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Has Holland expelled its obsession with possession football?

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

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


Counter attacks

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

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

Passing network Netherlands - Spain 1 - 5 Netherlands

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


Notational clichés

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

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


Passing network

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



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


More possession, more wins?

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

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

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 1 -2 Germany: The broken team…

A match that Holland needed to win in order to keep chances of qualifying to the knock-out stages of Euro 2012 in their own hands, ended in a bitter defeat. Germany had the better of the game, except maybe in the closing stages when Van Marwijk made some changes and Holland bravely, but desperately, chased an equalizer. In the end, Germany thoroughly deserved the victory, based on their tactical superiority and several key German players outperforming their Dutch counterparts.

The starting line-ups

The starting line-ups

A lot of speculation went on in the build-up to this game and most of it concerned whether Klaas-Jan Huntelaar should start ahead of Robin van Persie and whether Van der Vaart should be accommodated as deep-lying playmaker in favour of either Van Bommel or De Jong.

However, Van Marwijk opted for the same starting eleven that played against Denmark, with the exception of Joris Mathijsen who returned from injury at centre-back, at the expense of Ron Vlaar.

Germany manager Joachim Löw fielded the expected starting eleven.

 The first half

The game started out at a slow pace with both teams happy to take some time to settle in. In most matches, either one or both of the teams look to take advantage of open play turnovers to launch quick breaks, but this match was different early on. Both teams set out rather patiently, mainly aiming not to lose possession in dangerous areas, and knowing that not conceding might be the main objective early on.

But after this quiet opening phase, some interesting aspects could be seen. Holland had created a few chances when Van Persie used his excellent of the ball skills to get in behind the German defensive line, but he failed to convert his early opportunities. Germany soon adapted by dropping their defensive line a bit deeper, thereby opening up more space in midfield, which soon worked to their advantage.

Özil’s movement

Germany smartly used Mesut Özil’s lateral movement to unsettle the Dutch defense and take advantage of the large spaces in midfield with both teams’ defensive lines wary of conceding too much space in behind them.

As can be seen from the diagram below, Özil received passes both at the right and left offensive midfield area, indicating his smart lateral movement. Particularly on their right wing, Germany created numerous offensive moves, with Thomas Müller clearly dominating the struggling left-back Jetro Willems.

With Özil moving laterally, a choice had to be made in the Dutch defensive midfield zone. Nigel de Jong mostly covered Özil in his lateral runs, but this left Van Bommel on his own to cover the ground in front of the Dutch defense, where he was overloaded by Khedira and Schweinsteiger.

Broken team

The same diagram shows that Wesley Sneijder operated in his beloved left wing area, but his activity in this match was concentrated here even more than it was before. This is not to state Sneijder had a weak game, not at all, but the defensive part of his job as a central offensive midfielder was an area that Germany smartly exploited.

With Sneijder mainly staying high up the pitch and the Dutch defensive line wary of not conceding space in behind them, the ‘broken team’ problem appeared. The distances between the offensive four and the defensive six were way too large for Van Bommel to be covered, even more so with De Jong being dragged aside by Özil.

Broken wings

An area where Holland normally dominates their opponents are the wings. And both of them failed to perform here. Ibrahim Afellay had an anonymous game and failed to contribute. On the other wing, much of the credit should go to Philipp Lahm, who defended very well against his team mate Arjen Robben. Lahm, a right-footed defender who fills in at left-back for his country had the advantage of protecting against Robben’s inside runs with his stronger foot and prevented Robben from making his usual threatening runs. Germany’s excellent defensive performance also stood clear from the tackling chart (below), and from the fact that the Germans won 65% of the duels, a record high rate at European Championships since 1980.

Another reason for the disappointing wing performance was the complete lack of offensive contribution of the full-backs. Jetro Willems had his hands more than full defending Thomas Müller and Gregory van der Wiel failed to overlap and lend support to Robben.


 The main man for Germany was Bastian Schweinsteiger. The Bayern München midfielder smartly advanced in central midfield and teaming up with Sami Khedira, he overloaded Van Bommel on occasions that Özil had already dislodged De Jong sideways. This 3v2 battle in midfield proved crucial to created the two goal scoring chances that striker Gomez showed his clinical finishing skills on.

The second half

 The second half started with Klaas-Jan Huntelaar up front, Robin van Persie in behind him, coming mainly from a left wing role with the invisible Afellay removed, and with Rafael van der Vaart introduced for Mark van Bommel. The Dutch captain was the scapegoat for the disastrous first half, both in terms of tactical developments and in terms of players underperforming. After an initial ten minutes where Germanycould and perhaps should have taken advantage of a few good opportunities, Hollandslowly fought their way back into the match.

