A worldwide legion of Dutch fans have started to rejoice in this year’s World Cup success, their win over Brazil on Friday giving them license to feel the first twinges of accomplishment. Those feelings have allowed a paradox to be temporarily set-aside. The reason so many across the world fell in love with Dutch soccer - their free-flowing, idealistic approach to the game - is gone. Holland has reached the semifinals - their first appearance at this depth since 1978 - by eschewing idealism for practicality.
Bert van Marwijk is playing two defensive midfielders, being relatively conservative with his wing backs, and is employing a worker bee (Dirk Kuyt) in one of his attacking roles. This leaves the Dutch attack reliant on three players: right wing Arjen Robben, attacking midfielder Wesley Sneijder, and forward Robin van Persie. Fortunately for the Dutch, those players are amongst the best in the world at their positions.
Arjen Robben is the first option. As he’s shown for club and country over the last eight months, his left foot can win matches by itself. His goal against Slovakia provided justification to every conservative step van Marwijk has taken, because at any point the Dutch can just throw a long ball up the right flank and have reason to think Robben can get a goal without build-up or support. The counterpoint to that, however, is what Brazil did - play exclusively on Robben’s left foot, even if you leave large areas to his right, and force him to come up with another plan, which he failed to do.
This is where van Persie and Sneijder have to step-up. When teams over-play Robben, van Persie needs to move along the line, into that space to the right of goal - the place where van Persie has scored his only goal of the tournament. That time, he was set-up by Rafeal van der Vaart. Today, it will have to be Sneijder, who will have to find a passing touch that he's throughout this tournament. Sneijder needs to overcome speculation that personal issues are inhibiting his chemistry with van Persie and find a way to get his strike opportunities.
For a Dutch team that has been unimpressive in attack in South Africa, their three stars, two plans represents a relative paucity of options. A lot of that is Uruguay's conservative approach, but some of it is the bargain van Marwijk has made. Because of that bargain, today's battle may need to be attritional - continued pressure, constant questions - enabled by the large possession advantage the Dutch are likely to have.
If they are patient and wait for a Robben rocket or a Sneijder-van Persie connection, they can win this game in the same controlled way they’ve navigated the tournament. It may not be very Dutch, but as has been shown through five matches in South Africa, it may be more effective.