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.
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.
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.
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.
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.