 Around the hour mark, Van Marwijk opted to switch Van Persie and Sneijder, much like he did in the closing stages of the Denmark game. For Sneijder, who already operated in that zone, not all too much changed, but Van Persie seemed liberated in his role as a second striker, sometimes joining up high with Huntelaar, sometimes dropping deeper to escape the attention of the German centre-backs. Another notable advantage of this change was that without a nominal wide left winger, it was easier to pose threats to the German defense. Before, the German defense was sure to outnumber the Dutch centrally, with Sneijder and Afellay by and large working in the same part of the pitch. But Van Persie’s vertical movement from a deeper lying striker position posed more problems for the German defense and more options for Sneijder’s passing from a static lateral position.

The improvement brought about by this chances was evident in the Dutch goal, where an Van Persie once again showed his excellent skills in creating, and this time also finishing, his own goal scoring chance.

 Overall it didn’t prove enough for the win and in fact the best chances in the second half fell to the Germans with goal keeper Stekelenburg proving his worth on attempts by Özil and Badstuber.

In the end

In a match where both the tactical performance and the individual player performances were below-par, Holland didn’t deserve anything more than this defeat. Germany smartly exploited the distance between the Dutch front four and the defensive unit and two well-timed runs from deep by Schweinsteiger were enough for the win.

Let’s not forget that Holland are not eliminated yet, a two goal win over Portugal might still do the trick if Germany beats Denmark in their final game.

Holland 0 – 1 Denmark: Dominating chances, but losing the game

Holland dominated the game 4 to 1 in terms of chances created, but failed to convert any of them, while Denmark smartly worked their left side of the pitch to score the only goal of the game. Simon Poulsen kept overlapping on Holland’s right side and one of his runs contributed to the only goal of the game. Holland’s offense looked on song in terms of creating, but lacked in finishing.


Starting formations

The starting line-ups

Holland lined up in the expected double pivot variant of their well-known 4-2-3-1 formation. Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel formed the pair of holding midfielders to protect the back four, where Ron Vlaar filled in for the injured Joris Mathijsen. Up front, Robin van Persie had a week earlier already been announced as the starting striker and 18-year old Jetro Willems got the nod ahead of Stijn Schaars at left-back.

Denmark’s system has been described as a 4-2-1-3 by the excellent Michael Cox of Zonal Marking. Much of the build-up runs through Christian Eriksen, who is the liaison player to link balls coming from the defensive unit of six and the front three. Denmark’s front three players present an interesting mix of different roles. Striker Bendter performs a classic number nine role in holding up the ball and tries to come at the end of crosses. Those crosses mainly come from the right wing, where Rommedahl exploits his pace. Left winger Krohn-Dehli provides more of an inside winger role, which creates space for offensive left full-back Poulsen to express strong offensive qualities.


The first half

With a positive, high-pressing approach, Holland dominated the majority of the first half. The Dutch operated from their double pivot 4-2-3-1 system, a system that sounds more conservative than it in fact is. A high level of pressing, with the front four pressing as high as the Danish goal keeper, won a lot of early possession and the back four found a nice balance in playing a high defensive line without being overlapped.

The major area of concern for Holland was obviously the Danish left side. While most, if not all, of the pre-match attention was focused on 18-year Jetro Willems at left-back, all of the trouble this game was found at Van der Wiel’s side. Not that the Ajax player was to blame here, Denmark smartly worked that side to overload Van der Wiel.

Danish left-back Simon Poulsen, who plays for Dutch side AZ, on a contract that runs out this summer, overlapped Arjen Robben, who consistently failed to track back. Instead, Van Marwijk seemed to have opted for one the holding midfielders to assist Van der Wiel in dealing with this threat. On top of winger Krohn-Dehli and full-back Poulsen, also playmaker Christian Eriksen frequently drifted into this area, turning it into Danish playground at times.

Still, despite this issue, Holland clearly dominated the game, and the first half stats of 16 shots to 5 told quite a story. However, by that time, on of Denmark’s left wing attacks had resulted in the opening goal. A second remarkable half-time stat, which also continued over the second half, was both teams completing over 80% of their passes, with Holland even over 90%. This might well be a tell-tale of the amount of space on the pitch, with neither side retreating, but pressuring forward instead.


The second half

With a clear dominance in the amount of chances created, there wasn’t much incentive for Van Marwijk to make any radical changes yet. And indeed, with 6 shots in the first 8 minutes of the second half, things seemingly went the right way for Holland. Apart from converting chances that is. The Danes, meanwhile, kept on working the left wing, but their crosses lacked quality in the second half, partly due to less bodies sent forward now.

Most of Holland’s dynamic offensive performance was run by an excellent performance of Wesley Sneijder. The Inter midfielder received 79 passes, which made him stand head and shoulders above his teams mates in this regard. He frequently drifted out to the left wing to make short combinations with Afellay and this pair completed 35 passes between them, way more than any other combination of players out on the pitch. Sneijder’s tendency to drift to the left also opened up space for Arjen Robben to make his characteristic, some would say predictable, inside runs. However, the Bayern player lacked a quality end-product, only shooting from long range and losing four of his five take-ons.



