Has Holland expelled its obsession with possession football?

The Dutch national team crushed reigning World Champions Spain in an even sensational as unexpected display of brilliance. With a convincing counter attacking tactic, ‘Oranje’ ran out 5-1 winners over a demolished Spain side. Is counter attacking football the new tiki-taka?

Current national manager Louis van Gaal made his breakthrough at top level management with the Ajax side of the mid nineties. With a system based on optimal ball circulation and wide winger offense, he managed to win the current Champions League. But, like good managers should, Van Gaal always takes the actual circumstances on board in his choices. At mid nineties Ajax, possession based circulation football may have been the best choice, in different circumstances, Van Gaal makes different choices.


Counter attacks

In this World Cup, Holland shines in quick counter attacks, breaking into space immediately upon winning possession of the ball. This form of offense allows the qualities of the best players, Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben to shine to full effect.

With three, rather than two central defenders it seems at first glance that Holland chooses a more defensive concept, but the reverse has proven to be true. The extra central defender allows both full-backs to push forward in support of the offense. Daley Blind’s two assists against Spain are an excellent example here.

Passing network Netherlands - Spain 1 - 5 Netherlands

The above diagram shows the average position where the Dutch starting XI passed the ball from. The concept of three primary defensive players (2, 3 and 4) is clearly shown, as well as the fact that when in possession, the full-backs (5 and 7) are true wide wingers.


Notational clichés

All too often, formational debates are reduced to an exchange of notational clichés. The 4-2-3-1, or the 4-3-3 do not exists, and all teams apply different interpretations and different tactical preferences. And more importantly, modern teams line up vastly different when in or out of possession. In possession, we see the Dutch as a 3-4-1-2, while out of possession they take a 5-3-2 shape.

If we would reduce the description of the Dutch formation to 5-3-2 as is most commonly done in the media currently, we miss out on the whole point of the full-backs being wingers and Sneijder linking up with the offensive duo, i.e. the whole point of the 3-4-1-2. If we prefer to call them 3-4-1-2, as would be fitting with their in possession style, we should call all four men defenses a two men defense, as full-backs generally push up on the wings. Over the next days I will discuss a few more of these diagrams to show that most 4-2-3-1’s are in fact 2-4-3-1’s in possession.


Passing network

The width of the lines represents the number of passes that players have combined for, with a threshold of six. The crucial role of left back Daley Blind (5) in circulating the ball forward is well displayed here. Creative midfielder Wesley Sneijder (10) tends to drift to the left side of the pitch, which makes him easy to find for Blind. The role of the right full-back, Daryl Janmaat (7) is not as much in passing the ball, but more in providing offensive runs. In possession his position is as offensive as the offensive trio of Sneijder (10), Van Persie (9) and Robben (11).



It’s still quite early in the tournament, but Van Gaal’s choice for counter attacking football seems to fit an international trend. Teams that have dominated possession have had a tough time, or even lost their games. Brazil (61% possession) had a lot of trouble creating chances against Croatia, Mexico (62%) created less chances than Cameroon, Uruguay (56%) even lost 1-3 to Costa Rica and Spain (64%) was blown away by the Dutch counters. And this all comes at the end of a season where counter attacking teams like Real Madrid and Atlético contested the Champions League final.


More possession, more wins?

The relationship between possession and outcome is rather complicated in football. Generally speaking, teams that win more matches have more possession, so the correlation between possession and wins is undeniably present. However, the causal relation between possession and wins is not so straightforward. In other words, does having more possession gets your team more wins?

A clear cut answer is not (yet) available, and it seems reasonable that circumstances may dictate which answer to this question is true at which particular moment. Against Spain, the Dutch team made optimal use of the space behind the Spanish defensive line with their lightning quick counter attacks. In the match against Australia this will, in all likelihood, be quite different. In the post-match interview of the Spain match, Van Gaal already hinted at a return of the 4-3-3 system. The media may portrait him as dogmatic, in tactical terms Van Gaal’s pragmatism dominates. And that is a good thing for Dutch football.

