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Tactical considerations for the upcoming ‘Oranje’ matches

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

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


Two tactical variants

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

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

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


Central midfield

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

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



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

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

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


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

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

Uruguay 1 – 1 Holland: A narrow offensive formation without the finishing touch

In a re-match of the past World Cup semifinal, Holland drew 1-1 with Uruguay. Suarez’ late opening goal seemed enough for the win, but an extra-time header by Dirk Kuyt ensured that Van Marwijk kept his excellent record as national manager intact. In tactical terms, Van Marwijk experimented with a very narrow fluid front four, playing Van Persie behind striker Huntelaar.


Holland’s 4-2-3-1 for today

The starting line-ups

As if to underline the statement that simple numerical notations fail to deliver accurate descriptions of the positional relations on the pitch, Holland appeared in a totally different flavor of 4-2-3-1 today. In personal terms only two changes were made in comparison to the Brazil game four days ago, but in terms of playing style, a truly different team was seen today. Boulahrouz replaced van der Wiel at right-back and Robben was kept sidelined due to a slight inguinal strain, freeing up the much desired starting spot for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar up front. Van Persie dropped to the offensive midfield role, with Afellay now left and Kuyt right winger.


Uruguay’s 4-3-1-2

Although Uruguay’s formation was not all that different from the 4-3-1-2 they fielded against Holland in the World Cup semi-final, the return of Luis Suarez, who was suspended for that game after his handball against Ghana in the quarter-final, made quite an impact in tactical terms. The front three now consisted of three true strikers, which initially led to a large gap between the midfield and the front three.

All three strikers carry an inherent talent for roaming and drifting, as Suarez, Forlan and Cavani are all used with a lot of positional freedom at their respective clubs. Therefore, they regularly dropped off and cycled their positions amongst them. In midfield and defense most players kept to a disciplined role to compensate for the offensive nature of the front three.


The first half

Although Van Marwijk fielded another 4-2-3-1 variant, in terms of playing style, his changes made quite an impact. Holland used a high degree of positional freedom among their offensive four players. Not only did Huntelaar and Van Persie, both nominal, although very different, central strikers, switch position constantly, but also Afellay tended to switch with the offensive central midfield player to take up the role that he performed so well against Brazil. On top of that, even Kuyt played mainly as an inside winger, which made the whole attacking line-up quite narrow.

The narrowness was well expressed on the right flank, where Holland relied on Boulahrouz to provide width there, which led to no less than 18 runs from deep from the Holland right-back. Admittedly, he didn’t have a direct opponent for most of the time, with Uruguay’s strikers all having a tendency to drift to the right, but Boulahrouz’s qualities are nowhere near Van der Wiel’s offensive skills and it would have been highly interesting to see the Ajax youngster in a match like this.

For the first quarter of the match, Holland’s narrow front four did good business. They maintained a high level of pressure, winning a lot of early balls and their short ground combinations were a joy to watch. Uruguay suffered from a ‘broken formation’ problem during that stage of the game, allowing De Jong and particularly Strootman to easily control the central midfield area, winning a lot of balls early in Uruguay’s possession.

It took until about the 25th minute for Uruguay to find the right balance between their midfield and offensive lines. Two of Cavani, Forlan and Suarez consequently dropped deeper, which helped change the orange-dominated first 25 minutes. Uruguay seemed more able to control possession and worked their way to some chances too. The best of those chances, a quick break through Suarez should have seen Cavani hit the back of the net with a header, but Pieters arrived only just in time to clear the ball off the line.


A fine line of balance

The before-mentioned attack illustrated Holland fragility playing this narrow-offensive formation. With Van Persie in the offensive midfielder role, Holland actually played a 4-2-4 formation in possession. Particularly with the wingers taking up narrow positions it was difficult for the two of De Jong and Strootman to defend the wider midfield areas.

So any unexpected loss of possession would allow Uruguay the chance for quick breaks starting from those areas, of which they had a handful during the first half.


The second half

Van Marwijk did try to solve the first half issues by adapting his wingers from the start of the second half. Afellay and Kuyt played wider and less offensive. With Van Persie initially occupying rather advanded positions, this turned the formation in a 4-4-2 shape. However, the fluidity remained as both 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 seemed correct at different phases of the game.

Although it started along the competitive lines of the first half, the game gradually adopted more and more friendly-like characteristics during the second half. No less than eight substitutions interrupted the flow of the game and up until Suarez’ late opening goal, the true competitive spirit was lacking.

