Holland played their best game in the second Van Gaal era to defeat Romania and earn an important win on the road to the 2014 World Championships in Brazil. Despite Van Gaal’s firm statement that he made in his early days as national manager that he would turn away from the supposedly ‘dreaded’ double holding midfielder system, the formation with both Nigel de Jong and Kevin Strootman in defensive midfield roles reminded secretly of Van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1. With Rafael van de Vaart in a captain-worthy playmaking midfield role and the Dutch defense profiting from the much-needed extra midfield cover, Holland took an early lead and ran out fairly comfortable winners.
Holland’s 4-3-3 that was secretly a 4-2-3-1
Van Gaal made a few changes compared to the Andorra match just a few days ago. Right-back Van Rhijn and winger Narsingh were more or less like-for-like changes, coming in for Janmaat and Schaken. Up front, Robin van Persie was preferred over Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. Just like in the Andorra match, Rafael van der Vaart made another start with Sneijder out injured.
Two things deserve attention in this starting line-up. First, with both Nigel de Jong and Kevin Strootman in midfield, this is a flexible team. De Jong is surely capable of holding the midfield on his own in a true 4-3-3 system, but the versatility of Strootman makes a double holding midfielder system just as well possible. Tonight it was definitely the latter. Strootman’s defensive qualities were well on display in his chasing of Romanian midfielders, while his presence around the opposing box was hardly noticeable. Thus, a 4-2-3-1 would be just a apt to describe Van Gaal’s team today as the expected 4-3-3.
The second thing to note is the decision to play Van Persie rather than Huntelaar. In the build-up to Euro 2012 we’ve already made the case for Van Persie by pointing out that goals scored by the striker at hand are a bad parameter, but the most used nonetheless, to justify this choice. Much better would be to look at the performance level of the team as a whole. Van Persie offers a deeper-lying short passing game that proves invaluable in games against stronger opposition, or tricky away games like these. In this game too, his like-up play with the midfield proved essential in offensive building and he played a large role in setting off both wingers too.
Romania’s 4-2-3-1 system
With offensive midfielder Grozav playing quite close to striker Marica, and regularly overlapping him too, Romania played quite an interesting formation. All of the front four were eager to press early, yet both holding midfielders sat back most of the time. This resulted in Romania either winning possession early and in dangerous areas, or seeing this important first line breached and suffering the consequences. This phenomenon contributed to a very open first quarter of the game.
The first half
As said, the game sprung to life immediately. Romania’s early pressure split their team a bit and sometimes Holland played successfully past the first line of pressure and constructed attacks in the space between front four and back six, and at other times, Romania made early interceptions and set off nice moves themselves.
The opening phase contained some Dutch luck that proved pivotal for the development of rest of the game. Just a few minutes in, winger Gabriel Torje hit the underside of the bar with a neat long range direct free kick, while on the other side of the pitch, Jeremain Lens succeeded in opening the score with a long range header from a cleared corner that just fell below the bar and into the net.
Romania kept pressing fairly high, but in doing so they also committed quite a number of fouls, which both contributed to their frustration and to Holland’s chances to escape pressure through set pieces now and then. It was from another set piece that Bruno Martins Indi doubled Holland’s lead as he fired in a Van der Vaart free kick cross from close range.
Now facing a 0-2 score line, Romania threw some more pressure and some more energy into the match. At the cost of a foul here and there and with risky overlapping moves by both full-backs, they found their way back into the match. In his second match as captain, Kevin Strootman was largely to blame for not pressuring Marica on a central dribble and the Schalke striker found the back of the net from the edge of the box.
At the brink of half-time Holland earned a penalty when Narsingh was fouled on an incisive break-away. Van der Vaart crowned his excellent first half with the third Dutch goal here.
The second half
Not too much changes were notable from Romania’s approach through most of the second half. Their full-backs played a more offensive role with both wingers more narrow now and near the end of the game veteran striker Adrian Mutu game on as a second striker, but to hardly any effect as the Romanian midfield failed to reach him.
The main problem for Romania was not upfront, but one line behind, in midfield. The trio of De Jong, Strootman and Van der Vaart spent their energy smart in pressing the Romanian central midfielders and with Mutu playing effectively as a second striker, Holland had a 3v2 advantage in central midfield. On top of that, full-backs Van Rhijn and Martins Indi had the better of wingers Stancu and Torje. So, both centrally and in wide areas Romania could not reach Marica and Mutu enough.
In possession, Van der Vaart proved an essential element. His game covers such a wide area of the pitch that it is hard for opposing teams to prevent him from receiving the ball. Mark him out with a defensive midfielder and one of your midfielders is constantly dragged out of position, or limit his options with compact zonal defending and he will drop just that bit deeper or wider and still receive short passes at feet. Tonight, Van der Vaart had one of those game where he connected his team very well and this allowed Holland enough length of possessions to make easy left-to-right and defense-to-offense transitions.
Near the end of the match, Van Persie scored from an incisive Narsingh break-away to make it 1-4.
In the end
The score line of 1-4 is just a bit flattering given the fact that Romania definitely had their chances early on. It is just that chasing a quick double goal lead forced the home team into playing a more risky game than they had intended. Should Torje’s free-kick have landed just a tad lower and offered his team an early lead, Romania would never have been forced to throw their full-backs forward they way they did not. With pacy wingers Lens and Narsingh waiting to take advantage and Van der Vaart on song to glue his team together, Holland was never really under threat after gaining that early double lead.