Never before will a friendly have been billed so highly in the Netherlands as the past ‘friendly’ confrontation with Germany. Not only are matches between these two teams generally loaded with tension, but to see two favorites for the Euro 2012 title meet in a friendly just half a year before the main tournament might serve as an advert for friendly international football matches. In the end Bert van Marwijk will have regretted this clash, though , as his side helped Holland slump to a marginal performance and a devastating 3-0 defeat to go with it.
Of the two 4-2-3-1 variants that Van Marwijk uses, the expected double holding midfielder variant came out against Germany. Ever since the World Cup, Holland tends to use that system against equal or superior sides, while against inferior estimated opposition the deep-lying playmaker variant has helped them install more creativity in the side.
Kevin Strootman partnered captain Mark van Bommel in defensive midfield to shield the defensive four, while the left flank experiment of the Switzerland match, with Hoffenheim’s Braafheid and Babel starting at left back and at the left wing, was given another chance. This meant that Dirk Kuyt made another start from the right wing, playing in a very narrow and confusing inside wing position. Up front, Huntelaar replaced Van Persie as Van Marwijk seemed to have agreed with Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger on a single friendly for Van Persie.
Against Ukraine Löw experimented with a three-at-the-back two striker formation, which ended up in a 1-3 score at half time with Germany pulling two back in the second half. In the match, Löw turned to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation that involves intelligent midfield movement of the three central midfielders and central role for striker Klose, both literally and figuratively speaking.
With Schweinsteiger and Lahm not playing, Joachim Löw featured young Toni Kroos in midfield beside Khedira. Löw played Jerome Boateng at right-back and Dennis Aogo at left-back. Holger Badstuber partnered Mertesacker at centre-back. Formation wise, Germany’s midfield three kept nicely tight, while Kroos and Khedira took turns going forward, using excellent decision making to join the offense when needed.
Dutch midfield problems
The fifteen minutes between the kick-off and Müller’s opening goal illustrated several tactical differences between the two sides, although they were playing essentially the same formation.
The first issue concerned the level of pressing. Germany looked rather happy to sit back and have Holland circulate the ball between the centre-backs and defensive midfield up until around the halfway line. Holland, on the other hand, somewhere felt the need to aggressively press Germany’s possession as far as the goal keeper. In order to achieve this pressing, Sneijder regularly advanced beside Huntelaar, thereby severely depleting the Dutch central midfield area. At times Germany were able to circulate the ball past or around this first level of pressure into midfield and this allowed them to exploit the 3v2 advantage in that department.
Out of possession, Holland partly solved the problem of being a man down in central midfield with Kuyt’s confusing narrow role, where he acted more as a fourth central midfielder than as right winger, the role he would have been expected to take. The problem with this inside narrow role arose on turnovers, with Holland suddenly playing a very narrow formation, having difficulty creating enough space for their ball circulation, with a lot of difficulty for Sneijder to express himself. On top of that, Kuyt may be admired for his work rate, adding balance to a creative offensive team, but his movement between the lines and short passing skills are not what brought him to the national team.
Another interesting observation concerns the Dutch strikers. The issue of whether to play Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (KHJ) or Robin van Persie (RVP) is a matter of continuous debate, even more so with KJH seemingly scoring freely for his country and RVP doing the same for his club. Both striker play an inherently different game, and Van Marwijk’s two different 4-2-3-1 variants may demand two different types of players up front.
The offensive variant with the deep-lying playmaker added besides a single holding midfielder, the variant that worked very well during the Euro 2012 qualifying matches, mostly played against inferior opposition, demands poacher-like qualities, offered by KJH. The striker, in this formation, is mainly there to provide the finishing to the creative moves started by the offensive midfielder and the deep-lying playmaker.
The more defensive variant, with a double pivot of two holding midfielders, the variant that worked very well in the World Cup 2010, as well as in friendlies against Uruguay and Brazil, demands more creativity up front, coming from a deep-lying striker role as offered by RVP. The striker, in this particular formation, is there to assist in the construction of attacks and the create space for others to take advantage of.
Against Germany, the poacher striker in the double holding midfielder formation did not work, while the same can be said for RVP in the deep-lying playmaker formation in the recent Switzerland match.
The German goals
Thomas Müller’s opening goal crowned his sublime instinctive near post run, which saw him reduce the man-marking applied by Mathijsen to a non-existent level. After that, the German lead exaggerated the midfield related pressure problems that were already apparent at 0-0, but increased as the Germans looked comfortable without the need to apply early pressure on their opponents. Even before thirty minutes were played, Miroslav Klose finished off the best German pass and move attack of the game. Starting off with a Manuel Neuer goal kick, eight ground passes allowed Klose a long range header that he executed skillfully to drive the ball past Stekelenburg.
The third goal rewarded Mesut Özil for his excellent movement between the lines, as he combined with Klose and Müller and ended up placing the ball into an empty net after a combination through the heart of the Dutch defense.
In the end
This friendly highlighted several tactical issues in Van Marwijk’s team. The combination of the defensive double pivot midfield variant of the 4-2-3-1 and Huntelaar’s poacher qualities did not work. O nthe other hand, Huntelaar’s recent goal scoring glut during the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign showed his qualities to match the more offensive deep-lying playmaker variant much better, off course, taking into account the bias of using that system preferentially against inferior opposition.
Furthermore, the over-optimistic pressure on a high quality opponent like Germany proved counterproductive. And finally, to no surprise, the role of inside winger does not suit Kuyt very well.