Ugly football will be tolerated — perhaps not by everybody but at least by enough people — so long as it is winning football, but when there is ugliness without success there is nothing.
Even when Bert van Marwijk took his Dutch side to the final of the World Cup, there were gripes, those who felt his ‘broken team’ with its six defenders and three creators and Dirk Kuyt dashing about between them was a betrayal of the Dutch tradition.
The influential football magazine Hard Gras showed on the cover of its first edition after the World Cup an image of Nigel De Jong karate kicking Xabi Alonso in the chest in the final with the ironic caption, “The Dutch School”. The purists were appalled by how the Netherlands had played, by their functionalism, by their occasional brutality.
The likes of Guus Hiddink and Johan Cruyff queued up to attack the side and condemn their grim pragmatism. Much was made of the fact that, after the final, Nick Hornby had commented that for the first time he had watched a Dutch match wanting the Netherlands to lose.
But there were others, Arjen Robben among them, who seemed bewildered by the fuss. They dismissed those who spoke of the Total Footballing tradition as canal belt intellectuals, wedded to the ideals of a distant past. To them, abandoning 4-3-3 for a 4-2-3-1 with Mark van Bommel and De Jong at its heart was portrayed as being the only sensible way of playing in the modern age.
That argument could be sustained as long as the Netherlands were winning. Now they’re not. Perhaps, it’s now being said, the form of Wesley Sneijder covered over the weaknesses at the World Cup. Maybe the system was flawed from the off. What is certainly true is that this is one of the least cohesive Dutch sides in living memory; at times, as they thrashed about in the early parts of the second half against Germany, they looked like nothing so much as England on a bad day. Yet England, or at least the modern, Roy Hodgson England with its two banks of four, you suspect, have given up two such soft goals.
Brilliant though Mario Gomez’s finishes were, both stemmed from passes from Bastian Schweinsteiger that came from just the sort of position De Jong and van Bommel were supposed to be protecting. The former Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund coach Ottmar Hitzfeld terms it “the red zone” – that is, the central area 10-20 yards outside the 18-yard box; it is the space defences must protect above all else and yet Schweinsteiger merrily picnicked there in the first half, having time to measure his through-balls to Gomez.
What had gone wrong? There were those who blamed Van Bommel’s declining pace, and perhaps that was a contributory factor, but essentially, it stemmed from a lack of discipline. Mesut Ozil, who pulls a defence into areas into which it shouldn’t go like no other, drifted wide and as he did so, one or other or sometimes both, followed him. If Sami Khedira drifted forward as well, then the other made a move to follow him and, because Sneijder no longer bothers closing any one down, Schweinsteiger was left was space.
This was a basic structural flaw. The Dutch can blame the supposed thuggishness of De Jong and Van Bommel and wonder what might have happened had they, as they did in the final seven qualifiers, played one or other with either Kevin Strootman of Rafael van der Vaart, but just as big a problem, just as contributory factor to their brokenness, is the reluctance of the creative trident to track.
Sneijder was excellent in a creative sense against Denmark, and had a reasonable game against the Germans, but seems to have decided since the World up that he is an old-fashioned, dilettantish number 10. Robben has never chased back and as a result Philipp Lahm, his Bayern club-mate, was able to wander forward unopposed when he felt like it — which perhaps in this instance wasn’t as much as he could have done.
On the other flank Ibrahim Affelay is no Dirk Kuyt, not that Jerome Boateng showed much inclination to get forward.
That, as much as the lack of passing at the back of midfield, goes against total footballing principles, which dictate that not only can anybody attack, but also everybody must defend. Johan Neeskens would press so hard that, as the Ajax assistant manager Bobby Haarms commented, he was like “a kamikaze pilot”. Total Football was about work and effort and passing and coherence all over the pitch, about universality, not specialisation.
It wasn’t that the Netherlands and Ajax teams of the seventies lacked their hard men: Neeskens was tough as they come, Velibor Vasovic perhaps even meaner. But they were also players who could play, while the players who could create also did their defensive stint. The Netherlands have one chance of redemption: they must beat Portugal by two and hope Germany beat Denmark. That may happen, and either Van der Vaart or Strootman will probably start, but there are far bigger problems than the back of the midfield.