Category Archives: EURO 2012 qualifying

Finland 0-2 Holland: Smart playmaker moves win another qualifying match

Guided by a superb performance of playmaker Wesley Sneijder, Holland managed an eighth straight Euro 2012 victory by beating Finland by two goals. Smart exploitation of the space conceded behind the Finnish defensive line allowed a fair share of through ball, one of which was beautifully finished by Strootman, who scored his first international goal in an otherwise strong appearance.

 

Same eleven, different game plan

As is so often the case, the numerical line-up (4-2-3-1) revealed only part of Holland’s tactical plan. While a 4-2-3-1 generally covers the broad spread of Dutch players on the pitch, manager Van Marwijk has multiple tactical plans to choose from. The same eleven players that beat San Marino 11-0 just a few days earlier started for Holland, but their tactical nuances were a bit different, which we will come to discuss in this match review.

The starting line-ups

 

Finnish organization

One year minus a day ago Holland beat Finland 2-1 in their first Euro 2012 qualifying encounter. And just like the final score reveals, it was far from an easy match. Finland initially invited Dutch pressure on themselves by sitting very deep in a compact 4-5-1 formation, but provided some serious counter play after initially being two goals down.

Their 4-5-1 was still compact and well disciplined, but, perhaps induced by the fact that they played a home patch this time, they didn’t sit as deep as they did a year ago. In fact, Finland conceded quite some space behind their defensive line, a crucial factor in determining the fate of the game.

 

To press or not to press

If analyzing football matches had to be reduced to describing one parameter, I would probably stake a claim for pressure. Pressure reveals a lot, if not all, on a team’s intentions going into the match. In this game, Holland’s early pressure in their opponent’s half was clear from the first minute on. The resulting first minute chance may not have been scored, but the trend of the opening phase of the game was clear.

Finland, on the other hand, looked happy to allow Holland to circulate the ball around the midline area, only pressing once their opponents invaded their half. Their 4-5-1, which could also be typified as a 4-1-4-1 during the opening phase of the game, as their wide men initially played a rather narrow defensive role, was aimed at reducing space in front of the back four, an area where they feared the creative threat of Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie.

 

Conceding space

An ideal football defense presses the opponent without conceding space. But that’s utopia, rather than reality as pressing needs a compact formation and ten compactly positioned outfield players means conceding space elsewhere. To defend an opposition team with superior skills, there are broadly speaking to solutions for the pressing versus conceding space problem. The first one is how Finland started the game a year ago and the second one is how they played today.

The first solution is to play like Finland did in the opening phase of the September 2010 game: sit very deep and limit the amount of space you concede behind your back line. The main (obvious) advantage would be that the opponent can’t take advantage from space that you don’t concede, while the main (obvious) problem is that the amount of pressure invited onto your own half simply becomes too much, leading to problems retaining possession yourself. The result is an opponent who holds most of its possession in your half and sooner or later goals will be flying in. A textbook example of success with this tactic would be Hercules’ 0-2 shock victory over Barcelona in Camp Nou, early in the 2010-11 season.

The second solution, like Finland tried today, is somewhat more difficult to carry out, but provides more opportunities for counter play. A medium high defensive line does concede space in behind it, but it allows less space for the opponent to play and makes it easier for the defending team, particularly when playing with a five men midfield, to limit spaces for the offensive team. Problems with this solution arise when the technically gifted offensive players aren’t pressed enough, allowing them to play through balls in behind the defensive line.

 

Back to the game

The picture is quite clear, in contrast to their match a year ago, Finland did opt for a slightly more optimistic system, playing at home this time. However, Holland’s main playmaker (in the absence of Van der Vaart in a deeper role), Wesley Sneijder recognized the limited space just in front of the Finnish back four. He dropped somewhat deeper than he usually does when playing for Holland. Particularly with Van der Vaart around to provide passing from the defensive midfield area, Sneijder tends to take up more advanced positions.

Well, not this time, he drop deeper to avoid the condensed midfield zone and once again displayed his excellent long range passing skill. While most players’ offensive threat would be limited by playing this much deeper, Sneijder displayed his excellent long range passing skills and with that, one key pass after another. In a sense, his long range passing was reminiscent of the opening goal of Holland’s World Cup 2010 second round victory over Slovakia, where he launched Robben with a long range counter pass from inside his own half.

Sneijder’s excellent long range passes in behind Finland’s defense did manage to find runs of inside wingers Van Persie and Kuyt before, but it was Kevin Strootman who crowned an excellent overlapping run with a delicious one touch volley finish for his first international goal.

 

The second half

Along similar lines as the previous match between both teams, Finland only showed their more offensive intentions after going a goal down. Tonight they did so by slightly advancing their wide players and having them connect quicker with lone striker Forsell. While they did hold onto possession in Holland’s half just a bit longer, their offensive threat was quite limited, as was shown by their total of five, mainly long range goal scoring efforts (data: Infostrada Sports).

Halfway through the second half Van Marwijk removed both Huntelaar and Van Persie, who spent quite some early energy pressing Finland deep in their own half. As if to crown that hard labour, both their substitutes Elia and Luuk de Jong combined for the dying seconds 0-2. And yes, it was another Wesley Sneijder long range ball that launched Elia in behind Finland’s defense for that move.

 

In the end

This match showed both interesting similarities with both team’s previous meeting (Finland providing a much better performance after going down) and interesting contrasts (Finland defending along Solution 2 plans, rather than Solution 1, see above).

Wesley Sneijder smartly dropped just that bit deeper to avoid Finland’s compact midfield and wasn’t tracked back enough prevent him from dominating the game by spraying excellent long range passes. Both of Holland’s goal arose from such moments.

Tactical considerations for the upcoming ‘Oranje’ matches

Going into the upcoming two Euro 2012 matches, Friday at home to minnows San Marino and Tuesday away to Finland, Bert van Marwijk’s ‘Oranje’ defend their perfect record of six straight Euro 2012 qualifying wins. However, any slip up in the upcoming two matches would provide second placed Sweden, who are only three points behind, with a perfect opportunity to raise the pressure in group E.

With several players out through injuries, Van Marwijk faces some interesting choices in terms of selecting a first eleven, and subsequently the tactical implications to go with these decisions are worth looking at. On a broader scheme of tactical plans, Van Marwijk consequently sticks with the 4-2-3-1 lay-out that has served him so well since his debut back in 2008. In fact, his record of 19 wins and one, World Cup final overtime, loss in competitive matches is highly impressive to say the least.

 

Two tactical variants

Broadly speaking, his 4-2-3-1 approach can be divided into a more conservative variant, used against stronger opposition and successful in terms of results during the past World Cup, and a slightly more offensive variant, deploying a deep-lying playmaker alongside a genuine holding midfielder, as used against inferior and defensively organized opposition.

The latter tactic has served Holland well during the Euro 2012 qualifying matches against Moldova, Sweden, and Hungary. However, and this may sound too stupid to say out loud, in order to base your system around a deep-lying playmaker you’ve got to have a fitting player for this key role. With Rafael van der Vaart Van Marwijk normally does, but Van der Vaart’s hamstring injury is one of the reasons the Dutch manager has to make interesting choices. Besides this central midfield area, it’s also interesting to take a look at the (un)available wide players and their relevance to the team’s overall tactical set-up.

