After a weekend of falling asleep on trains (and repeating the trick on a night bus several hours later to show I had learned my lesson) and ending up two counties away, I decided that now is the time to focus on the important things in life – world cup wagering. There’s no use fighting the impulse, it’s going to be a long month and anyway, how else will you suffer through such dross as New Zealand v Slovakia, Nigeria v Greece and all the England games.
For me, the clear choice at current odds in the outright market has to be the Dutch. Many people seem to have forgotten that at the time of the quarter finals in the 2008 European Championships, it was the Dutch who had been the most impressive team (based largely on two thrashings of ageing French and Italian sides), and were the then tournament favourites. Of course, what happened next obliterated any hope of shedding their nearly men tag, but losing in extra time to an inspired Russia was no disgrace, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest there was hardly a team in the world who could have lived with the Russians in such scintillating form. So, what makes them a better proposition this time around?
Primarily, the Dutch have an attacking quartet of almost unrivalled quality, who all now fall into the 26-27 age bracket, whereas 2 years ago it could perhaps have been argued they were a shade too young and lacking maturity. That quartet comprises Robben on the right, Van der Vaart on the left, Sneijder playing as a deep-lying number 10, and the fit-again Robin Van Persie spearheading the attack. However, it is far from certain that all 4 will start, even if Robben makes a rapid recovery from his groin tear – Dirk Kuyt was extremely effective and important for Holland in the qualifiers, and whilst not even the most ardent Liverpool fan would argue that he is world class and is of a similar technical ability, he fulfills an important role and will do so in this tournament, be it from the bench or starting, probably in place of Van der Vaart. But, it is the aforementioned quartet who provide any backer of Holland with genuine belief that this can be their year.
Briefly examining the 4, Van der Vaart has had an improved season at Madrid, despite the influx of Galacticos; Robben has been outstanding for Bayern, is a leading contender for the Ballon d’Or and has a canny knack of producing at critical moments in the biggest games; Sneijder has undoubtedly enjoyed his finest season to date, winning the treble at Inter and becoming, for perhaps the first time, a true number 10, insofar as being the player who takes responsibility for setting and dictating tempo and rhythm; and Van Persie, prodigously talented but until the last 12 months, not as effective as he should have been for a player of his natural ability. Van Persie’s transformation can be largely credited to Arsene Wenger, who switched Van Persie to the focal point of the attack, believing his strength, close control and explosiveness would be seen in a much better light closer to goal, as opposed to in a withdrawn role or on the right of a three-ponged attack.
Of course there are other teams with excellent attacking potential in terms of the quality of the individual players they possess – Argentina and Spain spring to mind as perhaps the two most obvious examples, but I would go as far as to suggest neither possess the cohesivenss of the Dutch. For example, would you argue Torres is as effective with Spain as he has been at club level?
Holland’s attack is supported ably by 2 holding midfielders in de Jong and Van Bommel, with the latter always a goal threat from distance. The defence is potentially their weak point – yes, they possess no ‘big name’ players, but seem to function very well as a unit, and conceded only twice in a blemish-free qualifying campaign. Added to this are clean sheets against other top nations in recent friendlies, which rather suggests that the perceived weakness may be no such thing, especially when you consider they will be afforded a reasonable amount of protection from both de Jong and Van Bommel. If there is a player to emerge as an exceptional individual from their defence, it may well be Gregory van der Wiel, Ajax’s young and exciting right back, who has courted the attention of leading European clubs in recent months.
The other perennial worry with the Dutch is the infighting and divisiveness, for which they are infamous. As things stand, this seems unlikely to be an issue this time around, with Van Marwijk offering a calm but firm presence, knowingly inviting the influence of senior players whilst remaining clearly in control. Further detailed analysis of the Netherlands formation can be seen at the excellent Zonal Marking, whilst an interesting article on the subtlety of Van Marwijk’s managerial style can be read in L’equipe.
My preference for the Netherlands lies in the fact I believe that despite recent support, they are still slightly overpriced. It is difficult to comprehend their price (11/1) compared with Argentina (13/2; managed by a lunatic), England (8/1; lacking in key areas such as goalkeeper, right back, left midfield, second striker and little rhythm throughout their team) and Brazil (5/1; solid and effective, but lacking the world class stars of recent times, with their principle offensive threat Kaka liable to be lacking sharpness after an injury-ravaged first season at Madrid, and the inability to get more than 3 of their best 4 players on the pitch at the same time, as both Maicon and Dani Alves play in the same position). Of course, Spain present a near-insurmountable obstacle at their formidable best, and are likely to go very close, but it bears mentioning that 3 of their best players in Austria and Switzerand 2 years ago (Torres, Fabregas and Iniesta) are all returning from injury. In addition to that, Spain are on the opposite side of the draw to the Dutch, so there is no need to worry about them at this point in time. On the contrary, the current 22/1 on the final being a Spain-Holland affair must also be backed, what with Spain being on the slightly favourable side of the draw containing Argentina, Italy and Germany, for all that I fancy the Germans to do better than their current odds suggest.
5 points Netherlands to win the World Cup 11/1
1 point Netherlands-Spain final 22/1