With the energy visibly drained in the warm circumstances, the need for substitutions was clear. Van Marwijk had a wealth of options available, but the fact that chances kept being created indicated that no switch in approach was indicated. Van Marwijk, confirming this in his post-match interview, opted to introduce Huntelaar for the drained Afellay. This moved Van Persie, who by then uncharacteristically had missed a series of good chances, into the hole behind the striker. Simultaneously, Van der Vaart was introduced in midfield to replace De Jong and Sneijder moved out wide left.

However, the goal would not come. Huntelaar’s chip on a delicious Sneijder through-ball was saved by Andersen and several long shots failed to find the target. With the final whistle near, Holland also had a penalty shout turned down, but these kind of things don’t make you lose a match. Failing to convert any of the 32 chances created does.

This type of match also signifies the difference between league and tournament football. Should a team start its 30-something campaign with a 0-1 loss and a 32-8 dominance in shots, they would look good for a title challenge as conversion will return to average level in the long run. In short competitions like these tournaments, however, there is no long run and the rare event of failing to convert 32 chances, while conceding a goal in one of 8 chances conceded, means elimination is nearby.


In the end

Overall Holland created 32 goal scoring chances, but failed to score. In tactical terms, Denmark made excellent use of the fact that Holland’s wingers, most notably Robben, failed to track back. This brought them the attack that produced the goal, but a series of dangerous crosses too. On the other hand, this handed Robben more freedom to make his runs, but the winger suffered from a lack of end-product.

The fact that Holland created this many chances means they did most of the things right and in a low scoring game upsets are always going to happen. And it is in short competitions like these tournaments that these upsets have drastic consequences. But this does not mean the approach has been wrong, or choices would have needed to be different. Van Marwijk and his team adopted an approach that would have won the game in most occasions, just not today…

Euro 2012 Tactical Preview: Double Pivot with RVP up top!

With less than a week until the kick-off of the next major international tournament, it is time to consider some tactical issues going into Euro 2012. And 11tegen11 is not the only one to do so. During the build-up to next week’s kick-off, for the Dutch on Saturday against Denmark, tactical issues are being discussed all around.

It is safe to say that around these major tournaments no Dutchman seems short of a powerfully formulated opinion on how the national team should play and it is striking to note how many of those take a different view compared to what the manager prefers. Thereby taking the easiest spot.

Should Holland not be crowned Champions of Europe in a few weeks time, things will be considered to have gone wrong. Fans having taken that easy spot of disagreeing with the manager will console themselves with their moral victory of having had a different view on how the team should have played and do seldomly concern themselves with the fact that the performance under their tactical preferences might have been the same, or even worse. Fitting with this excellent depiction by @Zone_14 on the Beyond the Pitch website, summarizing the Dutch football fans’ mentality as having a massive inferiority complex, wrapped in an ever great superiority complex.

That being said, this preview will now focus on the two most debated topics regarding the Dutch national team: which version of the 4-2-3-1 formation to play and which striker to use. Minor issues by now are the left wing area, where Ibrahim Afellay earned his starting spot over Dirk Kuyt, who played more matches than any other player under Van Marwijk, with a series of bright and energetic performances, showing that the Barcelona winger has returned to fitness in time, after injuring his cruciate ligaments early this season. Furthermore, the only position that has not been clearly settled yet is at left-back, where both Stijn Schaars and Jetro Willems compete for the starting spot. Young Willems barely has 1500 minutes of Eredivisie experience for PSV under his belt, but offers offensive qualities that seem more limited with Schaars playing. The Sporting Portugal player, however, offers more experience and this may give him the edge here.


The starting XI for Euro 2012

The formation

Obviously, Holland will operate in a 4-2-3-1 formation. They’ve done so for all of the past years and to no shortage of success. As has been extensively described earlier, Van Marwijk generally uses two different variants of that formation. The first one, used against comparable or superior level opposition, fields two genuine holding midfielders and will accordingly be termed The ‘ Double Pivot’ version. This was also the preferred version throughout the nearly successful 2010 World Cup campaign.

The second variant field one holding midfield and pairs him with a deep-lying playmaker, as Van Marwijk has preferred against defensive sides of inferior quality. This version will be termed the ‘ Deep-Lying Playmaker’ version and was used for most of the Euro 2012 qualifying matches.

It is safe to say that Holland will use the Double Pivot formation during Euro 2012. However, this still remains an area where the majority of the fans disagree with Van Marwijk. There is a loud voice demanding the creativity of Van der Vaart to be installed, rather than the defensive solidity of Nigel de Jong. A frequently heard phrase which is used here is that this “ brings more football to the team”, as if defending is not part of playing football…


Comparing the Double Pivot and the Deep-Lying Playmaker

When we arbitrarily consider all matches that Holland has played since the start of the 2010 World Cup, we find 29 matches, of which two can be excluded from further analysis. Against Ukraine they fielded a B-side in what most resembled a 4-3-3 formation, against Bayern Munich they did not play another country. Of the World Cup final we will consider the result after 90 minutes.

The Double Pivot was used in 20 matches and produced 2.39 points per game, while the Deep-Lying Playmaker was used in the remaining 7 matches to produce a magnificent 2.71 points per game.