Holland's most likely starting eleven for the San Marino and Finland matches

 

Central midfield

With first choice holding midfielder Nigel de Jong out, it seems most likely that Van Marwijk’s son-in-law Mark van Bommel will play the holding midfield role. And most likely to partner him is upcoming midfield man Kevin Strootman, leaving space for two interesting remarks. First, obviously, Strootman is no Van der Vaart. He offers less creativity, but more of a straightforward passing midfield role is to be expected here. And secondly, Strootman has showed himself in PSV’s recent games to be very capable of carrying the holding department of a midfield three by himself. In fact, PSV’s midfield performance improved significantly when shifting from a double to a single holding midfielder.

The second remark is particularly interesting, as it makes for an interesting dilemma. We may very well see Holland starting out with a genuine double holding midfielder duo, with Van Bommel in a more conservative role and Strootman stringing most of the passes together, but should things not work out, a switch to a single holding midfielder system doesn’t seem far off. In that case, it should be interesting to see whether Van Marwijk will draw on the recent PSV partnership of Strootman and Wijnaldum, linking very well at team level recently.

 

Wings

The absence of Robben and Afellay poses interesting choices on the wings. As usual, one of either wings will be filled in by the star of work rate, Dirk Kuyt. A possible solution for the remaining wing is to start Van Persie from the left wing in an inside, wide second striker role, assuming that in-form Huntelaar starts in the striker position. An alternative would be to start new Juventus man Eljero Elia, who adds pace and trickery in a wide wing game. But given the expected defensive outline of both San Marino and Finland, which renders part of Elia’s game less effective, Van Persie looks the most likely candidate for the left wing role.

His inclusion, combined with a slightly more conservative central midfield, should have an implication on the role of full-backs Pieters and Van der Wiel. Particularly against defensive opponents it seems of utmost importance to stretch the game by keeping the wide positions posted. With Van Persie likely to play an inside winger role, and possibly linking up with striker Huntelaar, much of the left wing game should come from Erik Pieters, whose offensive qualities match these demand perfectly. As an illustration his passing chart from the recent PSV – Excelsior game is added to show the offensive nature of his full-back game in a match where he won seven of his eight challenges in the opponent’s half (data: InStat). Obviously, on the right full-back spot Gregory van der Wiel is particularly known for his offensive game too, proving an excellent wing cross assist for Ajax’ third goal against Vitesse just this weekend.

Erik Pieters' first half passing chart (PSV - Excelsior, data by InStat)

Summary

The concept of qualification tournaments of major international tournaments may not guarantee the most exciting of fixtures, or perhaps not even exciting matches to watch, but what it does do is enable us to familiarize ourselves with the ins and outs of different teams. The absence of several guaranteed starters makes it more insightful how a coaching staff deals with these kind of situations, thereby increasing the insight in the different options available within the team.

For the upcoming matches against San Marino and Finland it will be very interesting to see how the Van Bommel – Strootman partnership works out, what Van Marwijk will do in the event of difficulty breaking an ultra-defensive San Marino side down. Furthermore, the role of the full-backs will be worth watching, will they, as predicted, be the key ingredients in the Dutch wide game, or will their offensive intentions suffocate the space in an already crowded area.

Holland 5 –3 Hungary: Different Hungary formation, different game

After their dominant away ’tiki taka style’ victory only a few days ago, Holland manager Van Marwijk will not have felt the slightest incentive to change his line-up either in terms of tactics or his choice of a starting eleven. And with all players fully fit he wasn’t forced into any changes either. This allowed the unique situation of two consecutive matches started by 11 players all playing for different clubs.

How different were things at Hungary? No less than five changes were made, with Liptak, Elek, Varga, Koman and goalkeeper Kiraly all left out. Perhaps even more significantly, manager Egervári decided to trade his 4-2-3-1 for a classic defensive 4-4-2. This pushed Gera to the right wing position and allowed Priskin to join Rudolf up front. Both central midfielders were changed as now Pinter and Vadocz, a substitute in the past match, are fielded. Finally, Vanczar moved from right-back to the right central defense position, allowing Lazar back in at right-back.

 

A different game

The starting line-ups

In the first half, in terms of entertainment value, the difference with the away game was huge. Hungary’s switch to a flat defensive 4-4-2 formation ensured a tight midfield game with Holland dominating possession, but ‘Oranje’ rarely found a way through the dense and packed midfield.

Hungary learnt from their recent encounter with Holland and aimed their strategy at limiting space in midfield. In order to obtain that, they kept their two backs of four tight together and both wide midfielders focused primarily on their defensive tasks, either guarding Holland’s full-backs, who played much less of an offensive role now, or doubling up on the wings against Afellay and Kuijt.

The theoretical advantage of Holland’s 4-2-3-1 over Hungary’s 4-4-2 would be the potential of outnumbering of the midfield in a 3v2 situation. While this was indeed true on the pitch, the Hungarian tight banks of four limited space effectively and it was much more difficult for the likes of Van der Vaart and Sneijder to find enough space for their killing through-balls.

In a sense, Holland contributed to this situation too. Just like in the away game, where it proved very effective given the vast amount of space conceded by Hungary in midfield, Afellay played an inside left winger role with loads of positional freedom, drifting across the pitch. On top of that, Van Persie deployed his favorite false-nine role, regularly appearing on the right side of the central midfield area. The presence of both Afellay and Van Persie in addition to the nominal midfielders crowded space even further as they generally drew their man-markers with them.

 

An early goal

Keeping two tight banks of four is one thing, not giving any space away is quite another. On either side of the two banks, be it deep in Holland’s midfield or behind Hungary’s defensive line, lay Holland’s opportunities. Van der Vaart and Sneijder regularly switched positions and both of them frequently dropped deep, even to the level of the central defenders. This allowed them to break free of Hungary’s dense midfield zone and they generally looked to take advantage of the space conceded behind their opponent’s defensive line. A number of through-balls were the result, and despite Van Persie and Kuijt being called offside a number of times, some chances resulted too.

 

 

But it was a set piece goal that opened up the game. Robin van Persie fired in a right sided corner by Wesley Sneijder after the ball bounced up in front of him at the far post.

After this 13th minute goal, Hungary did advance their stance, inducing a fair share of pressure in the process. The result was Holland’s midfield retreating even further and the process game plan of midfielders Sneijder and Van der Vaart looking for direct balls in behind Hungary’s defense was even more clear to see.

 

Second half goal bonanza

A true goal fest may be the best description of the second half, although Dutch fans would have liked this term to be used in a different context. Only five minutes into the second half Holland saw itself facing a 1-2 score line after conceding twice due to sloppy defending, allowing unpressured crosses into the box. First from a left sided short corner variant and later from a left sided cross which was nicely volleyed in by Hungary captain Zoltan Gera.

