Holland dominated the game 4 to 1 in terms of chances created, but failed to convert any of them, while Denmark smartly worked their left side of the pitch to score the only goal of the game. Simon Poulsen kept overlapping on Holland’s right side and one of his runs contributed to the only goal of the game. Holland’s offense looked on song in terms of creating, but lacked in finishing.
Holland lined up in the expected double pivot variant of their well-known 4-2-3-1 formation. Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel formed the pair of holding midfielders to protect the back four, where Ron Vlaar filled in for the injured Joris Mathijsen. Up front, Robin van Persie had a week earlier already been announced as the starting striker and 18-year old Jetro Willems got the nod ahead of Stijn Schaars at left-back.
Denmark’s system has been described as a 4-2-1-3 by the excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking. Much of the build-up runs through Christian Eriksen, who is the liaison player to link balls coming from the defensive unit of six and the front three. Denmark’s front three players present an interesting mix of different roles. Striker Bendter performs a classic number nine role in holding up the ball and tries to come at the end of crosses. Those crosses mainly come from the right wing, where Rommedahl exploits his pace. Left winger Krohn-Dehli provides more of an inside winger role, which creates space for offensive left full-back Poulsen to express strong offensive qualities.
The first half
With a positive, high-pressing approach, Holland dominated the majority of the first half. The Dutch operated from their double pivot 4-2-3-1 system, a system that sounds more conservative than it in fact is. A high level of pressing, with the front four pressing as high as the Danish goal keeper, won a lot of early possession and the back four found a nice balance in playing a high defensive line without being overlapped.
The major area of concern for Holland was obviously the Danish left side. While most, if not all, of the pre-match attention was focused on 18-year Jetro Willems at left-back, all of the trouble this game was found at Van der Wiel’s side. Not that the Ajax player was to blame here, Denmark smartly worked that side to overload Van der Wiel.
Danish left-back Simon Poulsen, who plays for Dutch side AZ, on a contract that runs out this summer, overlapped Arjen Robben, who consistently failed to track back. Instead, Van Marwijk seemed to have opted for one the holding midfielders to assist Van der Wiel in dealing with this threat. On top of winger Krohn-Dehli and full-back Poulsen, also playmaker Christian Eriksen frequently drifted into this area, turning it into Danish playground at times.
Still, despite this issue, Holland clearly dominated the game, and the first half stats of 16 shots to 5 told quite a story. However, by that time, on of Denmark’s left wing attacks had resulted in the opening goal. A second remarkable half-time stat, which also continued over the second half, was both teams completing over 80% of their passes, with Holland even over 90%. This might well be a tell-tale of the amount of space on the pitch, with neither side retreating, but pressuring forward instead.
The second half
With a clear dominance in the amount of chances created, there wasn’t much incentive for Van Marwijk to make any radical changes yet. And indeed, with 6 shots in the first 8 minutes of the second half, things seemingly went the right way for Holland. Apart from converting chances that is. The Danes, meanwhile, kept on working the left wing, but their crosses lacked quality in the second half, partly due to less bodies sent forward now.
Most of Holland’s dynamic offensive performance was run by an excellent performance of Wesley Sneijder. The Inter midfielder received 79 passes, which made him stand head and shoulders above his teams mates in this regard. He frequently drifted out to the left wing to make short combinations with Afellay and this pair completed 35 passes between them, way more than any other combination of players out on the pitch. Sneijder’s tendency to drift to the left also opened up space for Arjen Robben to make his characteristic, some would say predictable, inside runs. However, the Bayern player lacked a quality end-product, only shooting from long range and losing four of his five take-ons.
With the energy visibly drained in the warm circumstances, the need for substitutions was clear. Van Marwijk had a wealth of options available, but the fact that chances kept being created indicated that no switch in approach was indicated. Van Marwijk, confirming this in his post-match interview, opted to introduce Huntelaar for the drained Afellay. This moved Van Persie, who by then uncharacteristically had missed a series of good chances, into the hole behind the striker. Simultaneously, Van der Vaart was introduced in midfield to replace De Jong and Sneijder moved out wide left.
However, the goal would not come. Huntelaar’s chip on a delicious Sneijder through-ball was saved by Andersen and several long shots failed to find the target. With the final whistle near, Holland also had a penalty shout turned down, but these kind of things don’t make you lose a match. Failing to convert any of the 32 chances created does.
This type of match also signifies the difference between league and tournament football. Should a team start its 30-something campaign with a 0-1 loss and a 32-8 dominance in shots, they would look good for a title challenge as conversion will return to average level in the long run. In short competitions like these tournaments, however, there is no long run and the rare event of failing to convert 32 chances, while conceding a goal in one of 8 chances conceded, means elimination is nearby.
In the end
Overall Holland created 32 goal scoring chances, but failed to score. In tactical terms, Denmark made excellent use of the fact that Holland’s wingers, most notably Robben, failed to track back. This brought them the attack that produced the goal, but a series of dangerous crosses too. On the other hand, this handed Robben more freedom to make his runs, but the winger suffered from a lack of end-product.
The fact that Holland created this many chances means they did most of the things right and in a low scoring game upsets are always going to happen. And it is in short competitions like these tournaments that these upsets have drastic consequences. But this does not mean the approach has been wrong, or choices would have needed to be different. Van Marwijk and his team adopted an approach that would have won the game in most occasions, just not today…