Category Archives: World Cup 2014 qualifying

Romania 1 – 4 Holland: An important win with a secret return to two holding midfielders

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.

The starting line-ups

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.


Holland 2 – 0 Turkey: Camouflage for defensive frailties

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.


Holland’s 4-3-3

The starting line-ups

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.


Turkey’s 4-2-3-1

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.