On a night were all the pre-match build-up was billing this encounter between two of football’s elite as an allegorical manifestation of the Second World War, it was a game that was decided with a midfield battle and some accurate shooting.
Lining up with similar variations on a 4-2-3-1 formation, it was the dynamism of the two central midfield players from Germany that characterised a dominant first half display from them and then allowed them to snuff out the potential for a Dutch comeback in its infancy. Schweinsteiger and Khedira showed a versatility both in possession of the ball and in winning it back that the combination of De Jong and van Bommel simply could not match.
Superior finishing from the opposition was once again the downfall of the Dutch as they were left to ruing missed chances against Germany. After a tepid start, with both sides probing each other, the first big opportunity fell to the Dutch. An angled clipped ball from deep by captain Mark van Bommel exposed the high line of the German defence to find Robin van Persie. The Arsenal man met the ball on the volley, but could only direct it towards Neuer, when he perhaps had the time to take a touch. The Dutch then had a series of corners without taking advantage of any of them and van Persie had another shot that he dragged wide, after Robben had drifted inside from the right flank. Barring this one foray into the central area, the flying Dutch winger had been kept quiet by the seemingly unflapple German skipper Lahm, who squared him up and closed him down time and again to quash the threat posed by his Bayern colleague.
In the mean time, the German side grew into the match, with Badstuber heading at Stekelenburg from point blank range from a freekick, whilst Ozil fired a warning shot against the post on the volley. The difference between the sides was the lethal finishing of Mario Gomez and the striker notched the opening goal of the game after 25 minutes. Both van Bommel and De Jong were sucked over to the right side of the pitch towards the ball, enabling Boateng to knock the ball in field to Schweinsteiger. He took one touch before sliding in a wonderfully weighted pass to Gomez, who graciously controlled, spun and dragged the ball onto his right foot in one movement, before slotting home past the goalkeeper.
Then began a torrid time for young fullback Jetro Willems. Caught out of position on a number of occasions by Muller, the youngster found himself all at sea for the rest of the half and the ruthless Germans capitalised on this for their second goal. A long punt downfield by Neuer found its way inside to Schweinsteiger once again in the inside right channel. He then took one touch before playing another slide rule pass to his Bayern teammate who finished expertly, tucking the ball just inside the post after striking across goal. The Dutch were deflated and run ragged, and this was reflected in the series of petulant freekicks given away in their own half through frustration as half time approached. With the final kick of the half, Schweinsteiger’s deflected freekick was tipped over the bar to prevent what surely would’ve been a killer blow.
After a pedestrian first half something had to change; van Bommel looked as though he was playing on borrowed time, Robben was ineffectual and van Persie looked bereft of confidence. Van Marwijk made the same changes he made against Denmark; van der Vaart for van Bommel, and Huntelaar on for Afellay. It enlivened his side against the Danes and it produced a similar effect in this game. By adding some mobility and creativity to his central midfield, the Dutch manager sacrificed some of the ability to win the ball back for a sense of urgency in possession. Although, the opening ten minutes of the second half suggested that there was more to come from Germany, with Hummels marauding forward from centre back producing an uncertain, then a smart save from Stekelenburg.
Just after the hour mark, Holland started to show some real signs of progress with both Sneijder and Robben both flashing chances just wide of the upright after good individual build-up play. Gomez then had a difficult opportunity on the break for his hattrick but failed to take it, before Boateng was forced into a brave block from a fierce Sneijder effort following a mazy run from Robben. The breakthrough finally came just after the 70-minute mark, and it was that man, van Persie. Heavily criticised for his performance against Denmark, and drawing the scrutiny of the commentary team throughout this game, the Arsenal forward continued to make himself available and did not shirk responsibility. This time he rolled his marker by opening his body up and unleashed a shot from 20 yards with his right foot that nestled into the bottom corner. This should have been the start of the Dutch revival effort, but barring a further opportunity for van Persie moments after scoring his goal, a half-hearted penalty appeal and a pot shot from van der Vaart, the comeback never materialised in full.
Instead, the Germans showed an organisation and maturity than belied the relative inexperience of the side assembled by Joachim Low as they shut out the game. Clever possession in the right areas of the pitch from the likes of Ozil, Schweinsteiger and Khedira allowed the Germans to slow the tempo of the game to a snail’s pace and to slowly wind down the clock. As the final whistle blew on this huge game, the Germans celebrated, leaving the Dutch with a hatful of missed chances to rue and a massive mountain to climb in terms of getting out of the group stage.
It has been a trademark of the Dutch sides that have gone to tournaments over the last 10-15 years to be a talented set of individuals that can never quite gel, and sadly, it looks like this side will be consigned to that fate. A lack of urgency and dynamism, especially in their central midfield from the start made it very difficult for them to combat the assured ball retention that characterised the German outfit. On another day, van Persie could’ve walked away with a number of goals, but this time it was Gomez who took his chances and put his German side in prime position in Group B, requiring just a point from their final game with Denmark to qualify. The Germans look like a force to be reckoned with; the Dutch a force spent.