben are numerous and exciting. However, in the second round Slovakia might copy the tactics of the earlier Dutch opponents and go for a draw and penalties. If this is not harrowing enough for the Orange punters, that other infamous Dutch pitfall raises its ugly head as well.
The quarter-final opponent for one of these two teams will no doubt be Brazil. It won't be the first time a Dutch squad is preparing itself for a probable showdown later on, while underestimating the task at hand.
It happened in 1976 when Holland were clear favorites to become European champions in Yugoslavia. They faced Czechoslovakia in the semis first, but everyone was looking ahead to take revenge on the Germans who played the hosts the next day, including the players.
However, in the torrential rain of Zagreb the unknown opponents proved to be more than a handful, taking an early lead. The Dutch never recovered, even managed to antagonise referee Clive Thomas. They went down arrogantly in extra-time in one of their most scandalous displays ever. The backbone of the Czech victors, who deservedly won the final as well, came from Slovan and Inter Bratislava of the current capital of Slovakia. Let that be a warning.