However, Van Marwijk will be truly pleased with Kuyt’s winner in extra-time, which ensured that Holland maintained its excellent record of no ’90 minutes’ losses since September 2008


In the end

It’s interesting to see Van Marwijk taking the occasion of two top level friendlies to experiment with first defensive training in a disciplined 4-2-3-1 against Brazil and now a narrow offensive formation against Uruguay. Admittedly, a draw was probably a fair result as Holland’s defensive wide frailties were well exposed after Uruguay started dropping two forwards deeper to connect with their midfield.

With the front four playing this narrow, the much needed width could have been provided by playing with wing-backs. In this match however, Boulahrouz’ offensive shortcomings were well illustrated by the lack of danger coming from his 18 runs from deep. But with Gregory van der Wiel, Holland has an ideal candidate for this kind of position. It will be interesting to see whether this narrow 4-2-3-1 line-up will be used in the near future, and if so, how much of a difference Van der Wiel can make.

Brazil 0 – 0 Holland: Lessons from a useful friendly

In what was beforehand regarded as a potential ‘unfriendly-like friendly’, Holland kept Brazil at 0-0 in a rather disappointing match, more so from the host’s perspective than from the guest’s. From a Dutch perspective, several interesting lessons were to be learned. For one, goal keeper Tim Krul made an impressive debut, keeping a clean sheet in the process. Furthermore, the absence of Sneijder and Van der Vaart saw a return to a more genuine double holding midfielder version of the 4-2-3-1. This system, that Van Marwijk also used during the World Cup, offers more defensive stability than the 4-2-3-1 with a deep-lying playmaker and it proved itself with a clean sheet in this difficult away match. In most matches Van Marwijk will probably need the more offensive version of the 4-2-3-1, including the deep-lying playmaker, to break down inferior opposition, but a more defensive alternative seems welcome against equal or superior opposition, like for example  during the Euro 2012 tournament.


Brazil’s 4-3-3

As expected in the build-up to the coming Copa America, Mano Menezes fielded a full-strength first team. However, several interesting choices were to be seen in it. The first one being the left-back position, where Real Madrid regular Marcelo wasn’t even selected for this match and Fenerbahce’s Andre Santos played instead.

In midfield, the same three players from Brazil’s previous friendly featured in a compact triangle, with Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva acting as the holding midfielder. This relatively sober and compact midfield meant that any creativity had to come from the wide attackers, Robinho on the right and 19 year old Neymar on the left. Up front, Fluminense captain Fred played the classic, rather static number nine role, allowing both wide players to connect with him at feet and express their creativity.


Holland’s 4-2-3-1

The starting line-ups

The main absentees in Van Marwijk’s selection were Maarten Stekelenburg, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. And with second choice goal keeper Michel Vorm also out injured and World Cup third choice veteran goal keeper Sander Boschker no longer featuring on a regular basis for Twente, some choices had to made there. Van Marwijk allowed Newcastle’s Tim Krul his debut, keeping N.E.C.’s Jasper Cillessen on the bench.

Up until the final minutes before the kick-off, speculation was still going on about the adjustments made in the absence of Sneijder and Van der Vaart. The latter has firmly established himself as Holland’s deep-lying playmaker with excellent performances in the recent Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. A true one-for-one substitute in this role would only be Barcelona’s Ibrahim Afellay, who acted in this role during his final season and a half at PSV. But using Afellay in this deep-lying role would require someone else to step into Sneijder’s shoes in the offensive midfield position. Using Van Persie here and playing Huntelaar as the lone striker would seems the most rational approach then, but Van Marwijk opted for a different solution.

Perhaps pressed by the offensive qualities offered by both Robinho and Neymar, he played two genuine holding midfielders, which allowed either of them to assisted their full-back in defending Brazil’s main offensive threats. Utrecht’s Kevin Strootman was fielded beside Nigel de Jong, with Afellay in a central offensive midfield role and Robin van Persie up front.


Two teams in different phases

The most interesting aspect of the game was the fact that both sides went into it with completely different intentions. Brazil is one the brink of the important Copa America tournament, which will provide the final series of competitive matches before the 2014 World Cup is contested in their home country. No less than a win will do for the expectant Brazilian fan base, and therefore, for Mano Menezes to keep his side on track to revenge the loss of the 1950 World Cup, the only ever before contested on Brazilian ground.

In contrast, the Dutch squad managed an even impressive as comfortable 100% record from the post World Cup qualification series for the Euro 2012 tournament. With most players nearing the end of a long season and no major tournament in sight, focus will be on long-term development and laying a foundation for Van Marwijk’s next goal: the Euro 2012 tournament.