By then, Holland had traded injured striker Robin van Persie for cult-hero Ruud van Nistelrooy and Hungary replaced left central midfielder Pinter for the more offensive Vladimir Koman.

Facing this surprise score line, Van Marwijk was forced to show his in-game management skills in order to prevent Holland’s first ever European qualification home loss. He instructed both full-back to make frequent runs from deep, effectively changing to wing-backs here. The fact that Urby Emanuelson had to replaced the injured Erik Pieters only helped the offensive wing-back game.

A lucky combination where Wesley Sneijder effectively combined in a one-two pass with a Hungarian defender ensured the equalizing goal. And quickly hereafter Ibrahim Afellay’s work rate was expressed when he won the ball at the left-back position and dribbled past two defenders to pass to Dirk Kuijt. The Liverpool player crossed for veteran striker Ruud van Nistelrooy to make it 3-2. And with that goal, Van Nistelrooy equaled legendary striker of the ‘fifties’ Faas Wilkes’ total of 35 goals.

Three of Holland's four goal scorers: Man of the Match Afellay, Van Persie and Kuijt

But the advantage was short-lived as another episode of untidy marking laid the base for Hungary’s third goal of the game. Emanuelson completely lost track of Zoltan Gera and the Hungary captain fired in his second goal to make it 3-3.

In the end, two goals by Dirk Kuijt won the game for Holland and the game finished with the unusual score line of 5-3.

 

In the end

Two matches by the same Dutch national team, yet two entirely different games. After the dominant tiki taka performance in Budapest most Dutch fans were expecting a similar football show in Amsterdam, but Hungary’s switch to a defensive 4-4-2 proved very effective in limiting the danger that arose from Holland’s deep passing midfielders in the first game.

At the very least these two games must be considered as an excellent demonstration of the power of tactics in a football match. The very different approach taken by Hungary in both matches led to two very different matches and the lack of defensive sharpness at the start of the second half allowed them a way back into the match that they firmly grabbed. In the end, an unusual score line of 5-3 was the result of an end-to-end second half where Holland was close to breaking their impressive record of not losing any point in four years of European Championship and World Cup qualification football.

Hungary 0 – 4 Holland: Dutch tiki taka football

Holland beat Hungary in spectacular fashion to obtain Van Marwijk’s  13th consecutive qualification victory, combining both WC 2010 and Euro 2012 qualifiers. And in the process, national manager Bert van Marwijk extended his unbelievable 90 minutes record in competitive matches to 19-1-0, that one being the World Cup final against Spain.

 

The formations

Holland lined up as expected in the preview of this match, while Hungary did not play right-back Lazar and holding midfielder Vadocz, but fielded Vanczak and Varga instead. In contrast to the preview, Hungary captain Zoltan Gera mostly held the central offensive midfield position with Sampdoria’s Koman lined up on the right wing.

 

Positional freedom

The starting line-ups

In the Dutch formation Wesley Sneijder played his favorite role, expressing a high degree of positional freedom, which frequently saw him drift out to the left side of the central axis of the pitch. That high degree of positional freedom did not just apply to Sneijder, but was merely characteristic of the entire offensive four players. Robin van Persie thrived in his preferred false nine role, at times even dropping close to the central backs to receive the ball at feet.

Both flank players also drifted across the pitch, Ibrahim Afellay, who started from the left wing, even more so than Dirk Kuijt, who played more of a classical inside winger role. Afellay literally moved all over the pitch, unsettling Hungary’s defensive system with his frequent lateral runs. His role certainly reminded of the Barcelona system he works with on a daily basis now.

With these dynamic front four keeping Hungary’s back line as well as their holding midfielders busy, Rafael van der Vaart was given loads of freedom in his deep-lying playmaker role. In theory Van der Vaart played in Zoltan Gera’s zone and he was at times pressured by Koman coming inside too, but the combination of his technical and distribution skills with the support lent by Nigel de Jong allowed him a dominant role in the first half hour of the match. He crowned his early dominance by finishing off a ground combination with Wesley Sneijder on the before-mentioned left side of the pitch.

De Jong himself, after coming in for quite some stick due to his World Cup final tackle on Xabi Alonso and his leg-breaking tackle on Ben Arfa, deserved a positive mention for his sober, clean passing game. He held a 100% pass completion figure for quite some time into the first half, contributing to his team’s possession dominance. On  top of that, he hasn’t committed a single foul in the past 225 minutes of Euro 2012 qualification football. And this low foul rate applied throughout the Dutch team in this match. With just two fouls in the entire first half, they seldomly allowed their opponents a chance at controlling the pace of the game, an important aspect of the match.

 

The gap in Hungary’s game plan

To be fair, Hungary’s game plan was quickly undone by conceding the early opening goal. Conceding that much space to Holland’s deep-lying playmaker Van der Vaart proved costly early on and the match was an uphill battle from that moment on. The lack of pressure on Van der Vaart, who operated from a significantly deeper position than he is used to at club level, arose from the fact that Hungary allowed their defensive six (the back four and two holding midfielders) to be fully occupied with the excellent dynamism of Holland’s front four. This left just Gera to apply pressure on both Van der Vaart and De Jong which did not allow Hungary to counter Holland’s play in a very significant area.

On top of that, there is a remarkable gap in player quality between Hungary’s front four and the defensive six. Dszudszak is one of the stars of the Eredivisie and will make the step up to one of the big leagues soon, striker Rudolf and right winger Koman regularly feature in the Serie A and offensive midfielder Zoltan Gera brings loads of Premier League experience. In contrast, most of the defensive six play either in the Hungarian competition, or in less respectable leagues  in Europe.

 

A rally just before half time

The final five minutes of the first half where in fact the only spell of counter play by the Hungarians. They significantly shifted their deep defensive line forward and succeeded to gain the upper hand in terms of positioning for a short spell. But they quickly paid the price for the advanced defensive line as they still were unable to keep enough pressure on Holland’s superior midfield passers. A moment of quick and direct passing played offensive right-back Gregory van der Wiel free behind the Hungarian defensive line and his cross was sublimely controlled by Afellay’s right foot before the Barcelona player fired in with his left. With a 0-2 score line at half time, the match was effectively over.

 

Second half changes

Playing in front of their own fans, Hungary desperately tried to take the game to their opponents at the beginning of the second half. They maintained the high defensive line, despite being punished just before half time and regularly shifted Dsuzdszak over to the right wing. Not only would this allow Dszudszak to try his skills against team mate Erik Pieters, but it should have led to a better control over offensive right-back Van der Wiel, who had an excellent game in a very offensive right wing role, regularly filling the space left by Kuijt tracking inside and reminding of his self-expressed example in football: Barcelona’s Dani Alves.

 

Two more goals

Unable to exert enough pressure on Holland’s midfield, with Van der Vaart still taking deep positions and Sneijder simple adjusting his position slightly deeper too, it was a matter of time before chances would start flowing. And they did.

Two unselfish lay-offs, first by Van Persie and later by Van der Wiel for his second assist of the game, allowed Kuijt and later Van Persie to score the third and fourth goal. Close to the end of the game, Hungary did test goalkeeper Michel Vorm with some long range shots, but the Utrecht goalkeeper showed to deserve his clean sheet.

