World Cup - International

Defending the Dutch

In the wake of the World Cup Final rightfully won by a terrific Spanish side, there has been much criticism of the physical nature of the match and the tactics of the Dutch side.  Clearly the intent of their defensive midfielders and center backs was to try to bully the smooth, quick attacks of the Spanish offense.  And they did it successfully for over 110 minutes.  But it was a strategy that proved costly when Johnny Heitenga was finally sent off late in the match, opening the door for Andres Iniesta’s winner.  You can (easily) argue that Nigel de Jong should have been sent off in the first half for his karate kick to the chest of Xabi Alonso.  And you could (easily) argue that Mark van Bommel could have been off in the first half as well because of his persistent fouling.  But my question is, what other way was there for them to play that game?

The Spanish are the best team in the world.  They are European Champions and World Cup Champions.  They play beautiful, free flowing football.  They have the best midfielders in the world.  There is not a team in the world that can compete with them when they are on their game.  So the Dutch went with the strategy that they thought would win them the game, beating the crap out of the Spanish side.  Was it pretty?  No.  Was it dirty?  It’s arguable.  But it was effective.  And it should have won them the game.  Sit in.  Defend stoutly.  Foul if you have to.  Counter attack when it’s on.  It worked for over 110 minutes and really, Arjen Robben should have scored in regular time to win them the game.  As far as I can tell, the goal of the tournament is to win. And I’d imagine the Dutch would have liked to win pretty, but sometimes it’s not possible.  And when that’s not possible, you have to do it what it takes.  I would use this same argument to defend Luis Suarez’s handball.  The World Cup only comes every four years, and only once in a career for some footballers.  You have to do what you can to win while you are there.

My preference is for entertaining, free-flowing football.  Barcelona, Arsenal, Spain (or is that the same as Barcelona) are all amazing to watch when they have their game going.  But playing quick, one-touch passes, requires skilled players willing to work to maintain that style for 90 minutes.  And most countries and clubs don’t have these players.  For every Arsenal there is a Stoke City or Bolton Wanderers, just waiting to punish you for wanting to impose that flowing style.  Is it their preference to play that way?  Maybe, but I assume it’s not.  But you have to work with what you have.  Stoke is never going to be able to bring in the talent that Arsenal or Barcelona can.  So they have to do what they can to win games and stay in the Premier League.  And what they can do is make themselves difficult to break down.  To make themselves physically imposing and just no fun to play against.

I am glad the Union has put a team together to play positive soccer.  I was afraid we were going to become the Stoke City of MLS, because, hey, this is Philadelphia.  And I was willing to let it go, because with a young expansion team, it might have been the only road to getting points.  But we’ve been able to enjoy some solid possession soccer from our hometown boys.  But if it comes down to winning the game, or when it comes down to getting points, you have to do it the way that you can and not the way that you want to sometimes.


  1. Mike, I totally agree, and while I had other complaints about the Spanish (the incessant diving or exaggerating of fouls–Robben’s a master of this, too–as well as the imaginary card-waving), I find the criticism of the Dutch misplaced. De Jong, yes, should have been gone. Van Bommel, too, probably. But that’s not a Dutch problem, that’s a Howard Webb problem. What drives me bonkers as an Arsenal fan isn’t that teams pack the midfield, getting 11 behind the ball, and try and break up the team’s good play, it’s that when they cross the line and foul them illegally (three Arsenal players have now had their legs broken by tackles in the last five years), the referees do not do enough to deal with it, and commentators say things like, “Arsenal don’t like it up ’em.” At least during the WC final, all the commentators rightly condemned the more violent play of the Dutch and lauded the Spaniards’ ability on the ball. I, like you, am in favor of soccer as the beautiful game, but understand that it takes extraordinary players to make it work well, and that not all teams have those players. I don’t fault those players for playing too rough–you do what you have to do to compete (same with Suarez’s, Fabiano’s, and Henry’s handballs)–it’s the job of the ref to rein it in.

  2. i’m with you on the reasons for playing a harsh game but i can’t help but think(of course easy in hindsight) that the dutch would have been better off playing defensively and springing on the counter. the spanish team didn’t score a load of goals on anyone and some of the better defenses(swiss, paraguay) they played really gave them a run. the dutch were one of the few teams i thought that were good enough on the ball to give them trouble when springing on the break.
    also, the fouling seemed to take them off their own game. they got at least 4 cards for dissent and robben in the least spent a few minutes he could have been playing/trying to score in arguing with the ref after the ref had(rightly or wrongly) written the dutch off and risked getting sent off himself.
    as for tactics, since the idea is to win whatever gets you that win is the right tactic. the dutch came close but i feel like it was exactly the tactics that let them down. just about everyone on the teams(rightly) had been carded. they all needed to worry about tackling while playing a team that’s hands down the best on the ball. they couldn’t be hesitant and think about getting it off the feet of xavi or iniesta and yet there they were all sitting on a card and getting edgy every time something didn’t go there way.

  3. There is no question that Spain is the most talented team in the world. Until Kaka realizes that he can no longer run by people at will and learns to distribute Xavi-style (which he can do), Brazil won’t be the team they should be.

    Is there any merit to trying to take it to Spain? They have a very rough back line and playing possession soccer against them, trying to get the ball into the box could ask big questions of their center backs and pin Ramos back. Only Switzerland has been able to pull a win from this defensive strategy.

    Do the Union have the team to play down and dirty? Does Stahl deserve another shot in the middle of the D? His size and strength would certainly help if we want the opposing forwards to end up with bruises from anyone but Califf.

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