The Dutch defense

The first half of the match was characterized by a very defensive stance of the Dutch team, leaving the initiative to Brazil, who had a hard time creating chances against the disciplined defensive structure of their opponents. It was almost as if Van Marwijk set his team out on a defense training mission, with both holding midfielders playing a very conservative role and always present to assist their full-backs on covering Brazil’s main threats: Robinho and Neymar.

A further sign of Van Marwijk’s defensive intentions was the deep positioning of wingers Robben and Kuyt. This prevented Brazil’s full-backs from overloading their counterparts, which is a key element of their game and has become Dani Alves’ trademark at Barcelona. With defensive winger Kuyt tracking his every run, Alves’ presence was hardly felt in the first half.

The third sign of the Dutch intentions was Van Persie’s positioning. He consequently dropped to the level of Lucas Leiva during Brazil’s possession, which freed up a midfielder in terms of zonal marking. This also allowed the aforementioned doubling-up on the wings without conceding space in front of the central defense zone.


Brazil’s answer

For the entire first half, the Dutch disciplined positioning held out and Brazil had a tough time finding space for their attacks, while the Dutch offensive quartet proved dangerous on breaking plays. But things were slightly different after the break. While in the first half both Robinho and Neymar mainly occupied wide positions, aiming for wide dribbles and service to striker Fred, in the second half they had much more positional freedom. Frequently drifting inside, they created more space for Andre Santos and particularly Dani Alves to make their overlapping runs.

On top of that, Elano took up a more offensive role, appearing in the opposing box now and then, and his through-ball for Neymar created one of the best goal scoring opportunities of the game. As a result of their more offensive intentions and positioning, Brazil started winning possession in their opponent’s half, resulting in a handful of goal scoring chances, as opposed to hardly any during the first half.



Substitutions, substitutions, and oh, a red card

Most international friendlies tend to become messy after the hour mark, when loads of substitutions disturb the pattern of play. This match was no exception to that trend, and this was even more true after the Ramires red card, for a foul on Robben, just like Felipe Melo during the World Cup quarter final. In the end neither side found the net and loud whistles of the home fans were heard as the teams cleared the pitch.


In the end

Focussing on the Dutch team, some interesting defensive lessons were to be learned from this friendly. In that sense, it was certainly a worthwhile effort at this stage of the season.

In personal terms, goal keeper Tim Krul made an impressive debut in difficult circumstances. He made a number of excellent saves to help his team towards the goal of keeping a clean sheet. Of further mention is the performance of Kevin Strootman, who made his first start for the national team on this World class level. It makes it hard to remember that he played his matches for second tier side Sparta as recently as six months ago.

Van Marwijk opted for a genuine 4-2-3-1, much like the system he used during the World Cup. As we know, during the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, the system got reworked to a deep-lying playmaker 4-2-3-1, which is a more effective tool in breaking down inferior defensive sides. Therefore this difficult away friendly proved an excellent occasion to train the alternative, more defensively stable, system. And if a clean sheet is what it’s supposed to be judged by, it was a success.


Kevin Strootman tackling Neymar, only half a season after making the step up to the Eredivisie


More on the same match:

Jack Lang (@snap_kaka_pop) provides the Brazilian view of the match 

Keir Beals (@kingkeir) studied the Van der Wiel – Neymar match-up 

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

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

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


A different game

The starting line-ups

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

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

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

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


An early goal

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



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

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


Second half goal bonanza

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In the end

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

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

Hungary 0 – 4 Holland: Dutch tiki taka football

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


The formations

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


Positional freedom

The starting line-ups

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

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

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

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


The gap in Hungary’s game plan

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

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


A rally just before half time

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


Second half changes

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


Two more goals

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

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

Afellay, Sneijder, Van der Vaart and Van Persie

In the end

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

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

Hungary – Holland, the preview

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

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


Dutch team selection

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

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

Michel Vorm will play his sixth international match


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

Left-back Erik Pieters

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

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


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

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

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


Rafael van der Vaart wearing the captain's arm band


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

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

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


A symbolic replacement? Van Persie and Huntelaar


The Hungarian selection

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

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

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


Tactical considerations

The presumed starting line-ups

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

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


Closing remarks

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

That one being a World Cup final…

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

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

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


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


The Dutch deep-lying playmaker

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

The Swedish plan

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

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

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

The first goal

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

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


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


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


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


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

After that

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

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

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

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

The second half

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

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

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

In the end

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

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

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

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

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


The expected 4-2-3-1 against Sweden


No Nigel

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

The team of the World Cup

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


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


Rafael van der Vaart


Next up: Sweden

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

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

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

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


Mutations to the Dutch team

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

The starting line-ups

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

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


The playmaker in a 4-2-3-1

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

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


The first half

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

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


Moldovan half-time changes

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


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


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

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


In the end

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

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

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