Afellay, Sneijder, Van der Vaart and Van Persie

In the end

A football match does not need any form of tension to be attractive, that’s what has been proven here. Playing a highly dynamic, high paced passing game, Holland kept Hungary’s defensive six busy with just four offensive players and the passing skills and creativity of Van der Vaart contributed to a dominant first half performance.

Playing around the increased second half pressure in order to take advantage of the advanced defensive line proved the key to a controlled second half too, which was crowned with Van Persie scoring his first goal in six international matches and Van der Wiel crowning an excellent offensive right-wingback  game with his second assist.

Hungary – Holland, the preview

This match must certainly be considered as one of the biggest games in Group E of the Euro 2012 qualifying tournament.  With 9 points from four matches, the Hungarians are ranked second behind the runners up of the last World Cup, Holland, who have won all four qualifying matches so far. Sweden is also in contention for direct qualification, with 6 points from three matches, having lost 4-1 in Holland, but having beaten Hungary 2-0.

This preview will look at Bert van Marwijk’s present national team selection, go over some tactical issues for both teams and give a short summary of the tactical aspect of the game that will be played on Friday, March 25.

 

Dutch team selection

Goalkeepers: Michel Vorm (Utrecht), Sander Boschker (Twente), Jelle ten Rouwelaar (NAC)

The major absentee here is of course Ajax goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg who suffers from a fractured thumb and will miss out until the end of the season. Twenty-seven year old Michel Vorm is expected to start as his replacement, adding to his five international appearances.

Michel Vorm will play his sixth international match

 

Defense: Van der Wiel (Ajax), Pieters (PSV), Heitinga (Everton), Mathijsen (HSV), Boulahrouz (Stuttgart), Vlaar (Feyenoord), Emanuelson (Milan)

Left-back Erik Pieters

Expect Van Marwijk to stick to his regular centre-back duo Heitinga-Mathijsen.  The two of them have combined for all but one of Holland’s seven World Cup matches, with Mathijsen forced to miss the Brazil game due to injury. Van Marwijk consequently plays Heitinga as a centre-back, despite the fact that Everton manager Moyes regularly uses him as a defensive midfield with specific man-marking tasks.

While Van der Wiel has been Holland’s right-back for quite some time now, the left-back position had been up for grabs after Van Bronckhorst’s retirement after the World Cup final. Erik Pieters will now have to be considered the main candidate here, with main rival Vurnon Anita having been re-transformed to a holding midfield role in recent times and outside rival Royston Drenthe not starting regularly after falling out with his loan-club Hercules.

 

Midfield: Nigel de Jong (Man City), Rafael van der Vaart (Tottenham), Wesley Sneijder (Inter), Mark van Bommel (Milan), Ibrahim Afellay (Barcelona), Strootman (Utrecht), Schaars (AZ)

Most interesting here would have been to see the developments regarding the two holding midfielder spots behind Wesley Sneijder, who is by all means the man-in-the-hole for Holland. If not for the injury that keeps Van Bommel sidelined for the first meeting with Hungary, Van Marwijk would have been forced to choose from the three of Van Bommel, Van der Vaart and De Jong. The World Cup duo Van Bommel / De Jong have started the first two Euro 2012 qualification matches, until Van Marwijk punished De Jong for his leg-breaking tackle on Hatem Ben Arfa in October.

Interestingly enough, this De Jong replacement meant an important shift in playing style, changing from the classic two holding midfielder style of the World Cup to a single true holding midfielder (Van Bommel) beside a classic deep-lying playmaker (Van der Vaart). This change was more than just a subtle midfield alteration, it was seen by some as Van Marwijk’s reply to the allegations of ‘destructive football’ at the World Cup. In that sense it would have been very interesting to see whether he would return to the successful, yet destructive World Cup duo Van Bommel / De Jong, go with Van der Vaart as a deep-lying playmaker beside the aging Van Bommel or combine De Jong and Van der Vaart, a novelty for the Dutch national team.

 

Rafael van der Vaart wearing the captain's arm band

 

Attack: Dirk Kuijt (Liverpool), Jeremain Lens (PSV), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Eljero Elia and Ruud van Nistelrooy (HSV), Luuk de Jong (Twente)

Robin van Persie will make his first start for Holland since the World Cup final. In the six matches (friendlies against Austria and Turkey and the four Euro 2012 qualifiers) Holland has played since, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has scored no less than ten goals, but he is out with a knee injury, saving Van Marwijk from having to make another important and interesting choice.

Expect Dirk Kuijt to start on one of the wings, as Van Marwijk favors his work rate to balance with the offensive input from the contralateral winger. With Robben out injured, Van Marwijk might start Kuijt on the right wing, playing pacy Eljero Elia from the left wing, but he hasn’t played all that regularly at HSV in recent weeks. But given the fact that Ibrahim Afellay has started three of the four previous Euro 2012 qualifiers as well as the two friendlies, a start for the Barcelona player might be more likely. His contribution in recent Holland matches merits a starting place too.

 

A symbolic replacement? Van Persie and Huntelaar

 

The Hungarian selection

The most important absentee in Hungary’s squad for this match is certainly their striker Adam Szalai. The Mainz hit man is sidelined with a ligament injury that will keep him out until the end of the season, his likely replacement being Bari striker Gergely Rudolf, who scored three goals, featuring regularly for Italian Serie A club Bari. This would probably move another Serie A player into the starting line-up as 22-year old Vladimir Koman, a regular for struggling Sampdoria seems the most likely candidate to move to the offensive midfield spot vacated by Rudolf moving to the striker position.

Expect more Hungary firepower on the wings with the experience of Zoltan Gera (68 caps) and the technical skills and goal scoring ability of Balasz Dszudszak, the PSV winger, who is a well-known face for the Dutch. In defensive midfield Hungary will field Akos Elek, a young talent still playing for Videoton in his home country, probably with Krisztian Vadocz of Osasuna, or Videoton’s Peter Czvitkovics beside him.

Hungary’s back four will not feature right-back Krisztian Vermes, who played in the Eredivisie for Saprta in the 2008/09 season, but rather Pal Lazar, who played the Sweden and Moldova matches. At left-back Zsolt Laczko, a winter signing for Sampdoria will feature and at centre-back it will be Zoltan Liptak and Roland Juhász, the latter familiar form Ajax’ double Europa League victory over Anderlecht.

 

Tactical considerations

The presumed starting line-ups

With both teams playing 4-2-3-1 variants, we can expect a fairly balanced game in tactical terms. Of particular interest will be the Van der Wiel – Dsuzdsak match-up at the right wing of Holland’s defense. While Van der Wiel plays his best games when allowed an offensive role on the right flank, he will have to keep a firm eye on Dszudszak, who might be considered Hungary’s main offensive threat. Both Nigel de Jong, playing as the holding midfielder on that side of the pitch, and right-sided centre-back Heitinga will have to make sure to assist Van der Wiel in his defensive duties. This might leave Rudolf mostly at the hands of Mathijsen and it will be interesting to see the Dutch defense adapting to Hungary’s front movement here.