However, this analysis would not be complete without considering the fact that the DP was used against significantly higher rated opponents compared to the DLP. The average FIFA ranking of the DP opponents is around the level of the Czech Republic, while the average DLP opponents ranked around the level of Hungary.


The striker

This is another example of the manager’s favorite versus the fans’ favorite. With the top scorers of both the English Premier League and the Bundesliga to choose from, some have termed this a luxury problem. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has won over lots of support among the fans with his magnificent goal scoring record in the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, while Robin van Persie’s goal draught at the World Cup helped Huntelaar’s case further.

Before we’ll go into the numbers here, consider the following. Would you prefer Holland to win the tournament, or the striker to score goals? Right, and that is exactly what is wrong with looking at the outcome side of things (goals, assists) on an individual basis in a team sport. There seems to be growing trend among comparable sports, like basketball and ice hockey, to look at team outcomes with particular individual players playing. For a number of reason, however, this methodology is difficult to translate directly to football.

The same set of matches that we used above shows us that KJH scored 14 goals in the 13 matches that he started as a striker, while RVP scored only 5 in 14 games starting as a striker. Ironically, RVP also scored five goals playing as a left winger while KJH started up top. Again, KJH played inferior opposition with the average FIFA ranking corresponding with Macedonia, while RVP’s opponents averaged the strength of Switzerland or Ireland.

Things are more relevant at team level, however, and with 2.57 points per game with RVP starting as a striker he certainly has the edge over KJH’s 2.15 points per game.


Which striker to play?

Combining the DP-DLP and KJH-RVP choices brings about the most interesting oberservations. It turns out that Holland has a record of 9-2-0 using the Double Pivot with Robin van Persie up top. Compare this with 5-1-3 with the DP and KJH up top…


In the end

It seems the Double Pivot with RVP up top brings the best results against teams of comparable or superior quality, and that’s exactly the type of teams Holland will meet in Poland and Ukraine over the coming weeks.

And it makes sense too. Installing a second defensive midfielder, in casu Nigel de Jong, rather than a more creative deep-lying playmaker, in casu Van der Vaart, provides more cover for the defense, by all means the weakest link in the chain that is the Dutch team. De Jong may be most known for his physical presence and tackling, but his pass completion percentage over the past season, in much the same role as he’ll play in Euro 2012, was a staggering 94%. In other words, he’ll give away less than one in 16 balls. An important part of diminishing the pressure on the defense behind him…

An important difference between RVP and KJH is the striker mobility. In his role at the national team, RVP tends to drift from the striker area, thereby opening up space for the wingers and offensive midfielder to take advantage of. Huntelaar may be the better finisher, but it’s the overall team performance that counts in the end.

Germany 3 – 0 Holland: Devastating result highlights tactical errors

Never before will a friendly have been billed so highly in the Netherlands as the past ‘friendly’ confrontation with Germany. Not only are matches between these two teams generally loaded with tension, but to see two favorites for the Euro 2012 title meet in a friendly just half a year before the main tournament might serve as an advert for friendly international football matches. In the end Bert van Marwijk will have regretted  this clash, though , as his side helped Holland slump to a marginal performance and a devastating 3-0 defeat to go with it.


Holland’s 4-2-3-1

The starting line-ups

Of the two 4-2-3-1 variants that Van Marwijk uses, the expected double holding midfielder variant came out against Germany. Ever since the World Cup, Holland tends to use that system against equal or superior sides, while against inferior estimated opposition the deep-lying playmaker variant has helped them install more creativity in the side.

Kevin Strootman partnered captain Mark van Bommel in defensive midfield to shield the defensive four, while the left flank experiment of the Switzerland match, with Hoffenheim’s Braafheid and Babel starting at left back and at the left wing, was given another chance. This meant that Dirk Kuyt made another start from the right wing, playing in a very narrow and confusing inside wing position. Up front, Huntelaar replaced Van Persie as Van Marwijk seemed to have agreed with Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger on a single friendly for Van Persie.


Germany’s 4-2-3-1

Against Ukraine Löw experimented with a three-at-the-back two striker formation, which ended up in a 1-3 score at half time with Germany pulling two back in the second half. In the match, Löw turned to his usual 4-2-3-1 formation that involves intelligent midfield movement of the three central midfielders and central role for striker Klose, both literally and figuratively speaking.

With Schweinsteiger and Lahm not playing, Joachim Löw featured young Toni Kroos in midfield beside Khedira. Löw played Jerome Boateng at right-back and Dennis Aogo at left-back. Holger Badstuber partnered Mertesacker at centre-back. Formation wise, Germany’s midfield three kept nicely tight, while Kroos and Khedira took turns going forward, using excellent decision making to join the offense when needed.


Dutch midfield problems

The fifteen minutes between the kick-off and Müller’s opening goal illustrated several tactical differences between the two sides, although they were playing essentially the same formation.

