RIO DE JANEIRO -- There was a time, not long ago, when the Dutch players would have sneered at the idea of taking an ugly win over a beautiful defeat. But those days are gone.
The fundamentalists, represented by Johan Cruyff, the high priest of "total football," lost important ground during Euro 2008, a tournament in which the Netherlands excelled at playing thrillingly efficient counter-attacking football. Heresy, the prophet warned. Very few listened.
Two years later, the Dutch public's admiration for a team that had reached its first World Cup final in 32 years by (partially) turning its back on aesthetic demands, proved that the Oranje had become a normal national team, liberated from the neurotic need to chase after impossible ideals. Their fans and players want them to win; other considerations are secondary.
To be clear, Louis van Gaal will never park the bus. He doesn't believe in overly defensive tactics. But he believes in winning. His post-match comments after the hard-fought 3-2 win over Australia in Porto Alegre were telling in that regard. The 62-year-old disagreed with the man of the match award for Arjen Robben (scorer of the 1-0) and argued that a rather less elegant player should have been given the prize instead.
"Robben was good but he would not have been my choice," Van Gaal said. "I don't like singling out players but I would have given it to Nigel de Jong. [He was] fantastic!" The holding midfielder had offered the usual blend of tough tackles and simplicity on the ball. His cool head and the ability to stand up to the Australians' very physical approach were ultimately more important for the Dutch success than the moments of individual brilliance provided by Robben and Robin van Persie, Van Gaal effectively said.
If you can't play, you have to battle. "We had to give everything," Van Persie said. The satisfaction that the Netherlands managed to do just that and come out the other side of a gruelling 90 minutes with three points was just as pronounced as the joy after the playful, almost effortless destruction of Spain -- probably even more so.
They struggled with their own system, and with the aggressive and intelligent approach from Australia. They conceded a goal from a controversial penalty ("a dubious decision," Robben said; "not a penalty," Van Gaal claimed) and another one from a PlayStation, one-in-a-million volley from Tim Cahill. They lost (arguably) their best defender in Bruno Martins Indi just before halftime, and they came back twice from going a goal behind.
"I find it incredibly amazing that we replied in this manner," Van Gaal said. "Ultimately, you have to very proud that we won," Robben said.
To qualify with a game to spare from this group is a tremendous achievement. But it didn't blind the Dutch to their deficiencies on Wednesday afternoon. Van Gaal had a long list of grievances, from his team losing the ball "too many times" to a lack of creativity.
"I've been saying for weeks that we need to produce more," Van Gaal said. "In possession, we need to have more options, have more runs for the ball, we need to allow the ball circulation to improve." Wesley Sneijder, the supposed fulcrum of the side, had another quiet game, bordering on ineffectual. Van Gaal must be worried by his playmaker going missing again.
The 3-5-2 system that had worked so well against the world champions was more of a hindrance this time. It gave Robben licence to roam but Van Persie had a frustrating time finding space. A change back to the classic 4-3-3 system after the break brought some relief. The first half was "basically just bad," Van Persie told Dutch television. "We were better in the system we are accustomed to."
Van Gaal will have a decision to make for the final group match against Chile, a game that, with a win, means (probably) avoiding hosts Brazil in the next round. Should he employ the "Spanish" tactic or go with the traditional Dutch system against one of the most awkward teams in modern football? Not being able to call upon the services of the suspended Van Persie won't help.
The defence also looked much more fragile than in the first game, even though Van Gaal felt that his men had given "few chances away." Robben bemoaned that the team "slept" through the two Australia goals. The Australians brought Dutch pre-tournament doubts about the quality at the back to the fore again, with relatively simple means.
Tournament football, however, is about dealing with eventualities and coping with your own shortcomings. The Elftal did that very well at the last World Cup and it's no coincidence that the survivors of that campaign are among the most optimistic players in the squad. "You cannot be fantastic throughout a tournament, from beginning to the end," Van Persie said. It's about getting there.