In offensive terms, expect Sneijder, as always, to drift to the left side of the pitch, in search of space he won’t find in the central area occupied by two opposing holding midfielders. This should make a powerful triangle, linking up with the technical qualities of both Van der Vaart and Afellay (if starting) on that wing. It will be interesting to see what role Gera will take up here. Will he position himself in a more central, defensive position to frustrate this potential dangerous Dutch connection? This would allow more space for Pieters, either to assist in defense or make forward runs.

 

Closing remarks

It may sound as a cliché, but Hungary is definitely an opponent that Holland shouldn’t underestimate. Taking this away match too lightly might see Van Marwijk and his team pay in terms of losing their incredible run of results. Since his debut as manager of the Dutch national team on August 20, 2008, he has managed to win all but one of his 19 competitive matches.

That one being a World Cup final…

Anderlecht 0 – 3 Ajax: Impressive away victory with smart tactical moves

Frank de Boer’s Ajax managed a second impressive European away win in a row. After defeating Milan at the San Siro 0-2 in De Boer’s first match in charge of Ajax, Ajax added a second consecutive away win by defeating Anderlecht in their Constant Vandenstock Stadium. Although the second half penalty miss by Anderlecht was an important determinant for the match result, and perhaps even for the outcome of this tie, Ajax deservedly won on the basis of a series of smart tactical moves that gave them the upper hand for most of the game.

 

Two different 4-3-3’s

Going into this match everyone involved was certain this was going to be a nice affair. Two teams known for their attacking spirit, playing 4-3-3’s, that should guarantee some good goal scoring opportunities. And after all, for most people interested in football entertainment value is by and large determined on the basis of a close match with lots of scoring opportunities, isn’t it?

The starting line-ups. Two very different interpretations of the 4-3-3.

And two 4-3-3’s there were, albeit with a very different outlay and different tactical tweaks to them. Most notably, Anderlecht played a fluid, rather narrow front three, consisting of Lukaku and Suarez as the two most advanced strikers with Boussoufa roaming behind them as a trequartista, constantly drifting around the pitch in a free role. Ajax, on the contrary, play El Hamdaoui as their most advanced single striker with wingers Ebecilio and Sulejmani in wide roles and the both of them showed excellent defensive awareness, tucking in when needed, thereby converting Ajax’ 4-3-3 to a true 4-5-1 when needed.

 

The first half

The different lay-outs of the front three proved crucial to an understanding of the developments elsewhere on the pitch. Anderlecht’s front three were mostly picked up by Ajax’ centre-backs and holding midfielder, whereas Ajax’ front three, due to their wide wingers, had to be dealt with by Anderlecht’s full-backs and one of the centre-backs. This meant that Ajax had their full-backs as spare men at the back, tucking in when needed, to assist the centre-backs and holding midfielder in defense. In turn, Anderlecht saw their full-backs occupied with defensive tasks throughout most of the match.

Ajax smartly used this different set-up by having Blind and Van der Wiel making runs from deep, assisting wingers Ebecilio and Sulejmani, looking either to create two-versus-one situations here, or rather, to draw midfielders Kanu and Gillet out of position in order to create space in central midfield for Eriksen and De Jong.

 

Dealing with a single holding midfielder

As stated above, both sides played a 4-3-3, so they were characterized by a single holding midfielder, rather than the more defensive ‘double pivot’ in front of the defensive four. The way both teams tried to take advantage of this potential weakness of their opponent was quite different and more than worth a look.

Anderlecht played Boussoufa nominally in Enoh’s space in a role with loads and loads of positional freedom. In a man-marking system this might have simply  been enough to unsettle Enoh’s holding role, but in zonal marking systems, as probably all top flight teams would play using a single holding midfielder, things work slightly different. The roaming attacker would look to position himself either in close proximity of a team mate, looking for a two-versus-one situation, or look to fill in space created by a team mate.

While in theory a very nice concept, the fact that Ajax had spare men at the back at all times, their full-backs, meant the Enoh simply let Boussoufa go for most of the game, only picking him up in his own zone. Should Boussoufa drift very wide, one of the full-backs would pick him up and should he drift ‘semi-wide’, the full-back would tuck in and join the central defender, making it two-versus-two again.

The way Ajax looked to unsettle the single holding midfielder was slightly different, with special attention for El Hamdaoui. Although in for quite some stick recently, after his troubled first months under De Boer’s management and missing a final minutes penalty against Roda recently, Ajax striker El Hamdaoui played a crucial role in this match. He played a very intelligent false nine role throughout the game. El Hamdaoui’s false nine role forced Anderlecht’s centre-backs to make a choice whether to step out of the defensive line when El Hamdaoui dropped off, or to let him be dealt with by the holding midfielder.

Both of these situations were problematic though. A central defender stepping out with the full-backs occupied in wide positions would leave big holes in the defensive line for opposing attacking midfielders to make runs into. Leaving El Hamdaoui at the hands of Biglia, on the other hand, would see him overloaded, already facing Eriksen in that zone and not having Kanu and Gillet available to help out as they had to keep an eye on Ajax’ full-backs. In summary, Ajax overloaded Anderlecht’s midfield with advancing full-backs and a false nine striker.

Alderweireld (left, one assist and one goal) and Eriksen (two assists, one goal)

The goals

Although Ajax did not dominate the game in terms of the amount of possession or chances created or even shots on goal, the concepts outlined above were enough to see them take full advantage. In truth, the strategy described above was a quite risky one, as for large parts of the game, with the full-backs venturing forward and Enoh keeping an eye on Boussoufa, Ajax played one-on-one in defense. And should Stekelenburg not have prevented Anderlecht from opening the score on several occasions during the first half hour, the game would have been different for sure. Finally, missing the early second half penalty at a 0-1 score proved crucial.

Ajax’ second goal stood out in particular as El Hamdaoui’s false nine role could not have been demonstrated any clearer. On top of that, this fine Ajax move involved the three stars of the night. Toby Alderweireld was not pressed by any of the Anderlecht strikers and picked out Eriksen in behind the defensive line with an excellent long pass. The space for Eriksen was created by a text-book false nine run by El Hamdaoui, this time drawing one of the Anderlecht centre-backs from the defensive line.

Holland 4 – 1 Sweden: Lessons of a high defensive line

A clear victory in a match that Holland dominated. By exploiting Sweden’s high defensive line ‘Oranje’ managed to score an early goal and an in-form Afellay and Huntelaar built upon this to achieve a comfortable 4-1 margin.

Perhaps it’s not a unique situation, but it won’t happen all that often that when two countries fill in their first eleven names on the team sheets, the away team has as many players playing in the home team’s national competition as the home team itself. But so it was last night. Four Dutch starting players currently play for Eredivisie clubs: Stekelenburg and Van der Wiel for Ajax, and Pieters and Afellay for PSV. And last night’s Sweden team counted four active Eredivisie player too: Toivonen and Isaksson for PSV, Granqvist for Groningen and Wernbloom for AZ. Add to that the fact that Ibrahimovic, Elmander, Majstorovic are former Eredivisie players too!