The first issue concerned the level of pressing. Germany looked rather happy to sit back and have Holland circulate the ball between the centre-backs and defensive midfield up until around the halfway line. Holland, on the other hand, somewhere felt the need to aggressively press Germany’s possession as far as the goal keeper. In order to achieve this pressing, Sneijder regularly advanced beside Huntelaar, thereby severely depleting the Dutch central midfield area. At times Germany were able to circulate the ball past or around this first level of pressure into midfield and this allowed them to exploit the 3v2 advantage in that department.

Out of possession, Holland partly solved the problem of being a man down in central midfield with Kuyt’s confusing narrow role, where he acted more as a fourth central midfielder than as right winger, the role he would have been expected to take. The problem with this inside narrow role arose on turnovers, with Holland suddenly playing a very narrow formation, having difficulty creating enough space for their ball circulation, with a lot of difficulty for Sneijder to express himself. On top of that, Kuyt may be admired for his work rate, adding balance to a creative offensive team, but his movement between the lines and short passing skills are not what brought him to the national team.


Striker issues

Another interesting observation concerns the Dutch strikers. The issue of whether to play Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (KHJ) or Robin van Persie (RVP) is a matter of continuous debate, even more so with KJH seemingly scoring freely for his country and RVP doing the same for his club. Both striker play an inherently different game, and Van Marwijk’s two different 4-2-3-1 variants may demand two different types of players up front.

The offensive variant with the deep-lying playmaker added besides a single holding midfielder, the variant that worked very well during the Euro 2012 qualifying matches, mostly played against inferior opposition, demands poacher-like qualities, offered by KJH. The striker, in this formation, is mainly there to provide the finishing to the creative moves started by the offensive midfielder and the deep-lying playmaker.

The more defensive variant, with a double pivot of two holding midfielders, the variant that worked very well in the World Cup 2010, as well as in friendlies against Uruguay and Brazil, demands more creativity up front, coming from a deep-lying striker role as offered by RVP. The striker, in this particular formation, is there to assist in the construction of attacks and the create space for others to take advantage of.

Against Germany, the poacher striker in the double holding midfielder formation did not work, while the same can be said for RVP in the deep-lying playmaker formation in the recent Switzerland match.



The German goals

Thomas Müller’s opening goal crowned his sublime instinctive near post run, which saw him reduce the man-marking applied by Mathijsen to a non-existent level. After that, the German lead exaggerated the midfield related pressure problems that were already apparent at 0-0, but increased as the Germans looked comfortable without the need to apply early pressure on their opponents. Even before thirty minutes were played, Miroslav Klose finished off the best German pass and move attack of the game. Starting off with a Manuel Neuer goal kick, eight ground passes allowed Klose a long range header that he executed skillfully to drive the ball past Stekelenburg.

The third goal rewarded Mesut Özil for his excellent movement between the lines, as he combined with Klose and Müller and ended up placing the ball into an empty net after a combination through the heart of the Dutch defense.


In the end

This friendly highlighted several tactical issues in Van Marwijk’s team. The combination of the defensive double pivot midfield variant of the 4-2-3-1 and Huntelaar’s poacher qualities did not work. O nthe other hand, Huntelaar’s recent goal scoring glut during the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign showed his qualities to match the more offensive deep-lying playmaker variant much better, off course, taking into account the bias of using that system preferentially against inferior opposition.

Furthermore, the over-optimistic pressure on a high quality opponent like Germany proved counterproductive. And finally, to no surprise, the role of inside winger does not suit Kuyt very well.

Holland 0 – 0 Switzerland: Clever Swiss game plan unsettles Dutch offense

Friendly international matches are usually good for two things: testing out different tactics and/or assessing the usefulness of alternative players. In that regard, Van Marwijk must have had a useful experience to see his side play to a disappointing draw against Switzerland, who came out with a cunning strategy that proved very successful in negating the Dutch offensive strengths, while highlighting the lack of offensive alternatives.


The starting line-ups. Note Switzerland's narrow midfield and their high defensive line to go with the advanced pressing midfield.

Holland’s 4-2-3-1

Van Marwijk’s line-ups have always looked the same and this match was no exception to that. Generally, he has created two distinct variations of the 4-2-3-1 to choose from, based on the quality of the opposition Holland faces. Against equal or superior opposition he tends to opt for the double pivot of two genuine holding midfielders to protect the back four, like for example the most recent friendlies against Brazil and Uruguay, with Strootman and Nigel de Jong. And to break down inferior sides, he tends to introduce a second, deep-lying playmaker to break down the opposition, generally with Van der Vaart playing beside a holding midfielder. Against Switzerland it was the deep-lying playmaker variant of the two, which, by the way, did not contain any Eredivisie players in the starting line-up for the first time since Euro 2000.

In personal terms, Van Marwijk had to do without both of his first choice full-backs, as Van der Wiel and Pieters were both out with injuries. Further absentees are the long-term injured wingers Afellay and Robben and striker Huntelaar, while captain Van Bommel and midfielder Strootman will be rested. Holland fielded an all-Hoffenheim left wing, with Edson Braafheid and Ryan Babel, while Nigel de Jong partnered Van der Vaart in defensive midfield, with Van Persie in the striker role.


