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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…

Tactical preview of Twente – Zenit

Twente’s season so far

Twente has had a very respectable season so far. Given the fact that their successful manager Steve McLaren and several influential first team members had left during the summer, a sort of ‘transition season’ might have been expected. But those expectations have been superseded as the club had a respectable Champions League campaign, with home draws against defending European Champions Inter, and against Tottenham and Werder, finishing third in their Champions League Group. In the first Europa League knock-out stage they defeated Russian side Rubin Kazan, with a solid 2-0 away win proving the base for that victory.

In the Eredivisie meanwhile, Twente did very well not to suffer from European hangovers and keeping the pace set by league leaders PSV to be only three points behind in second place now. With only one Eredivisie home defeat and an unbeaten home European record this season, Twente are definitely are tough team to beat at their own ‘Grolsch Veste’. But in order to progress beyond Zenit, they’ll probably have to do better than the previous four European games that all ended in draws.


Zenit’s season so far

Zenit played four matches so far in this season: two in the Europa League against Young Boys (1-2 and 3-1), one in the Russian Cup against the new club of Roberto Carlos, Anzhi (3-2 win), and most recently in the Russian Super Cup against CSKA (1-0 win). These were no one easy matches for manager Spalletti. In the first match, in Switzerland, Zenit’s 4-2-3-1 faced a 3-4-3, and they had a lot of problems, as 3-4-3 might be a smart formation to play against a 4-2-3-1. Keeping the formation narrow, the wing-backs were the key on the flanks, and the three strikers, who played in narrow style too simply outnumbered Zenit defense in quick breaking attacks.

In the home match against Young Boys, Zenit played with pair of wide forwards for the first time in the last two years, and it was a first step to the famous 4-6-0 formation. And indeed, Spalletti did play the 4-6-0 in the second half of the Russian Super cup. Danny and Lazovic, the former PSV man, moved to the wide areas to stretch the opponent’s defense line, and it proved the key to success.

At the moment Zenit has a lot of injured players. Bucharov, Kerzhakov (probably), Semak, Bystrov, Hubocan and Lombaerts are out because of injury, and that’s why Spalletti turns back to 4-6-0, the unconventional formation that he had so much success with in his Roma days of 2007.


Twente’s formation

The presumed starting line-ups, Zenit in this case with Lazovic (or Kerzhakov if fit) as the most advanced midfielder in the 4-6-0 system and Danny on the left wing.

Twente manager Preud’homme enjoyed a short taste of his predecessor’s narrow midfield 4-3-3 formation, but he quickly switched, after two goalless draws to open the season with, to a formal 4-2-3-1, which he now uses in the majority of games. This allows Twente to use the double pivot of two holding midfielders, while at the same time it allows them to field both tall striker Mark Janko and talented striker/midfielder Luuk de Jong. As an alternative, forced by suspensions of injuries, Preud’homme does switch to the 4-3-3 system at times, with Landzaat coming into the squad in central midfield.

Against Zenit a near full-strength 4-2-3-1 line-up is to be expected. But the one injured player happens to be superstar Bryan Ruiz, who still suffers from the consequences of a knee injury that also sidelined him earlier this season. Against AZ, when he was substituted at half time, first Landzaat and later Bajrami replaced him and in the next match against Utrecht, Luuk de Jong was drafted into an unfamiliar right wing role. Both changes did not go all that well, but the option to play Bajrami, a left-footed left winger, on the right wing seems most likely for the Zenit match. A more unlikely option would be to start young Ola John, who made an excellent impression as a substitute in Twente’s most recent game, the 2-0 home victory over NAC. His inexperience though, makes another substitute role more likely.


Zenit’s formation

As stated above, there’s a big chance we will see a formal 4-6-0 come back to European football, although Zenit has usually played 4-2-3-1 formations away from home so far. Without any fit strikers in squad, Spalletti will probably play with Danny and Ionov as wide players and Shirokov in the ‘Totti role’ of most advanced midfielder. Central midfielder Zyryanov will act as the central midfielder that will make runs from deep to the center forward position, and Denisov will act as the holding midfielder. Left winger Danny and Shirokov might also be switching positions, either in the starting line-up or during the game.

Another option for Spaletti: to strengthen the defense on the potential weak left side he can move Danny to a central position instead of Lazovic and field Husti on the left wing.

Another option would be that Shirokov will play beside Zyryanov in the centre of midfield, with the Portuguese star Danny playing as a trequartista and Husti as wide player on the left to offer more defensive cover on that flank. One of the strengths of the 4-6-0 formation is the amount of variety is offers in the midfield positions and this combines very well with the flexibility of the midfielders in Zenit’s squad.

But a constant among all the variety will be Zyryanov’s runs from deep. He is very good at this role and scores a lot of goals for the Russian national team and Zenit in this style. Think for example of his goal for Russia against Greece during Euro 2008.

