Friendly international matches are usually good for two things: testing out different tactics and/or assessing the usefulness of alternative players. In that regard, Van Marwijk must have had a useful experience to see his side play to a disappointing draw against Switzerland, who came out with a cunning strategy that proved very successful in negating the Dutch offensive strengths, while highlighting the lack of offensive alternatives.
Van Marwijk’s line-ups have always looked the same and this match was no exception to that. Generally, he has created two distinct variations of the 4-2-3-1 to choose from, based on the quality of the opposition Holland faces. Against equal or superior opposition he tends to opt for the double pivot of two genuine holding midfielders to protect the back four, like for example the most recent friendlies against Brazil and Uruguay, with Strootman and Nigel de Jong. And to break down inferior sides, he tends to introduce a second, deep-lying playmaker to break down the opposition, generally with Van der Vaart playing beside a holding midfielder. Against Switzerland it was the deep-lying playmaker variant of the two, which, by the way, did not contain any Eredivisie players in the starting line-up for the first time since Euro 2000.
In personal terms, Van Marwijk had to do without both of his first choice full-backs, as Van der Wiel and Pieters were both out with injuries. Further absentees are the long-term injured wingers Afellay and Robben and striker Huntelaar, while captain Van Bommel and midfielder Strootman will be rested. Holland fielded an all-Hoffenheim left wing, with Edson Braafheid and Ryan Babel, while Nigel de Jong partnered Van der Vaart in defensive midfield, with Van Persie in the striker role.
Switzerland’s game plan
Defending against superior opposition can generally be done in one of two different styles. Either committing yourselves and limiting the amount of possession and attacks by pressing aggressively in a compact midfield style, generally combined with a high defensive line that aims for off-side, or sitting back deep and absorbing the pressure, while trying to limit the damage done. Two excellent demonstration of the fact that both variants can obtain success against a top side are Athletic Bilbao’s recent aggressive man-marking approach that held Barcelona at 2-2 earlier this week, and Hercules Alicante’s deep retreat that brought them a 0-2 win in Nou Camp’s first match of the past season.
Otmar Hitzfeld had his team press Holland very aggressively and compactly in a zonal marking system, aiming to reduce the amount of opposition possession, while creating some danger themselves from midfield turnovers. The formation of choice was quite similar to Holland’s, a 4-2-3-1, and a high defensive line ensured that the amount of space between the high pressing midfield and the defensive four stayed limited.
Right from the off, Holland had a tough time dealing with the compact pressure applied by the Swiss. Their two defensive midfielders that characterize the 4-2-3-1 formation limited the operating space for advanced playmaker Sneijder, while deep-lying playmaker Van der Vaart was harassed constantly by narrow Swiss wingers and a defensively active central trio of Inler, Shaqiri and Dzemajli.
The Swiss strategy to allow both Sneijder and Van der Vaart virtually no time on the ball worked very well. Not only did Holland fail to reach their usual home game possession rates over 60%, but the Swiss pressing won them some nice turnovers around the halfway line that led to some early goal scoring opportunities. On the other hand, on a few occasions they proved unable to provide enough pressing with some through-balls in behind the Swiss defensive line, most notably one for Ryan Babel, as a result.
With both central playmakers virtually eliminated by the narrow and aggressive Swiss pressing, Holland resorted to circulating balls to the flanks. But, be it coincidentally or not, this was the area where all four first choice players were unavailable. In the first half, full-backs Braafheid and Boulahrouz were provided a fair share of possession, but failed to turn that into well constructed offensive moves, while in the second half they took such optimistic advanced positions that even circulating the ball towards them became problematic.
Left winger Ryan Babel could be identified as the most active of Dutch players, being granted a starting place in ‘Oranje’ for the first time in three years, but he failed to convert the handful of chances he was provided with, or created himself with outside-in runs, characteristic of his inverse winger role.
The second half
Come the second half, with the even more advanced position of both full-backs, Holland resorted more and more to a direct style of play, somewhere reminiscent of the World Cup 2010 reactive style of play. For example Sneijder’s counter-attacking long ball into space where Van Persie’s shot went only just wide reminded of his pass that launched Robben for Holland’s opening goal against Slovakia in the WC 2010 first knock-out round.
Some hope on the Dutch bench may have been raised by speculating on the fact that Switzerland would not be able to maintain their intense level of pressure come the final stage of the match, but their endurance was excellent and they maintained their work rate to the end.
In the end
The Dutch fans provided loud whistles of displeasure at the end of the match to voice their discontent at their team’s goalless draw, and manager Van Marwijk will have some homework to do. His team did not work their way around the compact central pressure provided by Switzerland and a lack of efficiency of possession in wide areas is definitely something to work on, although this might also improve with the return of several first choice players.