World Cup runners up Holland didn’t play the most convincing of games, but still succeeded in maintaining their impressive recent run of results. A fluid first half performance, characterized by lots of positional interaction among all forward and midfield players, ensured the victory, but the second half fade left an aftertaste of slight disappointment.
Holland’s run in numbers
Current national team manager Bert van Marwijk took charge 2008, and his first job was to lead Holland through the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. Eight wins in eight matches followed. In this period, Holland also played 13 friendly matches, including the preparation campaign for the 2010 World Cup main tournament, winning 6, drawing 6 and losing only one match, Van Marwijk’s second match in charge, where Holland gave away a 1-0 lead to end up losing 1-2 at home against Australia.
The impressive run of six World Cup 2010 games won and a final drawn over 90 minutes (and subsequently lost after extra time) was followed by the present Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, where all nine matches were won. In between, four friendlies were played, with wins against Austria and Turkey and draws away at Uruguay and Brazil.
Compiling all that together, Van Marwijk currently holds a 31-10-1 record, going 40 matches unbeaten, whereby the World Cup final is counted as the draw that it was after 90 minutes. The last time the Dutch national team lost a competitive game over 90 minutes does not go back to the Euro 2008 quarter final, as a Van Basten led side lost 1-3 to an Andrey Arshavin inspired Russian team in extra time there (thanks for pointing this out in the comments section. The 2007 defeat against Belarus was the last Dutch defeat in 90 minutes of playing time.
The 4-2-3-1 in names and execution
Van Marwijk consequently sticks to his 4-2-3-1, and given the above mentioned run, has every reason to do so. Against Moldova, Holland had to do without the injured Robben, Sneijder, Heitinga and Stekelenburg, which made for interesting choices.
Up front Van Marwijk made the same choice as he did in the matches against Finland and San Marino, playing Robin van Persie from the right wing in an inside forward playmaking role with loads of positional freedom. One thing was different in this right wing area though, the vacancy created by Van Persie’s free role was alternatingly filled by Huntelaar, Van Bommel and Van der Wiel, rather than the more predictable marauding runs of the right full back that we used to see before.
Behind striker Huntelaar, Rafael van der Vaart was provided the opportunity to start in his preferred advanced central midfield position. Not an easy task beforehand, given that he had to fill the boots of Sneijder, who regularly displays both his elite long range passing skills and his long range goal scoring threat in that area. Not surprisingly, Van der Vaart didn’t convince in a crowded central midfield area, mostly because his team mates had trouble finding him at feet.
Finally, young HSV defender Jeffrey Bruma and in-form Swansea goal keeper Michel Vorm replaced Heitinga and Stekelenburg.
Moldova’s game plan
National manager Balint summed up his feelings quite well after the game, when stating his happiness with the limited defeat, stressing the four and five goals Holland scored against Sweden and Hungary respectively.
And to be fair, Moldova succeeded quite well in limiting damage with their ambitionless 4-5-1 line-up. The aimed to keep things compact by taking a deep stance and in fact considering their five man midfield and extended defensive line, rather than displaying any offensive intentions themselves.
There was a huge contract in the match between the first and the second half. In the first half, Holland kept a high pace, thanks to their quick passing, which seldom saw players taking more than three touches before passing the ball on. On top of that, nearly all free kicks were taken immediately, and most important of all, the opposing players were pressed very early on. This resulted in Moldova’s possessions lasting under ten seconds in the far majority of times, contribution to the high pace of the game, which benefited the Dutch team.
A further part of the high pace that was crucial to the success of the first half was the limited amount of fouls by both sides. The first half saw only five fouls by both teams, while in the second half the Dutch team ‘overfouled’ their opponents, making no less than nine fouls, compared to only two for Moldova.
Although the final 1-0 score line suggested a close game, the balance in terms of goal scoring chances told a different story. Holland created 24 chances, 12 in each half, against two by Moldova, both in the second half. A vintage display by Moldova goal keeper Namasco could be held responsible for the limiting the Dutch squad in expressing their dominance in the score line.
In previous tactical reviews of the Dutch national team, the two different versions of the 4-2-3-1 system have been explained. Against superior opposition Van Marwijk prefers a genuine double holding midfielder system, like he used in the World Cup with Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, while in order to break down inferior opposition, he prefers a deep-lying playmaker beside captain Van Bommel.
Before the appearance of Strootman as a first team regular for the Dutch national squad, things were quite clear in that regard. Playing either De Jong or Van der Vaart in that second defensive midfield spot forced Van Marwijk to show his cards. But with the introduction of Strootman things are a bit more complex. In fact he offers a hybrid between both the defensive and the more offensive variants of the system.
Strootman is very well capable of providing the physical presence the assist in the defensive part of the midfielder job, though it remains difficult to reach De Jong’s level of tackling. And on the offensive side, Strootman’s passing is up there with the best, as his 135 passes for a 93% completion rate of the Moldova match illustrated. While he may not offer the creativity and flair of Van der Vaart, he’s perfectly comfortable distributing the ball around at high pace.
So he offers a combination of the defensive and offensive variants already provided by Nigel de Jong and Rafael van der Vaart in that area. It’ll be very interesting to see Van Marwijk’s preferences once the four of De Jong, Strootman, Van der Vaart and Sneijder are all available for selection.
In the end
Given the dense calendar of modern professional footballers, the current system of qualification for major tournaments has come in for quite some stick. The 100% record Holland holds in the past World Cup and Euro 2012 qualifying campaigns supports the fact that selecting the best teams is hardly an argument to make in favor of the present system.
What it does offer, though, is a series of semi-competitive matches that allows the managers, players and not least the fans to get acquainted with their team and the qualities in-depth at their disposal. In that regard, the Moldova match contained some interesting points. Fluidity up front, with several different players taking turns on the wide positions, rather than predictable full-back overlapping runs and the concept of Strootman combining aspects of De Jong’s and Van der Vaart’s game in midfield.
Match data provided by Infostrada Sports