To be fair, Zenit must be considered as the strongest Russian team at present, with the best manager. Luciano Spalletti is a very experienced man and he won the Super Cup match against CSKA using his huge tactical knowledge that he learned during his time in the Italian Serie A. He simply outplayed CSKA manager Leonid Slutsky in the tactic battle, and Michel Preud’homme should be well aware of Spaletti’s capacities to make excellent in-game adaptations.

The main weakness in Zenit’s squad is their left-back, A. Lukovic. He is not a regular first team player, and when a less defensive minded player like Danny or Shirokov plays on the left wing, there is the potential of a lot of 2v1 situations on that flank.


Twente players to look out for

Luuk de Jong

This 20-year old Dutch talent has missed only one Eredivisie game and no European match so far. He is equally capable of playing as a lone striker or as the man behind Austrian striker Mark Janko, which offers flexibility to his manager. With 17 goals and 11 assists already he will be a key man to watch for Zenit.

From left to right: Chadli, De Jong and Janssen

Theo Janssen

If you say Twente, you say Theo Janssen. The talented midfield is gifted with the best left foot of the Eredivisie and his free kick skills are renowned. He often acts as a deep-lying playmaker beside Twente’s ‘destructive’ midfielder Brama.


Nacer Chadli

A quick rising star in the Eredivisie, Chadli was bought from second tier side AGOVV during the summer and counts as one of the best summer deals made in Holland. He is a skilled dribbler, known for his pace and has scored most of his goals when drifting inside, looking to curl balls into the far post.


Zenit players to look out for


Simply the best attacking midfielder in Russia, who has magnificent dribbling skills, good pace and passing, and he is very good at finishing. His transfer to Zenit cost 30.000.000 euro, and today the Portuguese, who played his first match in Russia six years ago, is a key element of Zenit’s attack. Look at his movement and his technique, and enjoy.

Thirty million euro man Danny

Bruno Alves

Another player whose transfer fee has been exorbitant high. Zenit paid 22.000.000 euro for this central defender – but he prove his value during his fourteen matches in the Russian Premier League last season. With his compatriot Meira he is an essential part of Zenit’s success. But in the last match, against CSKA, both had similar problems with Dumbia’s pace, and this might offer an opportunity for Twente.


Alexandr Anyukov and Konstantin Zyryanov

Both are very experienced members of the first team. Anyukov is the captain of the team and the best full-back in the Russian Premier League. With his movement ability and his solid game in defense he is a British style full-back who plays an important role for Zenit, in defense as well as in attack.

Zyryanov, may not be as quick and resilient as he was three years ago at Euro 2008, but he holds up Zenit’ midfield in defense and still is very dangerous in attack. Like his injured teammate Sergey Semak he is also spiritual leader of the team.


This contribution to 11tegen11 was partly guest-written by Russian tactical blogger Eugeny Shevelev. You can find him on Twitter as @shevelevee or visit his blog here.

Tactical preview of Ajax – Spartak Moscow

Ajax’ season so far

Since the appointment of Frank de Boer as manager of Ajax on December 6, 2010, things have definitely changed at the Amsterdam ArenA. His predecessor Martin Jol often had Ajax playing in a pragmatic 4-2-3-1 formation, relying on two holding midfielders to cover for the wing-backs, who bombed forward to provide width to the narrow inside wingers formation. Ajax relied heavily on the creative input of Luis Suarez and often sat back, rather than playing the characteristic high pressing game.

Frank de Boer

De Boer’s arrival coincided with the departure of Luis Suarez, as the club could make an great deal, at least business-wise, by selling him to Liverpool for 26.5 million euro. And from a tactical perspective, things changed quite a bit too. De Boer, a home grown Ajax man, started with what is generally considered to be ‘the Ajax style’. Typical characteristics are the consequent 4-3-3 formation, wide wingers and a high pressing game.

With these principles, results immediately picked up for De Boer. After a 9-5-3 (win-draw-lose) first half of the Eredivisie season under Jol, Ajax continued to a 6-2-1 streak under De Boer, only drawing the difficult away games at Roda and PSV and losing in an odd off-day at Utrecht. On top of that, Ajax’ morale was strengthened by an unexpected 2-0 away victory against AC Milan in the final Champions League group stage match and the double victory over Anderlecht in the first Europa League knock-out round. Meanwhile, Ajax reached the Dutch Cup final, where they will play Twente.


Spartak’s season so far

As the Russian football season has only just begun, Spartak played only three matches so far, two Europa League matches, with unbelievable comebacks, against Basel and one in the Russian Cup against Sibir, a team well-known after their sensational 1-0 win on PSV. Only in the latest match against Sibir, Spartak had no problems in defense. This line is definitely the wekaest line in their team.

Without serious transfers during the winter, manager Valery Karpin still doesn’t have enough high-class players in defense.  The recent arrival of centre-back Marcos Rojo, who recently made his debut in the Argentine national team, is a good addition, but he will still have problems adapting to the squad.

In the match against Sibir the one and only hope for good defense was to pair two defensive midfielders, a move that in fact turned out quite well as they succeeded in winning every ball after long Sibir’ passes to their lone striker.