Switzerland’s game plan

Defending against superior opposition can generally be done in one of two different styles. Either committing yourselves and limiting the amount of possession and attacks by pressing aggressively in a compact midfield style, generally combined with a high defensive line that aims for off-side, or sitting back deep and absorbing the pressure, while trying to limit the damage done. Two excellent demonstration of the fact that both variants can obtain success against a top side are Athletic Bilbao’s recent aggressive man-marking approach that held Barcelona at 2-2 earlier this week, and Hercules Alicante’s deep retreat that brought them a 0-2 win in Nou Camp’s first match of the past season.

Otmar Hitzfeld had his team press Holland very aggressively and compactly in a zonal marking system, aiming to reduce the amount of opposition possession, while creating some danger themselves from midfield turnovers. The formation of choice was quite similar to Holland’s, a 4-2-3-1, and a high defensive line ensured that the amount of space between the high pressing midfield and the defensive four stayed limited.


Swiss pressure

Right from the off, Holland had a tough time dealing with the compact pressure applied by the Swiss. Their two defensive midfielders that characterize the 4-2-3-1 formation limited the operating space for advanced playmaker Sneijder, while deep-lying playmaker Van der Vaart was harassed constantly by narrow Swiss wingers and a defensively active central trio of Inler, Shaqiri and Dzemajli.

The Swiss strategy to allow both Sneijder and Van der Vaart virtually no time on the ball worked very well.  Not only did Holland fail to reach their usual home game possession rates over 60%, but the Swiss pressing won them some nice turnovers around the halfway line that led to some early goal scoring opportunities. On the other hand, on a few occasions they proved unable to provide enough pressing with some through-balls in behind the Swiss defensive line, most notably one for Ryan Babel, as a result.


Dutch alternatives

With both central playmakers virtually eliminated by the narrow and aggressive Swiss pressing, Holland resorted to circulating balls to the flanks. But, be it coincidentally or not, this was the area where all four first choice players were unavailable. In the first half, full-backs Braafheid and Boulahrouz were provided a fair share of possession, but failed to turn that into well constructed offensive moves, while in the second half they took such optimistic advanced positions that even circulating the ball towards them became problematic.

Left winger Ryan Babel could be identified as the most active of Dutch players, being granted a starting place in ‘Oranje’ for the first time in three years, but he failed to convert the handful of chances he was provided with, or created himself with outside-in runs, characteristic of his inverse winger role.



The second half

Come the second half, with the even more advanced position of both full-backs, Holland resorted more and more to a direct style of play, somewhere reminiscent of the World Cup 2010 reactive style of play. For example Sneijder’s counter-attacking long ball into space where Van Persie’s shot went only just wide reminded of his pass that launched Robben for Holland’s opening goal against Slovakia in the WC 2010 first knock-out round.

Some hope on the Dutch bench may have been raised by speculating on the fact that Switzerland would not be able to maintain their intense level of pressure come the final stage of the match, but their endurance was excellent and they maintained their work rate to the end.


In the end

The Dutch fans provided loud whistles of displeasure at the end of the match to voice their discontent at their team’s goalless draw, and manager Van Marwijk will have some homework to do. His team did not work their way around the compact central pressure provided by Switzerland and a lack of efficiency of possession in wide areas is definitely something to work on, although this might also improve with the return of several first choice players.

Sweden – Holland 3 – 2: First competitive defeat within 90 minutes for Van Marwijk’s Oranje

With a 3-2 victory over a Dutch side that was unbeaten in competitive 90 minutes matches since 2007, Sweden managed to qualify directly for Euro 2010, claiming the best record of second placed teams. It wasn’t even a bad game from the Dutch side, but three goals were conceded rather cheaply from set piece related chances and despite initially coming back after the opening goal, Holland suffered an unnecessary defeat.


Holland’s 4-2-3-1

Van Marwijk opted for the same starting eleven that had defeated Moldova 1-0 just a few days earlier. Despite that unconvincing score line, the 24 goal scoring chances created tell the more justified optimistic story, with a particularly impressive first half, and a rather disappointing fade in the second half of that match.


The starting line-ups

Sweden’s different game plan

Manager Hamren adjusted his game plan for this match, knowing that his team’s optimistic high line was quickly punished by Huntelaar’s false nine activity in the first group match between these teams. Sweden conceded two early goals in similar fashion, where Dutch players were played in behind their high defensive line after striker Huntelaar had dislodged one of the central defenders from the back line.

This time around, Hamren had his back line apply zonal marking, rather than following the central striker upon his backward wanderings into the advanced midfield area. This did allow Holland a numerical advantage in midfield, but at least it allowed the back four to remain intact and they dealt much better with the Dutch offensive threats.