7 thoughts on “Has Holland expelled its obsession with possession football?

  1. Glen

    great report very interesting read, the counter attacking element of this game was as important to how holland won the game…but equally (or more so) was how holland controlled the game without the ball as you touch on towards the end….there ability to create isolation zones, crowd the central axis, force spains inverted wingers (who were more acm’s) to only find space out wide, and then funnel defend the channels was exceptional….LVG manipulated spains neglect for the central axis in transition, but forced full backs (at least 1) to operate much deeper in order to avoid constant 2v2’s from the long direct ball where robben and rvp pace, skill and movement would be a lot to ask to handle in a lot of 2v2 situations……in achieving pushing 1 full back deeper it meant the full backs wernt always re-creating the width in attack when the wide forwards went inside into half spaces….as mentioned forcing silva/iniesta to play out wide more where they were less effective….(also if they didnt operate more in wider areas then janmaat/blind would have found space in transition down the flanks and been able to create 2v1 overloads against the full backs most likely with sneider) the other alternative for spain was to drop busquets into line 1 in instead of a full back to make 3v2 at the back….(so full backs could re-create the width)….. but spain were already losing out numerically or only have equality in the central zones of the pitch.(esp without playing a false 9) …..and holland were already dominating the central axis with de guzman and de jong winning all headers and tackles and breaking down play with fouls if needed when spain had chances to counter….for me guzman and de jong were hollands key players…the glue that held the system and strategy together…… on another personal level i thought pedro should have played or been brought on much sooner for spain…as they needed width/pace….@Blade00131 on twitter (tactical analyst)

  2. pheteesh

    I think the counter attack was a response to Spain’s possession dominance rather than a long term trend. Van Gaal realised that he does not have the playmakers in his team to beat Spain at a possession game, so he changed the battlefield to one that favours him. Without Strootman Holland dont have the midfield controller you need for a patient possession style

  3. Randy Hanson

    Love the average positions combined with the passing network graphics. Do you have them for many other world cup games?

    1. 11tegen11 Post author

      Indeed, I do.
      I will use them for future writing, if time permits, that is. World Cups are busy times.

      In any case, you can find some of them via my twitter feed @11tegen11.
      It’s just a lot easier popping them out in 140 character bits, than it is to write more extensive tactical pieces.

      1. Randy Hanson

        Great! Thank you! From a coaches point of view they tell such a “snapshot story” of how the match really went in terms of team shape and player intent.

  4. UncleJack

    Great, very interesting piece – thank you!

    I found especially refreshing the section on (national) clichés and, there, in particular, the second paragraph. I am really looking forward to those diagrams that will discuss 4-2-31 vs 2-4-3-1 in possession.

    Could you possibly provide a few more details regarding or clarify/confirm the ‘ground rules’ on which that most interesting Positions & Passing Network diagram is based?

    The diagram does NOT show the average positions of the players over time or when the times when the Dutch team had possession of the ball but only at those moments when the individual players were passing the ball (correct?). If so, is it based solely on those moments when successful passes were played or does it also include passes that did not reach their intended recipients?

    Also, am I right to assume that the diagram shows the average positions of the players when they were passing the ball – thus not including in those averages the positions where they were at when receiving the ball? (Example: Bruno Martins Indi average position when receiving passes could be quite different from where the “4” is on the diagram, right?)

    Furthermore, should I infer that Cillessen never passed the ball to Vlaar during that match or does the “threshold of six” that you mention in the text mean that if less than six (successful) passes were played between two given players, there will be no line between those two players in this kind of diagram?

    Finally (though I certainly do not mean to ask you to spill your ‘trade secrets’) … where do you get the information from that this kind of diagram is based on and how do you handle substitutions of players – especially when, upon a substitution, a player who stays on the field is told to play a different position?

    Once more: Thank you for this great post and the work behind it.


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