 

The starting line-ups: Holland's familiar 4-2-3-1 and Sweden's 4-3-1-2 that started out more as a 4-1-3-2

 

The Dutch deep-lying playmaker

In the absence of Nigel de Jong, Holland tends to play a deep-lying playmaker 4-2-3-1 formation. A formation that allowed Rafael van der Vaart to excel in the previous match, a 0-1 victory in Moldova. In the preview on the Holland – Sweden match, the ins and outs of this formation have been discussed quite extensively.

The Swedish plan

Sweden manager Erik Hamren started with a 4-3-1-2 formation where Ibrahimovic and Elmander played as the striker pair, but with enough freedom to roam wide, looking to receive balls there. Another element of freedom was added by their frequent shifts with Ola Toivonen, the attacking midfielder, who regularly plays (or played) a striker role at his club PSV.

With the Dutch playmaker role now shifted more backwards, pressing the players Holland focuses on for their passing becomes more difficult. On one hand, Hamren deserves praise for his plan to press high, using a fairly high defensive line early on, but on the other hand his team’s failings to execute the plan were exposed within five minutes of play.

Playing a high defensive line is just an element needed to effectively press the opponent. Other elements needed to achieve this goal are a well-working offside trap and midfielders and attackers who press the man with the ball, most notably the opponents playmaker, or other well-known passers.

The first goal

It’s clear now that this pressing did not work out for Sweden. But why did it not work out? What element were they missing?

Looking at the build-up of the first goal provides some answers to this question. The screenshot below for one illustrates Sweden’s high defensive line, but it also shows Huntelaar dropping from the striker position to receive the ball at feet. He will lay it off immediately, but his movement reduced the Swedish back line to three man on line, if only for a short while.

 

Holland plays from left to right. Note Sweden's high defensive line as well as the fact that Huntelaar's run reduces their back line to three defenders

 

The ball is quickly circulated from the right to the left side of the Dutch midfield, Sneijder makes a move that’s very similar to Huntelaar’s move just a few seconds earlier, this time dislodging Sweden’s central defender Granqvist for a moment. At the same time Van der Vaart makes a run from deep into the area that is now vacated in central Swedish defense.

 

Note Sneijder (short arrow) making central space by dragging his marker away. Van der Vaart (long arrow) makes the run from deep

 

A brilliant touch by Sneijder plays Van der Vaart free in this area and Huntelaar finishes this nice team move. Two fairly identical runs to play the central defenders out of position and the high defensive line proves difficult to maintain.

After that

Sweden upped the pressure after the opening goal. Holland still dominated possession most of the time, but it was generally more in their own half now. By withdrawing Larsson and Wernbloom when not in possession to play more close in front of holding midfielder Svensson, they were better able to frustrate Holland’s passing game in the important areas. In fact, they started the match with an over optimistic 4-1-3-2 formation, in order to quickly adjust back to the 4-3-1-2 that was probably intended to be.

Ironically Sweden’s best first half chances also came from a failing of a high defensive line. Holland missed an offside trap an Toivonen found himself a clear run at goal, but his lob went just wide.

Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt had to be substituted halfway through the first half due to injury. He was replaced by PSV’s Jeremain Lens, a quick wing player who generally plays a more wide role than Kuyt does. This, according to the ‘split-winger’ principle, as explained in the game’s preview, meant more freedom for his contralateral wing partner Afellay to roam inside.

This inside winger role allowed Ibrahim Afellay to probably play the best game he’s played in an Orange shirt so far. While Lens played a very disappointing game, loosing possession most of the time, Afellay was very successful in his runs, was involved in a lot of attacks and managed to capitalize on a Sneijder pass after Sweden squandered a throw-in. A comfortable 2-0 half-time lead it was.

The second half

Far less interesting from a tactical point of view, the second half did offer more Swedish aggression early on. Unfortunately for them it mainly brought about a few yellow cards and perhaps more, should Ibra’s body-check on Heitinga have been seen by the ref.

Sweden could not maintain the required level of pressing as Holland’s midfield succeeded in playing a quick ball circulation. Again, Ibrahim Afellay excelled here. His cross found Huntelaar to score 3-0. With that goal Huntelaar managed to equalize Marco van Basten’s 24 goals for the national team, and he does so with only 40 caps played.

The game was mostly over by then of course. Afellay managed to grab a second goal to underline his excellent individual performance of the night and Andreas Granqvist got one back for Sweden late in the game.

In the end

Well, the deep-lying playmaker game worked very well again. Sweden’s high defensive line was rather easily exploited very early in the match. Of course, this put Sweden in an uncomfortable situation where, being a goal down, they had to come out and attack while at the same time they wouldn’t want to maintain this type of defensive line. This certainly came to the aid of Holland, but to be fair, it was a very good ‘Oranje’ game.

Having played two games now with this deep-lying playmaker 4-2-3-1 formation, it will certainly be difficult for Van Marwijk to go back to his defensive block of De Jong and Van Bommel together again. Next up is Turkey in a home friendly on November 17. We’ll see by then if Nigel de Jong still has his role to play like he did at the World Cup…

Holland – Sweden: A preview focusing on Holland’s deep-lying playmaker 4-2-3-1 system

Dutch national manager Bert van Marwijk has quite a unique record when it comes to qualification matches. After winning all eight of Holland’s World Cup 2010 qualification matches, a feat that has never been accomplished before, he managed to win the first three Euro 2012 qualification matches too. It is certainly true that these matches were played against the lower ranked teams of the qualification group, but winning nine points against San Marino away, Finland at home and, a few days ago, Moldova away makes for a nice start. And now it’s time for the more stern opposition that Sweden was expected to be.

Sweden national manager Erik Hamren went into this match defending quite a recent record of himself too. After all, winning all of his five matches as national manager and not conceding a single goal in the past four matches sounds quite impressive. Sweden beat Hungary 2-0 and San Marino 6-0, playing both matches at home, and with both Holland and Sweden going into this match with a perfect record the battle for first place in this group seems very much on.

 

The expected 4-2-3-1 against Sweden

 

No Nigel

Missing Nigel de Jong on disciplinary grounds has brought quite a change to the Dutch playing style. Although still lined-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the key shift has been the playmaker role. With de Jong on board, playing alongside Mark van Bommel, two ball-winning midfielders offered a huge physical presence to the defensive midfield. One of the benefits of this choice is obviously the strengthening of the central defense, which had been an Achilles heel to Dutch teams in the years before. But there are more benefits to it. The double pivot provides cover for both full-backs to venture forward, either doubling up on the wings by joining an outside winger, or providing with to the formation in the case of inside wingers or wing playmakers.