The first half

Holland dominated the first half, albeit more in irrelevant terms like time of possession of the ball and number of passes connected, rather than in terms of goal scoring chances created. In line with this, the first half finished with a level score line, 1-1. Sweden got their goal by directly converting a cheaply conceded free kick outside the box, when inexperienced defender Bruma tugged the shirt of striker Elmander, who already found himself isolated and rather far from goal.

Facing a goal down only for the fifth time in Van Marwijk’s reign, Holland continued like they did before. Huntelaar’s false nine role, as described above, provided the extra man in midfield, where Holland’s three man midfield already did a good job against Sweden’s flat four man midfield. In response to the ‘two central Swedish midfielders versus three central Dutch midfielders’ problem, both Sweden’s wide midfielders played rather narrow. This, in turn, liberated space for both Dutch full-backs, and Pieters and Van der Wiel could be seen in offensive action with a high number of early crosses swung into the box.

One of these early crosses found Huntelaar’s head for the equalizer, a goal that crowned a beautifully timed high pace run into the box, after the striker initially played a role building up the same attack around the midway line.

Van der Vaart’s role in this game also deserves a mention. Against Moldova he suffered in the offensive midfield role, being unable to receive as many passes at feet as he would have desired. This time, he tried to solve this problem by dropping a bit deeper from the crowded zone right in front of the Swedish back line. This also allowed Huntelaar a tad more space for his false nine activities.


The second half

Based upon the first half balance, and the come-back goal before half time, a Dutch victory was more on the cards than the eventual loss that followed in the end. And things did look brightly when another excellent display of Huntelaar’s movement unlocked the Swedish left-back zone. A subsequent chip by Van der Vaart found Van Persie, whose effort was blocked, upon which Kuyt scored from the rebound.

Two Swedish goals in a few minutes time then turned the game around before the hour mark. First Sebastian Larsson converted a penalty, after Mathijsen was unlucky to block a cross with a raised hand while sliding to block that same cross. And a few minutes later, Toivonen fired home a rebound from the edge of the area after Johan Elmander, not renowned for his pace, had beaten Mathijsen in a run out wide after a quickly taken throw in.

In the remaining half hour, Sweden, knowing that a successful defense of this lead would see them through to the Euro 2012 main tournament, gave their all and held onto the narrow lead. Van Marwijk initially made a one-for-one substitution, introducing Elia for Kuyt and later on brough an extra striker with Luuk de Jong for Kevin Strootman. But Holland didn’t find a way through the Swedish defense.



In the end

Despite dominating in terms of possession (73%), Van Marwijk’s team only just created more chances than the Swedes did. Holland managed eight shots on target from eleven attempt, while Sweden managed five from nine attempts. And in a low scoring game like football is you’re likely to lose a game every once in a while with these kind of numbers.

The goals Holland conceded were rather cheap, and provided a display of the relative weaknesses of this team. Young Jeffrey Bruma, playing in the absence of Heitinga, conceded a foul too many and Joris Mathijsen was unlucky for the second goal and beaten on pace for the third one. Up until the third Swedish goal, Vorm hadn’t made a single save and he was forced into only two more for the remainder of the match. In that regard, the Dutch defense performance wasn’t all that bad.

In offensive terms I think it’s safe to say that Wesley Sneijder’s long range passing and long range goal scoring threat was dearly missed in both the Sweden and Moldova game. Against Moldova, Van der Vaart struggled to receive enough passes at feet, while against Sweden he solved this by dropping a bit deeper, thereby involuntarily reducing the amount of offensive threat posed. A positive note with regard to work rate was Huntelaar’s excellent false nine role, but when the opponent consequently sticks  to a zonal marking back line, this concept loses a lot of effectiveness. Keeping the striker up front and pushing Van der Vaart more forward may have posed more problems for the Swedish back line.


Match stats provided by Infostrada Sports

Holland 1 – 0 Moldova: Fluid first half performance earns ninth consecutive Euro 2012 qualifying win

World Cup runners up Holland didn’t play the most convincing of games, but still succeeded in maintaining their impressive recent run of results. A fluid first half performance, characterized by lots of positional interaction among all forward and midfield players, ensured the victory, but the second half fade left an aftertaste of slight disappointment.


Holland’s run in numbers

Current national team manager Bert van Marwijk took charge 2008, and his first job was to lead Holland through the qualifiers for the 2010 World Cup. Eight wins in eight matches followed. In this period, Holland also played 13 friendly matches, including the preparation campaign for the 2010 World Cup main tournament, winning 6, drawing 6 and losing only one match, Van Marwijk’s second match in charge, where Holland gave away a 1-0 lead to end up losing 1-2 at home against Australia.

The impressive run of six World Cup 2010 games won and a final drawn over 90 minutes (and subsequently lost after extra time) was followed by the present Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, where all nine matches were won. In between, four friendlies were played, with wins against Austria and Turkey and draws away at Uruguay and Brazil.

