Holland 0 – 0 Switzerland: Clever Swiss game plan unsettles Dutch offense

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.


The starting line-ups. Note Switzerland's narrow midfield and their high defensive line to go with the advanced pressing midfield.

Holland’s 4-2-3-1

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.


Swiss pressure

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.


Dutch alternatives

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.

3 thoughts on “Holland 0 – 0 Switzerland: Clever Swiss game plan unsettles Dutch offense

  1. bart

    First let me say I didn’t see the game because don’t live in Holland and I don’t watch friendlies.
    I also posted on Zonal Marking’s analysis of the Bilbao-Barcelona game … the idea I put down there you could put down here too … basically it comes down to showing the deficiencies of a team who already thinks they’ve won the La Liga or in this case have a spot in the final of the EC.

    1. I don’t agree with your statement that friendlies are useful … nope … if you want to try out different players then why not try players that actually suit the system … the whole right side was a waste of time … so something that you knew wouldn’t work didn’t … I can go into a whole rant to explain exactly what went wrong but won’t here.

    2. This game’s problem is an exact paste copy of the one from the Spanish league, no right side to speak of and on the left I imagine that at times Braafheid was getting in Babel’s way. To help a player you sometimes need to create space for them and not to run to them, this is often the problem with full backs storming up the side lines, they remove space from the winger … the winger can do a 1-2 with the midfielder on their side (VdV should have been higher up the pitch) who then makes a run into the box … the full back can only really run by the winger and thus the winger has to cut in. This can work on occasion but out of the 5 runs 4 need to be along the outside. Coaches don’t know how to utilize wingers anymore … if as is the case here the top 4 wingers are missing (really who? Robben has been out for ages; was Elia called up? Boerrigter already set in stone? Afellay is a winger like Kuijt, ie. not one …)

    3. Why not get the kid from Juve in and play him with Babel on the two wings, who cares if Elia doesn’t have first team experience, this is only a friendly. In the highlights you only see Babel cutting in … sheesh … don’t see Kuijt sprinting to the corner after a pass to Sneider and then don’t see Babel picking up the ball that VPersie missed as it shoots to the left … these are basic mistakes.

    Anyway, I’m just ticked off that self proclaimed stars of the game can’t adjust their game style to beat a pretty pedestrian side … it would have been better to have a training camp with around 30 players that are all around the Dutch squad and have them practice passing and skills like that because even though a player is called up to the Dutch national team doesn’t mean they have the basic skill set down to play decent soccer. ie. take a corner properly (not about the heading but about the crossing the ball in aspect and who takes them when there is no Sneider?), play a pass in to a team mate properly, take decent free kicks etc. Skills that’ll get you by a defensive opponent.
    This is not only a problem of the Dutch national side … it’s emblematic of today’s soccer and the skills of today’s players …
    sorry about the rant,

  2. Julian

    I agree with your analysis. Van Marwijk should have experimented more. He said there were too many players missing and didn’t want to change the starting XI too much by adding more subs instead of regulars. It was a poor justification. The right flank of the squad was totally useless, with Kuijt who helps the team in terms of balance, but is less important when some attacking players are missing. Boula doesn’ deserve the call, Marcellis is better. He should have tried Roy Beerens in the second half.
    Anyway there’s a mistake in the Swiss line-up of the picture. Dzemaili played central midfielder next to Inler, while Shaqiri was wide on the right flank. Indeed Xhaka was the player in the hole.

  3. bart

    it is the basic philosophy … 1. have a system and find players that fit the system or 2. mold a system around the players you have …
    It doesn’t matter what I think goes, but basically the game against the Swiss was a mix of the two and that never works … I’m sure the game against the Germans will be the same … another high and hard pressing opponent though now with plenty of speed, creativity and skill.

    Also … it frustrates me to no end to see VdV set up in front of the defense … has no one learned anything from Ajax and the whole Theo Janssen thing? VdV should have been up next to Sneijder with VPersie forming a little triangle and the two wingers up higher than VPersie and with deJong slotting in in front of the central two defenders … this formation is way better against lesser opponents (ie. most of the teams Ajax and Holland play against) where there extra security at the back is not needed … if it is than you need to look at changing the defenders to ones who can actually mark and tackle a players. All this extra defensive midfield security in today’s game (in general) is because defenders don’t know how to defend.
    rant continued,


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