The team of the World Cup

The way Holland’s 4-2-3-1 has been playing without Nigel de Jong is quite different it seems, based on the recent match against Moldova. With Rafael van der Vaart besides ball-winning midfielder Van Bommel the playmaker role shifts from Sneijder to Van der Vaart. Furthermore, since Van der Vaart does not offer the amount of defensive cover that de Jong does, there’s no longer a free license to bombard forward for both full-backs. In the recent World Cup, both Van der Wiel at right-back and Van Bronckhorst at left-back were heavily involved in the building of the Dutch attacks. Remember Giovanni van Bronckhorst’s strike against Uruguay, anyone? The full-backs’ attacking involvement during the World Cup was so high that at times they were even the players with the highest amount of pass attempts.

Changes

Against Moldova, Van der Vaart excelled in his deep-lying playmaking role, completing no less than 91% of 103 pass attempts. So instead of playing around the defense-minded opponent, as indicated by both full-backs making most passes during the World Cup, the build-up seems more central now. In turn, the full-back have less freedom to venture forward. This connects well with the fact that left-back Pieters offers less of an attacking presence than his right-sided colleague Van der Wiel. Playing Dirk Kuyt, a natural striker who tends to link-up with lone striker Huntelaar in the centre of the pitch, offers room for Van der Wiel to go forward. On the left side, meanwhile, the winger has to offer more width, something which Afellay certainly did against Moldova, and should first-choice winger Elia have played this might have been the case even more so.

 

Rafael van der Vaart

 

Next up: Sweden

So, in conclusion, eliminating de Jong on disciplinary grounds presents Van Marwijk with an array of tactical shifts that connects well with his current squad. First we’ll have to see how this tactic holds against Sweden tonight, as they are expected to put more pressure on Van der Vaart in his deep-lying playmaker role. Furthermore, it is rather safe to omit some defensive stability against Moldova, but it’s interesting to see how this pans out against better opposition like Sweden.

Moldova 0 – 1 Holland: Is the deep-lying playmaker the way forward?

The runners up of the past World Cup have started their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign well. Holland is grouped with Sweden, Hungary, Finland and Moldova, San Marino. The Dutch and the Swedes were expected to battle for first place, and indeed so far these two team managed to win all of their matches.

Compared to the team that finished second in the past World Cup, Holland has been changed on several positions. In discussing the 0-5 away victory at San Marino, the positional changes have been explained in detail. Of the team playing the final against Spain three months ago, seven players featured again in the match against Moldova.

 

Mutations to the Dutch team

The four changes are mainly on the left side, where Erik Pieters plays at left back. The PSV players seems to battle for this position with the currently injured Vurnon Anita of rivals Ajax. Another PSV player features on the left wing, where Ibrahim Afellay replaces Eljero Elia, who is also injured at the moment, and of course Arjen Robben still misses out due to his hamstring injury too. Therefore, Kuyt is positioned on the right wing, instead of on the left as was the case during the World Cup.

The starting line-ups

Upfront in-form Klaas-Jan Huntelaar replaces the injured Robin Van Persie, which was also the case during the first two Euro 2012 qualification matches, where he managed to score no less than five goals, proving a huge contrast with Van Persie’s one goal during the seven World Cup matches.

The most notable mutation was of course the absence of Nigel de Jong who was punished for his violent tackle, injuring Hatem Ben Arfa in the Manchester City – Newcastle match. New Tottenham signing Rafael Van der Vaart was rewarded for his run of excellent performances for the Spurs by featuring alongside Mark van Bommel in defensive midfield, although his natural tendency the see a lot of the ball, meant that he played the deep-lying playmaker role , rather than de Jong’s ball-winning midfielder role.

 

The playmaker in a 4-2-3-1

Moldova, meawhile, set out with a flat 4-4-2 formation, keeping a deep defensive line and limiting space for Holland, who, as expected, dominated possession 63%-37%. The evolution of the 4-2-3-1 has taught us that the attacking midfielder, who originally was the second striker in a 4-4-2 formation, had been withdrawn into a midfield role, thereby creating a 3 v 2 dominance in the central midfield area. However, the better team’s 4-2-3-1 is more and more confronted with a packed midfield playing in close proximity of a four-men defensive line. ‘The classic nr. 10 struggle’ by Zonal Marking excellently describes the two alternatives taken up by the classic central playmaker in response to this defensive trend.

One response is the shift of the playmaker to the wing, in an, often inverted, inside wing role. Christiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid is an excellent example of this . The other response to the defensively packed attacking midfield area is to move the attacking midfielder further forward, looking to finish moves, rather than initating them. Wesley Sneijder’s development at Inter during the past and into the present season is an excellent example of this trend. His five World Cup goals underline his more advanced position and his tendency to finish moves rather than initiating them. With the introduction of Rafael van der Vaart behind Sneijder, Holland’s main playmaker is now Van der Vaart in a deep-lying role. Van der Vaart’s passing performance against Moldova was highly impressive, completing 91% of his 103 passes.

 

The first half

The game initially evolved pretty much as expected.’ Oranje’ dominated possession and played an extremely advanced defensive line in combination with intense pressure, looking to win balls early in their opponent’s half. Sneijder’s flair and technique provided a handful of opportunities, mainly for striker Klaas –Jan Huntelaar, but his shorts were stopped by the Moldovan goalkeeper. Shortly before half-time it was Huntelaar’s finishing skill after another Sneijder assist that provided the 37’ opening goal.

The Moldovan attack had been limited to two off-target long range shots and Holland created at least six attempts from inside the box. Just like in the match against Finland a few weeks ago, Holland gained the advantage of a first half goal, and just like in that match, a successful opponent’s tactical change was about to happen. Knowing that their initial plan to grind out a 0-0, Moldova made a few half-time changes.

 

Moldovan half-time changes

Curiously it was striker Viorel Frunza who was taken off the pitch. The tall front man had scored Moldova’s only Euro 2012 qualifications goal in the match against Hungary and he was expected to from their major attacking threat. On came Igor Bugaev, who had played just 28 minutes in two previous appearances as a sub in the matches against Finland and Hungary.

 

Moldova's flat 4-4-2 just after half-time. Note the extremely short field with Holland's already extremely high defensive line and Moldova pushing further forward too.

 

Their basic formation was still a flat 4-4-2, but their defensive line was pushed up a bit further and the midfield, as well as both strikers, aimed to press the Dutch players earlier. Again much like Finland did quite successfully a few weeks ago. Initially Moldova did not achieve what they must’ve been aiming for, and it was only for an excellent save from goalkeeper Namasco that Sneijder did not score a beautiful 52nd minute curling shot from just inside the box. Ten minutes later Dirk Kuyt should have put the game away for Holland, but his close range shot went well wide.

A rather messy phase followed. Moldova’s advanced defensive line tempted Holland’s midfield to play more direct balls who were by and large unsuccessful. Moldova, meanwhile, resorted to direct long balls hoping for a lucky flick in the box. In spite of a few half chances, mainly stemming from set pieces, Moldova didn’t come close to scoring the equalizer.

 

In the end

On simple observation this match may just be another of those ‘dominant team beating smaller but stubborn opposition’ matches. But there was more to it this time. Omitting Nigel de Jong and introducing Rafael van der Vaart in a deep-lying playmaker role changed the philosophy of Holland’s 4-2-3-1. With four attack-minded players in front of the, now deep-lying, playmaker, the variety of passing options available was certainly sufficient. Van der Vaart’s contribution of completing 91% out of 103 (!) passes ensured that possession could be converted into chances throughout the match.

