Dutch dynamic duo take on the world
SAO PAULO -- The picture that Robin van Persie described on Friday was a little too grotesque to be reported widely, but it's worth revisiting today. Asked about the importance of Arjen Robben to the team, the Netherlands captain gushed that the Bayern Munich forward "can do most things in football" and that he was "unpredictable, but not for me." He had seen a photo montage in one of the papers, Van Persie continued. "One half was him, the other half me, and together this guy has scored six goals. Not bad," he said.
Not bad at all. In Monday's 2-0 win over Chile, Robben was by far the best player on the pitch; it felt as if he was the only player as far as the Dutch attack was concerned. Van Persie was suspended, Jeremain Lens was hounded off the ball constantly by the South Americans, Dirk Kuyt was the left wing-back but so deep that he played like a full-back in a five-man defence most of the time, and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, the most natural goal scorer in the squad, was left on the bench, probably feeling a little depressed about his lack of action.
The Netherlands topping their group -- the toughest in Brazil -- with three wins will focus the attention on Louis van Gaal's successful tactics. The national manager, 62, has modified his attacking instincts and come up with a pragmatic solution to a big problem.
This Oranje have two world-class forwards but almost nothing else. So that's exactly how Van Gaal set them up. At times against Chile, when the Netherlands retreated into a 5-3-2 formation with only Robben and Lens further up the pitch, it was reminiscent of the kind of unashamedly reactive, smash-and-grab tactic that you see from unfancied league teams when they play away to a title challenger. This is not a criticism.
Van Gaal has worked wonders with the players at his disposal, and the way he negated the attacking drive of Jorge Sampaoli's side by essentially conceding space and waiting for Chile to run into the orange wall 30 metres ahead of goal on Monday showed that he is a coach at the top of his game.
But 5-3-2 (or 3-5-2) is also an admission of sorts. It's eons removed from the old Dutch ideals of total football, where every defender can become an attacker and vice versa. This team has a strict division of labour, a rigid goal-production process. Eight men protect their goal, and two are tasked to put the ball in at the other end.
There was supposed to be a third man in all this, but he hasn't been able to get anywhere near the two strikers ahead of him, both in terms of influence and positioning. Wesley Sneijder played his third quiet, if not to say unconvincing, game of the tournament. He does a bit of defensive work, granted, but there's no impact, no real creative input and no goals. It's no wonder the "Golden Triangle" term that the Dutch press kept referring to has rapidly lost currency. When will the Galatasaray midfielder turn up?
This Netherlands have a strategy that works, one that has proved resilient and fairly adaptable too. That in itself can take a side a long way in a competition that is contested by teams that are all flawed to varying degrees.
But during the game in Sao Paulo, it was hard not to imagine what a picture of the Dutch players would look like minus the dynamic duo. It would show a team with four goals, two of them scored by Memphis Depay (one a long shot that Australian keeper Maty Ryan should have done better with, one a tap-in laid on a platter by Robben), the other two by headers from Stefan de Vrij (which should have been called back for a foul on Iker Casillas) and Leroy Fer. Not too bad, but a little worrying.
The Netherlands have won three games, they have scored 10 goals, and they have lit up the World Cup through van Persie and Robben. This Oranje, which came to Brazil low on expectation, are already one of the winners, and above all, they make you wonder. We know, 28 years on from Diego Maradona in Mexico, that tournaments can no longer be won by one man single-handedly. But can they be won by two?
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and a regular guest on ESPN FC TV. He also writes for the Guardian. Twitter: @honigstein.