Marco van Basten and Rafael van der Vaart in the NOS studio during their analysis of the Orange-United States.Image NOS

    In the halftime of the football match between the Netherlands and the United States, the NOS will switch to the studio in Hilversum on Saturday afternoon. The Orange has just taken a 2-0 lead, but Marco van Basten and Rafael van der Vaart, both present to analyze the game of the Orange, are especially frustrated. “Two great attacks, but the rest was really to cry,” said Van Basten. Van der Vaart agrees: ‘We just stand there and wait.’ The audience dressed in orange laughs in amazement.

    At the same time, praise for the Dutch game is tumbling on British television. Orange plays the ball well, notices a BBC analyst on. ‘They check and then, all of a sudden, they change pace.’ “That’s what good teams do,” adds another analyst. “They know exactly when to accelerate.” According to the presenter, the first goal is an ‘example of total football’.

    The question of whether the game of Orange is attractive enough arises in the Netherlands every final tournament, says Pieter Zwart, one of the three editors-in-chief of Football International. He calls it ‘the legacy of 1974’, the year in which the Netherlands successfully combined good football (the ‘total football’) and results. Zwart: ‘It is a bar that is difficult to tap. Abroad they probably think less than we do: this is the Netherlands and the Netherlands must play attractively.’

    Football International bases his match analyzes largely on figures. What does attractive football look like in data?

    ‘What attractive football is is by definition subjective. But if you ask people in the Netherlands about it, they generally mean: putting pressure on the opponent in his own half, having a lot of possession and thus creating many opportunities and goals. If you wanted to make it measurable, that’s the direction in which you should think.’

    How does the Dutch national team perform in these areas?

    ‘In terms of putting pressure, the Dutch national team actually scores well. A statistic that is often used for this is the number of passes per defensive action: how many times does the opponent pass the ball around before the team tackles, recovers the ball or commits a foul? In the group stage of this World Cup, the Netherlands intervened the fastest of all teams. The image that the Netherlands only falls back and defends is therefore statistically incorrect.

    ‘To play attractive football you also need an opponent who makes that possible. The US used a different style of play than defensive Senegal, Ecuador or Qatar: the Americans also wanted to attack and put pressure on themselves. Then you get more space and ball changes. The average viewer experiences this as a more enjoyable match. The sentiment about the game of Orange was therefore immediately more positive.

    ‘Incidentally, many teams have trouble playing through a defensive block at the opponent this World Cup. Apart from Spain against Costa Rica (7-0), I have not seen a single match in which a team succeeded that easily. Apparently that’s less easy than people sometimes think from the outside.’

    Why were Van Basten and Van der Vaart so critical?

    ‘Football consists of attacking, defending and the two transition moments in between. On three of those four, the Dutch national team scored well against the US. Only attacking was bad. It was therefore also right that Van Basten and Van der Vaart mentioned this.

    ‘Perhaps they could also have mentioned what went well, but with the NOS the commercial breaks are so long that you only have a minute or two left for the analysis at halftime. If you then only discuss what went wrong, the whole analysis seems negative.’

    Pieter Zwart, one of the editors-in-chief of Voetbal International.  Picture VI

    Pieter Zwart, one of the editors-in-chief of Voetbal International.Picture VI

    Are these analysts reasoning too much from fixed football poetics, an image of how football ‘should be’?

    ‘Many ex-footballers who are now analysts speak on the basis of their own experience as a player or as a trainer. Van Gaal uses a different thinking pattern when analyzing opponents: he chooses the tactics with which he thinks he can win. For an analyst in the studio who has rarely seen the opponent before, it is difficult to understand why Van Gaal makes certain choices.

    ‘The NOS does not opt ​​for team-tactical analyzes of what happens on the field. I can totally understand that. Many people will be curious what the man who made the Netherlands European champion in 1988 thinks of this Dutch national team.

    ‘If you appear on television, there will be criticism anyway. If Van Basten had been positive, there would have been people who would have been annoyed by that. You never do it right for everyone. That also applies to the national coach: if he had lined up offensive players against the US and the Netherlands had been countered, everyone would have said it was naive. That’s what makes football such a fun game. You always have discussions and different points of view.’

    Do you expect the Netherlands-Argentina to be an attractive match?

    ‘No, it will be more of a closed, tactical game. But during the quarterfinals that is experienced in a different way. People do not expect the Netherlands to roll up Argentina for a while. A closed match is then more easily accepted.’

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