Against Sweden we can count on the same interpretation again, and we’ll see whether it stands the test against higher rated opposition.

Post-script: thanks to Opta for providing Van der Vaart’s exact passing stats.

A rationally explainable, but emotionally dissatisfying 2-1 win of Holland over Finland

Another slightly delayed post on our recent national team’s performance. And yet again, for future reference and for the message conveyed in this particular match, it still is important to review Holland’s performance against a stubborn and, apart from the first 20 minutes, well organized Finland side.

Finland’s extremely deep 4-2-3-1 making Holland’s formation look like a 2-4-3-1

Oranje, as always, lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with man-in-the-hole Sneijder given a high degree of positional freedom, looking to see a lot of the ball and being involved in a very high proportion of the attacking plays.

But, while the central axis stands firm, the players that Van Marwijk uses on the wings bring variety to the line-up, and hence to the playing style. Part of this variety is forced, due to first choice wingers Robben and Kuyt being injured at the moment, but the wings are also the playground for switches in playing style, as we’ve seen in this match after the introduction of pacy wingers Elia and Lens.

In this game, van Marwijk uses new Tottenham signing Rafael van der Vaart on the left wing and PSV-star Afellay on the right. Both of these players are played slightly out of position, preferring a central role to dictate play behind one or two strikers. So we might anticipate a natural tendency to drift inside, potentially limiting space for Sneijder, like in the World Cup 2010 game against Denmark.

Another change to the line-up concerns the left-back position, which is up for grabs after Van Bronckhorst’s resignment. High-profiled candidates for this role at the moment are PSV’s Erik Pieters and Ajax’ Vurnon Anita, while also Royston Drenthe’s performances at Hercules will be eyed closely. Against Finland, Anita was preferred over Pieters, who playing an unconvincing game against San Marino.

The Finish self-fulfilling prophecy

Finland fielded a 4-5-1 variant with very deep positions for the side midfielders, probably anticipating fierce Dutch wing play. They chose to pack the midfield in numbers, in an attempt to break down the Dutch passing game and to limit spaces for Sneijder to drift into. However, their starting formation proved somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the lack of a direct opponent allowed the full-backs Anita and Van der Wiel to make frequent appearances on the wings. This doubling up on the wings proved particularly efficient on the right wing, where Afellay’s technical qualities contributed to a series of early right crosses.

Note the extremely deep 4-2-3-1 that Finland deployed in the opening phase of the game

The early opening goal was a direct result from the smart Sneijder-Van der Vaart connection. These players know each other extremely well, having grown up at the Ajax youth academy together and having played together at Ajax and Real Madrid. A quick trademark Van der Vaart pass found the run of Sneijder into the box, where Heikkinen initially cleared the ball for a corner. Immediately, the exact same players smartly combined for a short corner, allowing Sneijder to cross freely and find Huntelaar, another past Real Madrid man, for the header.

With the Finland team defending this deep, lacking all sorts of pressure, Holland was happy to circulate the ball, controlling possession and thus, given the early lead, controlling the game. Their technical superiority was always going to generate chances and a one-sided game was on the hands, even so that those in favor of describing the 4-2-3-1 as a 2-4-3-1, or even a 2-4-1-3 at times (Q8 in this Michael Cox interview), are encouraged to use the first twenty minutes of this game to convince people of their point.

A curious fifteenth minute foul, where Heikkinen slapped a running van Bommel in the box allowed Huntelaar to score from the penalty spot, his fifth goal in two matches. While everyone involved in this match might have been expecting a thumping of the Fins, it took only a few minutes for them to find a way back in to the match. Mikael Forsell got ahead of de Jong to head home from a corner.

The Finish ‘plan B’

Perhaps inspired by their quick response to going 2-0 down, Finland started to take the game to their opponents. They operated from a less withdrawn stance, looking to disrupt their opponents’ play a lot earlier. As illustrated by comparing the next screen with the previous one, before their goal they simple barred their box, cropping this area with players. Now, they positioned their first pressing line, consisting of the striker and the three players next in line (two wingers and the man-in-the-hole), between the Dutch back four and their midfield. This often led to positions like in the second screen, where Holland could no longer circulate the ball, patiently looking for an opening in the Finish defense. In big contrast to the first twenty minutes, lots of long balls and cross passes left the feet of central defenders Mathijsen and Heitinga. Furthermore, Finland confronted their opponents with a lot of early physical challenges, and, the modern tackle: interceptions.

The path to the encircled Van Bommel and De Jong now blocked by a more advanced Finish midfield

Despite previously being hailed for making successful in-match adaptations, this time Van Marwijk did not respond quickly enough and Finland succeeded in creating a handful of goal-scoring opportunities. If not for the shot stopping qualities of Maarten Stekelenburg, Oranje would have had to start all over again at this stage of the match.

Half time changes

The second half started with a deeper playing Dutch side, bringing more control to their game through longer spells of possession, albeit mainly around the halfway line. This deeper defensive outline forced Finland to either stretch their lines further apart, or give up their very deep defensive line. And while such a tactical plan may not warm the hearts of the demanding Oranje crowd, from a rational standpoint it seems justified. After all, Finland would have to score in order to gain anything from this match.

With both teams now sitting rather deep and refraining from early pressure, the game developed into a rather tame affair. A few sparks of Sneijder’s technical brilliance aside, Oranje did not succeed in breaking down the nine-men Finnish defense and Van Marwijk’s plan of sitting deeper did not lure the Fins away from their own half.

With about half an hour to go, Van Marwijk executed step two  if his plan to profit from the Fins having to give up the deep defensive line. He brought pace to the team, introducing Elia for Van der Vaart and Lens for Afellay. As the Finish team did indeed move a bit up the pitch in order to search for the equalizer, Holland tried to use this space for balls in behind their opponents’ defensive line, but often with too poor an execution to create real danger from it.

The final fifteen minutes of the game were mainly enjoyable for the frantic scansion of Ruud, Ruud, Ruud, with the crowd forcing Van Marwijk to bring his 34-year old cult hero on the pitch. While it could be received as somewhat of a disrespectful way to treat Huntelaar, he could always take comfort in his return of five goals in two Euro 2012 qualifications matches. Van Nistelrooy proved his excellent attitude by working hard during his ten minute spell on the pitch, but to no effect as the match panned out to a 2-1 score-line.

In conclusion, Finland will regret their all too defensive initial game plan and their English manager Stuart Baxter will be left wandering what would have been if he had started out the way Finland played after their goal. Van Marwijk did respond to the Finish change, although it took him until half time to do so. By sitting deeper against a Finish side that did not give in to chasing the equalizer, Oranje played the game out rather well from a rational point of view. The supporters in the half filled ‘De Kuip’ stadium however, took little comfort from this, having seen a rather dull second half in the first home match of the vice World Champion heroes.