This is a fixture that has probably been a more pulsating clash than the World Cup final in each year it is contested: In ’98 it was Ronaldo’s day, in ’94 Branco spectacularly ended the Dutch dream, and in ’74 – the one most resonant for so many reasons – the white jerseys of Neeskens and Cruyff ended a hat trick of South American hopes in one World Cup (Uruguay, Argentina, and Brazil).
The ’74 Brazil team resorted to rugby tackles in an attempt to stop Cruyff but by the time the final whistle had blown there was no physical assault that could mask the ideological shift; Holland’s collective team ethic combined with outrageous individuals had usurped the South American playmakers. The repercussions of that Dutch victory are very evident today (just like, and for very different reasons, the Netherlands’ losses to Brazil in the two more recent clashes have affected them).
The Dutch were emblematic of two very distinct changes in the game; the first was athleticism and the second was the importance of the individual in relation to his teammates i.e. one cannot be identified in isolation because a single player’s worth is dependent on the position, strengths, weaknesses and general output of his peers. There is no better marker for this than Cruyff; even as a teenager at Ajax this skinny boy directed his older teammates where to run and when to move. The players listened because his talent was disarming. When we look at the ’74 semi final we can see the Dutch were at their lethal best in the moments where the system married with the individual (fast forward to the European Championship final and Van Basten’s wonder-volley, the same applies). The second goal against Brazil sees Krol, left back, overlapping at frightening pace to collect a through ball on the flank and deliver a precisely driven cross for Cruyff to volley in.
In many ways Brazil losing that fixture changed them too and the inability of Socrates and Zico in ’82 to re-establish the tenets of traditional Brazilian play has led to the evolution of their style into the dangerously functional team they have become today. Brazil have not been blistering but their experience, speed of play, resilience in defence and clinical finishing makes them the favourites in the upcoming clash (and for the whole tournament). I have commented previously that the tactical setup of Dunga’s Brazil poses questions for many European teams that are new. The position of Robinho high up on the left flank is where most teams will be undone. Looking at the Chile game we can see the choices a team face: Robinho was being marshalled by Jara on Chile’s right side. Chile’s high pressing meant that he wished to compliment the attack at most opportunities so he tested Robinho’s willingness to track back. The first time, Robinho followed him. The second time he did not and Chile had the numerical advantage on the right side. But the third time Jara left Robinho proved crucial as they lost possession, Fabiano knocked the ball to Robinho and a three vs. three materialised, and Brazil scored. Frightening in its efficiency.
The Brazilians’ lopsided diamond in midfield will also cause problems for Holland’s more straightforward 4-2-3-1. Van Bommel and De Jong will have a difficult task of picking up the free running Robinho and Kaka and if the double pivot fails then the Dutch will find themselves dangerously overexposed at the centre of defence. I think van der Wiel will be instructed to sit and focus on his defensive duty against Robinho instead of going forward and Kuyt will probably be utilised on Maicon’s wing to lessen the Inter Milan man’s forward inclinations. But Robben and Robinho certainly hold most of the keys in this encounter.
Though Brazil have essentially become less Brazilian after ’74 and definitely ’82 the difference in playmakers and each fulcrum of attack is striking: Sneijder represents the Dutch visionary, adept with both feet and precise with miraculous through balls (see Japan and Slovakia). Kaka embodies the athleticism of new Brazil but maintains the elegance of everything the country represents on a football pitch. Robben and Robinho, though both ‘runners’ execute their prerogatives in starkly contrasting ways. Overall, a fascinating prospect; my head tells me Brazil but my heart wants nothing more than a victory for the Dutch.
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