Tactical considerations for the upcoming ‘Oranje’ matches

Going into the upcoming two Euro 2012 matches, Friday at home to minnows San Marino and Tuesday away to Finland, Bert van Marwijk’s ‘Oranje’ defend their perfect record of six straight Euro 2012 qualifying wins. However, any slip up in the upcoming two matches would provide second placed Sweden, who are only three points behind, with a perfect opportunity to raise the pressure in group E.

With several players out through injuries, Van Marwijk faces some interesting choices in terms of selecting a first eleven, and subsequently the tactical implications to go with these decisions are worth looking at. On a broader scheme of tactical plans, Van Marwijk consequently sticks with the 4-2-3-1 lay-out that has served him so well since his debut back in 2008. In fact, his record of 19 wins and one, World Cup final overtime, loss in competitive matches is highly impressive to say the least.


Two tactical variants

Broadly speaking, his 4-2-3-1 approach can be divided into a more conservative variant, used against stronger opposition and successful in terms of results during the past World Cup, and a slightly more offensive variant, deploying a deep-lying playmaker alongside a genuine holding midfielder, as used against inferior and defensively organized opposition.

The latter tactic has served Holland well during the Euro 2012 qualifying matches against Moldova, Sweden, and Hungary. However, and this may sound too stupid to say out loud, in order to base your system around a deep-lying playmaker you’ve got to have a fitting player for this key role. With Rafael van der Vaart Van Marwijk normally does, but Van der Vaart’s hamstring injury is one of the reasons the Dutch manager has to make interesting choices. Besides this central midfield area, it’s also interesting to take a look at the (un)available wide players and their relevance to the team’s overall tactical set-up.

Holland's most likely starting eleven for the San Marino and Finland matches


Central midfield

With first choice holding midfielder Nigel de Jong out, it seems most likely that Van Marwijk’s son-in-law Mark van Bommel will play the holding midfield role. And most likely to partner him is upcoming midfield man Kevin Strootman, leaving space for two interesting remarks. First, obviously, Strootman is no Van der Vaart. He offers less creativity, but more of a straightforward passing midfield role is to be expected here. And secondly, Strootman has showed himself in PSV’s recent games to be very capable of carrying the holding department of a midfield three by himself. In fact, PSV’s midfield performance improved significantly when shifting from a double to a single holding midfielder.

The second remark is particularly interesting, as it makes for an interesting dilemma. We may very well see Holland starting out with a genuine double holding midfielder duo, with Van Bommel in a more conservative role and Strootman stringing most of the passes together, but should things not work out, a switch to a single holding midfielder system doesn’t seem far off. In that case, it should be interesting to see whether Van Marwijk will draw on the recent PSV partnership of Strootman and Wijnaldum, linking very well at team level recently.



The absence of Robben and Afellay poses interesting choices on the wings. As usual, one of either wings will be filled in by the star of work rate, Dirk Kuyt. A possible solution for the remaining wing is to start Van Persie from the left wing in an inside, wide second striker role, assuming that in-form Huntelaar starts in the striker position. An alternative would be to start new Juventus man Eljero Elia, who adds pace and trickery in a wide wing game. But given the expected defensive outline of both San Marino and Finland, which renders part of Elia’s game less effective, Van Persie looks the most likely candidate for the left wing role.

His inclusion, combined with a slightly more conservative central midfield, should have an implication on the role of full-backs Pieters and Van der Wiel. Particularly against defensive opponents it seems of utmost importance to stretch the game by keeping the wide positions posted. With Van Persie likely to play an inside winger role, and possibly linking up with striker Huntelaar, much of the left wing game should come from Erik Pieters, whose offensive qualities match these demand perfectly. As an illustration his passing chart from the recent PSV – Excelsior game is added to show the offensive nature of his full-back game in a match where he won seven of his eight challenges in the opponent’s half (data: InStat). Obviously, on the right full-back spot Gregory van der Wiel is particularly known for his offensive game too, proving an excellent wing cross assist for Ajax’ third goal against Vitesse just this weekend.

