In the first competitive match of Louis Van Gaal’s second spell as Holland manager, the home side beat Turkey 2-0. That score line, however, is flattering to the Dutch, who were left unpunished for a series of individual mistakes in defense, most notably during the first half. A well-taken header by Robin van Persie proved vital to change the face of the game and the home side sat on a one goal lead for most of the match.
Van Gaal announced during his first press conference that he would stick to a 4-3-3 formation, looking to dominate possession and exploit a wide winger offense. For this match, he omitted Van der Vaart, Van der Wiel, Nigel de Jong from the squad entirely and left Stekelenburg, Mathijsen and Huntelaar benched throughout the game.
With six players coming from the Eredivisie, this was a young Holland side. The youngest in a competitive match, in fact, since almost 17 years (via Infostrada). Bruno Martins Indi partnered John Heitinga in central defense and Jordy Clasie made his debut as the passing/holding midfielder, with playmaker Sneijder and box-to-box man Strootman in front of him. On the wings, the days of inverted wingers are over, with Robben fielded left and Narsingh right. Robin van Persie returned to the starting line-up, being preferred over Huntelaar this time. Feyenoord’s Daryl Janmaat made his debut at right-back, being preferred over Ajax’ Ricardo van Rhijn, but the Ajax-man replaced him at half-time with Van Gaal later expressing his disappointment in Janmaat’s performance.
In midfield, Turkey manager Avci made his most obvious choice. While a combination of a genuine holder and a passer was expected, he went with two holders in both Emre and Topal in order to contain the potential threat from the Dutch midfield. In the second half, Nuri Sahin was introduced to restore the holder/passer combination when chasing the game.
Up front, Umut Bulut started the game and was later partnered by Burak when it became clear that Turkey needed a goal here.
The first fifteen minutes
Right from the kick-off, it became clear that Turkey was not going to grant space to the home side. They started with a relatively high defensive line and significant pressure on any Dutch possession.
Theoretically, a good option to defend against pacy wingers like Robben and Narsingh, might have been to sit relatively deep and absorb pressure, while looking for quick breaks. However, this would probably allow the Dutch passing oriented midfield too much time on the ball and also not bring out the best of star player Arda Turan. All in all, Avci’s choice to install pressure seems very reasonable.
The opening phase saw two pushed up defenses and a short, but wide playing field. Both teams got their share of goal scoring chances, but a glaring error in communication with goal keeper Krul almost saw Martins Indi opening the score in his own net.
Right after that move, though, Holland opened the score. Many may have focused on Van Persie’s excellent technical header that allowed him to score from the corner, and rightly so, as the Manchester United striker reproduced the way he scored the 3-2 winner over Southampton last weekend. But the build-up to the corner also revealed a lot about the Dutch offense.
Van Persie dropped from the striker position, received the ball at feet and played Robben in behind Turkey right-back Hamit Altintop. Van Persie’s false-nine qualities proved vital in this, and many more, offensive moves in this match. Hence the earlier case to look for team results, rather than comparing goals scored by individual strikers to settle the debate between Van Persie and Huntelaar.
With the all-important first goal being scored by the Dutch, the outline of the game changed. In fact, it’s so very simple that you hardly hear it said aloud. Not conceding became the first priority, as it would win the match, and for Turkey, the reverse happened. The team needed at least a goal to prevent their opening game of the 2014 World Cup qualification to end in defeat. That is not to say that Holland was never looking to score a second goal, or that Turkey went all-out attack, but it’s an important game-changer to take along.
The rest of the first half
After the opening goal, a very open, end-to-end phase ignited, with both teams having chances to score, but neither doing so. The best Turkish chance arose from an error by Jetro Willems, that allowed Arda Turan a one-on-one with goal keeper Krul. However, the Atletico Madrid man missed Turkey’s best chance of the game.
In tactical terms, the battle between Robben and his former Bayern team mate Hamit Altintop was very interesting. Robben clearly had the better of his opponent in terms of pace, but the crucial deciding factor was Robben’s excellent support. Now playing on the left, Robben finds himself close to Sneijder’s comfort zone. The Inter play-maker always drifts into this left-of-centre offensive area and his link-up with Robben was excellent here. This may even form a good reason to position Robben on the left wing, rather than having him pull off his trademark outside-in dribble from the right wing.
The second half
Shortly after half-time, Van Gaal already made his second substitution, removing Jordy Clasie, in whom he, surprisingly, later said to be disappointed because of a lack of forward passing. The introduction of Leroy Fer added physical presence to the Dutch midfield and proved an excellent move when later Avci introduced passing midfielder Sahin over holder Emre.
Turkey did gain the slight advantage in terms of possession and also in terms of chance creation (think of Sercan Sararer’s close range header), but as time wore out for them, they gradually became over-offensive. With Burak introduced as second striker, their formation became much like a 4-2-4 at best. As a result, the passing length increased, with more and more hopeful balls launched forward. This allowed Holland an increasing grip on the midfield area, where the introduction of Fer led to an increase in duels being won.
In injury time, Luciano Narsingh doubles Holland’s lead to give the match a flattering, but deceiving 2-0 final score line.
In the end
This is a dangerous match to look back on. The 2-0 final score line tends to cover up the fact that things could very easily have been otherwise had Turkey snatched one of their excellent goal scoring opportunities. The best and most goal scoring opportunities fell to Turkey, but scoring the first goal allowed Holland a different approach to the game. Imagine if the 0-0 score line still existed during the second half, Turkey wouldn’t have been forced to deplete the midfield in order to try and scrape a goal – you may even doubt whether this was a wise move at the 1-0 score line.
This 4-3-3 is very much an all-or-nothing formation for Holland. The team was lucky with Turkey lack of conversion today, but certainly harbors the qualities to make this formation work against inferior opposition and the remainder of the qualifying campaign runs the risk of being a bad reflection of what’s going to be in stake for the team against equal sides. On a more positive note, Van Gaal successfully introduced several youngsters to the team, thereby meeting one of his early goals as national team manager.