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.
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.
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.