Dutch aristocrats are totally happy to win ugly
Two games, two wins and two clean sheets, but still the feeling persists that Holland have not yet revealed their true identity in this World Cup following yesterday's 1-0 victory over Japan.
An immaculate start, yes, but the slick and penetrative football for which the Dutch are renowned has been conspicuously lacking, and they were indebted here to the kind of goalkeeping mistake that has become the recurring theme of the tournament. The guilty man was Eiji Kawashima, a goalkeeper who plays his club football for Kawasaki Frontale and who could be seen burying his face into the turf at Moses Mabhida Stadium with a combination of disbelief and blushing embarrassment after being deceived by the flight of Wesley Sneijder's 53rd-minute shot.
Sneijder had struck the ball with power, 25 yards from goal, but Kawashima got both hands to it, and his only possible excuse was that the ball had moved deceptively into the air. Blaming the Jabulani is beginning to feel like a cop-out and a more probable explanation was that Kawashima was simply culpable of poor goalkeeping.
He did redeem himself to some extent in the final exchanges, coming off his line quickly to deny the Dutch substitute Ibrahim Afellay on two separate occasions, and the Japanese coach, Takeshi Okada, was generous enough to absolve him of the blame, saying Sneijder should receive the credit for the power he applied to his shot. But Sneijder's was a more accurate appraisal: "We played the ball around without really taking any risks but we didn't create many opportunities. What we needed was that bit of luck."
Holland's football was typically neat and accurate, but it was also slow, methodical and, in the worst moments, full of prosaic, sideways and backward passing, with everything going through their two defensive midfielders, Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel, often playing 20 yards inside their own half.
It was strange to see a Dutch side play with so little flair and adventure and their coach, Bert van Marwijk, had a prickly exchange with some Dutch journalists after the match when it was put to him the first-half display has been "dreadful" and that the reaction in Holland was largely of dismay. One reporter told him he had received text messages describing it as the worst Dutch performance for years.
"We came here to win, and if we can win with beautiful football then fine, but I said when I took this job that we would also have to learn how to win ugly games and that if we could do that we would have progressed as a team," Van Marwijk responded.
"I'd love to win playing beautiful football. I would love you to get text messages from people in Holland saying they are happy. We didn't play an attractive match but it's not easy to win matches here, you know."
The statistics showed that Holland had almost two-thirds of possession and, even though it was generally not in areas where they could hurt their opponents, there were only sporadic moments when they were vulnerable themselves, most notably in the final minute of normal time when Japanese sub Shinji Okazaki found space in the box only to shoot over.
For long spells Holland had otherwise made this feel like a game of keep-ball. As was pointed out to Van Marwijk, it felt a long way from Total Football, but they will enjoy the view from the top of Group E.