Erik Pieters' first half passing chart (PSV - Excelsior, data by InStat)


The concept of qualification tournaments of major international tournaments may not guarantee the most exciting of fixtures, or perhaps not even exciting matches to watch, but what it does do is enable us to familiarize ourselves with the ins and outs of different teams. The absence of several guaranteed starters makes it more insightful how a coaching staff deals with these kind of situations, thereby increasing the insight in the different options available within the team.

For the upcoming matches against San Marino and Finland it will be very interesting to see how the Van Bommel – Strootman partnership works out, what Van Marwijk will do in the event of difficulty breaking an ultra-defensive San Marino side down. Furthermore, the role of the full-backs will be worth watching, will they, as predicted, be the key ingredients in the Dutch wide game, or will their offensive intentions suffocate the space in an already crowded area.

8 thoughts on “Tactical considerations for the upcoming ‘Oranje’ matches

  1. Andy

    so no comment on the fact the theo janssen is out of the selection? A player who could easily play that deeplying playmaker role?

    1. 11tegen11 Post author

      It should perhaps have been mentioned that Janssen had to be omitted due to a slight knee injury. His presence would of course kept the possibility of playing a genuine deep-lying playmaker open.

  2. Jasper

    From what I’ve read I’ve gathered that Van Persie will play as a right wing and Kuijt on the left side, which makes sense to me, because Bertje always uses inverted wingers.
    Also, Van Persie will be playing more to the inside (indeed as a wide second striker role) than Kuijt will. This creates space on the right and benefits Van der Wiel, who’s a lot more offensive minded than Pieters.
    Thirdly, if I remember correctly, when Sneijder moves high up the pitch, he tends to do this mostly on the left side of the pitch. With Van Persie on the right, they won’t get in each others way.

    1. 11tegen11 Post author

      From what I can check on the excellent football-lineups.com website you’re correct indeed. Back in 2009 Van Persie did start a couple of games on the right wing with Robben starting on the left side and Kuyt playing the central striker role.
      Interesting to see whether the absence of Robben means that Kuyt shifts over to the right (like I mentioned) or stays on the left (like you did) to create an inverted winger set-up.
      To state that Van der Wiel is “a lot more offensive minded” than Pieters is not something I truly agree with. Van der Wiel’s offensive qualities are often more exposed due to the team he is playing in, but Pieters does pose quite an offensive threat too, based on recent performances against weaker opposition, as shown in the diagram. This may be an interesting topic to illustrate further in a seperate post though, now that detailed match data on both players becomes available.
      Thirdly, it is true that Sneijder prefers to drift to the left wing, but this did not put Van Marwijk off playing Afellay in the left wing role recently, where his close partnership with Sneijder thrived.

      Thanks for constructive comment!

      1. Jasper

        Off the top of my head and making a bit of a generalization, I think Van Marwijk started out using regular wingers, but after Robben _really_ started to thrive as a right winger at Bayern München, Bert eventually switched to inverted wingers and hasn’t looked back. But I’m wondering what he will do when Robben, Van Persie and Huntelaar are all fit and in great form. Once again, the circumstances have made the choice easier.

        With regard to Van der Wiel being more offensive than Pieters, I was talking about the Dutch squad only. There are several factors involved (like experience, wingers, …), but from a stats point of view, Pieters has given no assists in Oranje, while Van der Wiel has made several since the World Cup. Looking forward to the detailed match data.

        If you’re going to write a separate post about (these) full backs, could you please include Manolev? Van der Gijp has created an image of him being a monumental f#ck up and I’m curious how he performs based on objective data.

  3. Kevin Zatloukal (@kczat)

    I’m surprised to learn that van der Vaart has played that deep for the national team, given that he plays as a second striker for Tottenham.

    For what it’s worth, I would have thought Sneijder would do well playing deeper (with van der Vaart in the hole when fit). Sneijder’s ability to hit an inch-perfect 30 yard pass is pretty remarkable. Hence, I imagine he could fill the deep-lying playmaker role if necessary.

    1. 11tegen11 Post author

      I think we would all agree that Sneijder has the capacities to play such a deep-lying playmaker role, but removing his offensive passing threat from the from four would not benefit the team as a whole. You need players like Sneijder close to an opponent’s goal in order to break defensive sides down, and his qualities in that regard are harder to match than those required for the deeper lying passing role, where players like Theo Janssen and Ibrahim Afellay could also come in handy.


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