With less than a week until the kick-off of the next major international tournament, it is time to consider some tactical issues going into Euro 2012. And 11tegen11 is not the only one to do so. During the build-up to next week’s kick-off, for the Dutch on Saturday against Denmark, tactical issues are being discussed all around.
It is safe to say that around these major tournaments no Dutchman seems short of a powerfully formulated opinion on how the national team should play and it is striking to note how many of those take a different view compared to what the manager prefers. Thereby taking the easiest spot.
Should Holland not be crowned Champions of Europe in a few weeks time, things will be considered to have gone wrong. Fans having taken that easy spot of disagreeing with the manager will console themselves with their moral victory of having had a different view on how the team should have played and do seldomly concern themselves with the fact that the performance under their tactical preferences might have been the same, or even worse. Fitting with this excellent depiction by @Zone_14 on the Beyond the Pitch website, summarizing the Dutch football fans’ mentality as having a massive inferiority complex, wrapped in an ever great superiority complex.
That being said, this preview will now focus on the two most debated topics regarding the Dutch national team: which version of the 4-2-3-1 formation to play and which striker to use. Minor issues by now are the left wing area, where Ibrahim Afellay earned his starting spot over Dirk Kuyt, who played more matches than any other player under Van Marwijk, with a series of bright and energetic performances, showing that the Barcelona winger has returned to fitness in time, after injuring his cruciate ligaments early this season. Furthermore, the only position that has not been clearly settled yet is at left-back, where both Stijn Schaars and Jetro Willems compete for the starting spot. Young Willems barely has 1500 minutes of Eredivisie experience for PSV under his belt, but offers offensive qualities that seem more limited with Schaars playing. The Sporting Portugal player, however, offers more experience and this may give him the edge here.
Obviously, Holland will operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They’ve done so for all of the past years and to no shortage of success. As has been extensively described earlier, Van Marwijk generally uses two different variants of that formation. The first one, used against comparable or superior level opposition, fields two genuine holding midfielders and will accordingly be termed The ‘ Double Pivot’ version. This was also the preferred version throughout the nearly successful 2010 World Cup campaign.
The second variant field one holding midfield and pairs him with a deep-lying playmaker, as Van Marwijk has preferred against defensive sides of inferior quality. This version will be termed the ‘ Deep-Lying Playmaker’ version and was used for most of the Euro 2012 qualifying matches.
It is safe to say that Holland will use the Double Pivot formation during Euro 2012. However, this still remains an area where the majority of the fans disagree with Van Marwijk. There is a loud voice demanding the creativity of Van der Vaart to be installed, rather than the defensive solidity of Nigel de Jong. A frequently heard phrase which is used here is that this “ brings more football to the team”, as if defending is not part of playing football…
Comparing the Double Pivot and the Deep-Lying Playmaker
When we arbitrarily consider all matches that Holland has played since the start of the 2010 World Cup, we find 29 matches, of which two can be excluded from further analysis. Against Ukraine they fielded a B-side in what most resembled a 4-3-3 formation, against Bayern Munich they did not play another country. Of the World Cup final we will consider the result after 90 minutes.
The Double Pivot was used in 20 matches and produced 2.39 points per game, while the Deep-Lying Playmaker was used in the remaining 7 matches to produce a magnificent 2.71 points per game.
However, this analysis would not be complete without considering the fact that the DP was used against significantly higher rated opponents compared to the DLP. The average FIFA ranking of the DP opponents is around the level of the Czech Republic, while the average DLP opponents ranked around the level of Hungary.
This is another example of the manager’s favorite versus the fans’ favorite. With the top scorers of both the English Premier League and the Bundesliga to choose from, some have termed this a luxury problem. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has won over lots of support among the fans with his magnificent goal scoring record in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, while Robin van Persie’s goal draught at the World Cup helped Huntelaar’s case further.
Before we’ll go into the numbers here, consider the following. Would you prefer Holland to win the tournament, or the striker to score goals? Right, and that is exactly what is wrong with looking at the outcome side of things (goals, assists) on an individual basis in a team sport. There seems to be growing trend among comparable sports, like basketball and ice hockey, to look at team outcomes with particular individual players playing. For a number of reason, however, this methodology is difficult to translate directly to football.
The same set of matches that we used above shows us that KJH scored 14 goals in the 13 matches that he started as a striker, while RVP scored only 5 in 14 games starting as a striker. Ironically, RVP also scored five goals playing as a left winger while KJH started up top. Again, KJH played inferior opposition with the average FIFA ranking corresponding with Macedonia, while RVP’s opponents averaged the strength of Switzerland or Ireland.
Things are more relevant at team level, however, and with 2.57 points per game with RVP starting as a striker he certainly has the edge over KJH’s 2.15 points per game.
Which striker to play?
Combining the DP-DLP and KJH-RVP choices brings about the most interesting oberservations. It turns out that Holland has a record of 9-2-0 using the Double Pivot with Robin van Persie up top. Compare this with 5-1-3 with the DP and KJH up top…
In the end
It seems the Double Pivot with RVP up top brings the best results against teams of comparable or superior quality, and that’s exactly the type of teams Holland will meet in Poland and Ukraine over the coming weeks.
And it makes sense too. Installing a second defensive midfielder, in casu Nigel de Jong, rather than a more creative deep-lying playmaker, in casu Van der Vaart, provides more cover for the defense, by all means the weakest link in the chain that is the Dutch team. De Jong may be most known for his physical presence and tackling, but his pass completion percentage over the past season, in much the same role as he’ll play in Euro 2012, was a staggering 94%. In other words, he’ll give away less than one in 16 balls. An important part of diminishing the pressure on the defense behind him…
An important difference between RVP and KJH is the striker mobility. In his role at the national team, RVP tends to drift from the striker area, thereby opening up space for the wingers and offensive midfielder to take advantage of. Huntelaar may be the better finisher, but it’s the overall team performance that counts in the end.