Compiling all that together, Van Marwijk currently holds a 31-10-1 record, going 40 matches unbeaten, whereby the World Cup final is counted as the draw that it was after 90 minutes. The last time the Dutch national team lost a competitive game over 90 minutes does not go back to the Euro 2008 quarter final, as a Van Basten led side lost 1-3 to an Andrey Arshavin inspired Russian team in extra time there (thanks for pointing this out in the comments section. The 2007 defeat against Belarus was the last Dutch defeat in 90 minutes of playing time.

The starting line-ups. The amount of arrows depicts the fluidity up front, with different players taking up the vacancy created both at the striker area and the right wing area.

The 4-2-3-1 in names and execution

Van Marwijk consequently sticks to his 4-2-3-1, and given the above mentioned run, has every reason to do so. Against Moldova, Holland had to do without the injured Robben, Sneijder, Heitinga and Stekelenburg, which made for interesting choices.

Up front Van Marwijk made the same choice as he did in the matches against Finland and San Marino, playing Robin van Persie from the right wing in an inside forward playmaking role with loads of positional freedom. One thing was different in this right wing area though, the vacancy created by Van Persie’s free role was alternatingly filled by Huntelaar, Van Bommel and Van der Wiel, rather than the more predictable marauding runs of the right full back that we used to see before.

Behind striker Huntelaar, Rafael van der Vaart was provided the opportunity to start in his preferred advanced central midfield position. Not an easy task beforehand, given that he had to fill the boots of Sneijder, who regularly displays both his elite long range passing skills and his long range goal scoring threat in that area. Not surprisingly, Van der Vaart didn’t convince in a crowded central midfield area, mostly because his team mates had trouble finding him at feet.

Finally, young HSV defender Jeffrey Bruma and in-form Swansea goal keeper Michel Vorm replaced Heitinga and Stekelenburg.


Moldova’s game plan

National manager Balint summed up his feelings quite well after the game, when stating his happiness with the limited defeat, stressing the four and five goals Holland scored against Sweden and Hungary respectively.

And to be fair, Moldova succeeded quite well in limiting damage with their ambitionless 4-5-1 line-up. The aimed to keep things compact by taking a deep stance and in fact considering their five man midfield and extended defensive line, rather than displaying any offensive intentions themselves.


Contrasting halves

There was a huge contract in the match between the first and the second half. In the first half, Holland kept a high pace, thanks to their quick passing, which seldom saw players taking more than three touches before passing the ball on. On top of that, nearly all free kicks were taken immediately, and most important of all, the opposing players were pressed very early on. This resulted in Moldova’s possessions lasting under ten seconds in the far majority of times, contribution to the high pace of the game, which benefited the Dutch team.

A further part of the high pace that was crucial to the success of the first half was the limited amount of fouls by both sides. The first half saw only five fouls by both teams, while in the second half the Dutch team ‘overfouled’ their opponents, making no less than nine fouls, compared to only two for Moldova.

Although the final 1-0 score line suggested a close game, the balance in terms of goal scoring chances told a different story. Holland created 24 chances, 12 in each half, against two by Moldova, both in the second half. A vintage display by Moldova goal keeper Namasco could be held responsible for the limiting the Dutch squad in expressing their dominance in the score line.


Midfield dilemma’s

In previous tactical reviews of the Dutch national team, the two different versions of the 4-2-3-1 system have been explained. Against superior opposition Van Marwijk prefers a genuine double holding midfielder system, like he used in the World Cup with Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, while in order to break down inferior opposition, he prefers a deep-lying playmaker beside captain Van Bommel.

Before the appearance of Strootman as a first team regular for the Dutch national squad, things were quite clear in that regard. Playing either De Jong or Van der Vaart in that second defensive midfield spot forced Van Marwijk to show his cards. But with the introduction of Strootman things are a bit more complex. In fact he offers a hybrid between both the defensive and the more offensive variants of the system.

Strootman is very well capable of providing the physical presence the assist in the defensive part of the midfielder job, though it remains difficult to reach De Jong’s level of tackling. And on the offensive side, Strootman’s passing is up there with the best, as his 135 passes for a 93% completion rate of the Moldova match illustrated. While he may not offer the creativity and flair of Van der Vaart, he’s perfectly comfortable distributing the ball around at high pace.

So he offers a combination of the defensive and offensive variants already provided by Nigel de Jong and Rafael van der Vaart in that area. It’ll be very interesting to see Van Marwijk’s preferences once the four of De Jong, Strootman, Van der Vaart and Sneijder are all available for selection.


In the end

Given the dense calendar of modern professional footballers, the current system of qualification for major tournaments has come in for quite some stick. The 100% record Holland holds in the past World Cup and Euro 2012 qualifying campaigns supports the fact that selecting the best teams is hardly an argument to make in favor of the present system.

What it does offer, though, is a series of semi-competitive matches that allows the managers, players and not least the fans to get acquainted with their team and the qualities in-depth at their disposal. In that regard, the Moldova match contained some interesting points. Fluidity up front, with several different players taking turns on the wide positions, rather than predictable full-back overlapping runs and the concept of Strootman combining aspects of De Jong’s and Van der Vaart’s game in midfield.


Match data provided by Infostrada Sports 

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.