An important player for Spartak will be the Brazilian striker Welliton, who can be expected to return to the team just in time for the match, after coming back from injury. His presence is of prima importance for Spartak’s offensive approach.


Ajax’ formation

The expected starting line-ups. Note the mirror images that Ajax' 4-3-3 and Spartak's 4-2-3-1 produce.

Expect Ajax to line up in their characteristic 4-3-3 formation and expect them, particularly at home, to play a possession-dominant high pressing game. The choice of the starting eleven has been quite consistent throughout De Boer’s matches so far, but recently the holding midfielder role has been given to Vurnon Anita over Cameroon international Eyong Enoh. While Enoh offered huge commitment in the tackling department, Anita offers a superior passing game.

Up front, Mounir El Hamdaoui has fallen out of favor big time, after a half-time clash with De Boer during Ajax semi-final Cup win over second tier RKC. The Moroccan striker, Ajax’ biggest acquisition at the beginning of the season, ended up being substituted and was relegated to the youth squad until further notice. His place in the lone striker role will be filled in by Siem de Jong, who offers an important back-to-goal presence in the lone striker role and his excellent team work skills will help him bring others into play. Look out for the well-timed runs from deep from both Christian Eriksen and Demi de Zeeuw from the central midfield positions.


Spartak’s formation

Spartak’s formation is usually described as 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1.

In the centre of midfield feature either two defensive midfielders (Sheshukov and Ibson or Carioca) with attacking-minded Alex completing the midfield three, or Sheshukov can play as single defensive midfielder with Alex and Jano (or Ari, the former AZ player) as two more offensive central midfielders, like Spartak played in the home match against Basel. Spartak’s wingers deserve a mention too. Aiden McGeady, the best Spartak player so far, has excellent dribbling skills and a good vision of the game. McGeady often tends to drift inside during Spartak’s attacks, supporting the striker. Dmitry Kombarov, is a less versatile player, who often plays as a classic winger in 4-4-2.

Artem Dzyuba has featured as the lonely striker in all matches so far, and he has performed well. He often drops deeper, and plays a false nine role, creating free space to be exploited by his team mates, like for example Ari in the recent Cup match against Sibir. But Welliton’s return means that Dzyuba will be dropped to the bench, and Spartak’s approach in attack will be more straightforward, using Welliton’s pace and Alex’ passing ability. If Ajax should succeed to mark Alex and Welliton well, it will be hard games for Spartak.

As said, Spartak has most problems in their defensive line, and particularly with the full-backs. Makeev is a young and inexperienced player, and both full-backs had a lot of problems against Sibir and may be expected to have more problems with Ajax’ wingers.


Ajax players to look out for

Jan Vertonghen

The strong Belgian centre-back, a product of Ajax’ excellent youth academy, is an essential element in Ajax’ firm home defense. Since the appointment of De Boer as Ajax manager, the Vertonghen-led defense has kept a clean sheet in an impressive 10 out of 13 games.

Christian Eriksen

The young Dane is without a doubt the brightest talent in this young Ajax squad. Already having played 11 matches for the Danish national team and still just 19 years old, his star definitely started shining under De Boer’s management. While under Jol he was often used in a substitute role, playing from the left wing, for Frank de Boer Eriksen is a key players in his starting eleven. He is Ajax’ central midfield playmaker, and one to keep an interest in for the coming years.

Rising star Christian Eriksen

Miralem Sulejmani

‘The most expensive player in Dutch football history’. That tag proved almost fatal to Sulejmani’s game at Ajax. Purchased for no less than 16 million euro from Heerenveen in 2008, the Serbian wing player had a tough time finding his feet in the ArenA. But over the past months, his pace definitely picked up and he is in excellent form going into the Spartak game. His lightning pace and clinical finish are his biggest weapons.


Spartak players to look out for

Aiden McGeady

Irish international McGeady, who made the brave decision to join Spartak from Celtic in the summer of 2010, is full of determination to prove his name in European games. And what better stage for him to perform that in the Europa League with Spartak? He rejected Aston Villa offer, and choose Russia – and Red-White fans love him for that from the first day. He is not the archetypical British winger, but rather enjoys every moment with the ball and doesn’t prefer the cross. When he’s in possession, and his team mates know by now, he will do something special.

Welliton and McGeady


Last season’s top scorer in the Russian competition is ready to return to action, you be he’s motivated to show himself to the world, as are Alex and McGeady. With his pace, he is a dangerous player, and on top of that his technique and finishing are great. He has been voted the best player of Spartak in 2010 by the fans and there are many rumors at the moment that Russia might adopt him to play for the national squad.

Andrey Dikan

He is the best goalkeeper Spartak has had in the last five years. Calm and solid, he will instill confidence in his inexperienced defenders. He is already 34 years old, but still is one of the most underrated players in Russia, and it is in matches like these that he can show that he is a really good goalkeeper.

This contribution to 11tegen11 was partly guest-written by Russian tactical blogger Eugeny Shevelev. You can find him on Twitter as @shevelevee or visit his blog here.