Who cares about ultimate failure? van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 allows for the best of Dutch individualism
It seems that perennial potential winners, the Netherlands, again have succumbed to one of the conclusions made in the book ‘Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Football’. David Winner alludes the idea that it is Dutch people’s nature to be the ‘nearly men’, the people who don’t quite make it, but through innovation and creation are remembered through some other value dimension. Winner concludes that the Dutch culture of individualism leads to a team that is purely an extension of these values, that tactical nous and that killer instinct that makes a World Cup winning team is simply lacking in the Dutch population.
These values are again evident in the team of 2010. The creative ability of Robben, Sneijder, van der Vaart, van Persie are given a platform to perform to their best of ability with support from that niggly and snide Mark van Bommel whose reading of the game is complimented by the combative Nigel de Jong. This 4-2-3-1 system is perfect for the Dutch philosophy, it allows for deep players to move forward as people move infield and allows for intricate triangles where van der Vaart, Sneijder and van Persie, all peerless in technique, can create extra space.
Formation against Hungary (expected starting line-up given Robben’s injury)
There are always concerns about their defensive ability, with Joris Mathijsen certainly not helping these concerns by a confidence-lacking performance against Mexico and a mistake against Ghana. However, the much castigated defence look much more organised nowadays. Admittedly, the defence are not full of big names, often used as a heuristic (either rightly or wrongly) to signify a competent defence, nevertheless they are better than what is portrayed.
The defence also contains Gregory van der Wiel whose natural tendency is to bomb on forward. This complements the movement of Dirk Kuyt wonderfully, as he tends to drift inside or go on and take a position up with Robin van Persie. The space created by Kuyt is filled by the athletic van der Wiel who is confident and skilled with the ball at his feet. The majority of the moves in the first half of the Netherlands versus Hungary game involved van der Wiel, quite often used as the wide out-ball, reminiscent of Barcelona’s use of Daniel Alves. This is useful as it allows attacking midfielders in their fluid 4-2-3-1 system to join van Persie in attack whilst being able to keep possession. On the other flank, van Bronckhorst does not venture forward, keeping a stable and organised defensive shape. The problem with the support play offered by van der Wiel is that when the opposition win the ball back, if they can quickly exploit the space exposed by van der Wiel’s forward running, goal scoring opportunities will appear.
Here, van der Wiel marked red has pushed towards the by-line with Kuyt tucked in. Hungary have five players in that area of the pitch and have won the ball back. With a direct ball to a forward, Hungary can exploit van der Wiel’s forward tendencies.
Marked red are the Dutch defenders. As van der Wiel has pushed forward, Heitinga has moved across to a conventional right-back position whilst Matijsen (centre) has moved to the centre back-right position attempting to play offside. This is to stop the dangerous pass down the left-side channel. Noticing how high van Bronckhorst is up the pitch, the vision of Hungary’s #9 is impressive, the Hungary’s right winger has the pace to beat him if a ball is played behind van Bronkhorst. With the Dutch defence out of position, there are no worries about knocking a long, if inaccurate ball deep into the Dutch side of the pitch (yellow).
Because of van der Wiel’s position and inability to get back quick enough to make up the numbers, a direct counter-attack has created large amounts of space in the Dutch defence. Here van Bronckhorst does not know whether to go tight as this will create large areas for the pacy Dzsudzsak to run past him. Nevertheless, Matijsen (#4), who started out of position to cover for van der Wiel’s run, has not been able to take up a conventional position to coverand stop any run past van Bronkhorst from Dzsudzsak.
Dzsudzsak moves forward with the ball and van Bronckhorst backs off him and Matijsen is too late to help close him down. Dzsudzsak moves the ball onto his left foot for a shot and scores. This is still a fabulous finish from a difficult angle, but it could be dangerous if he decided to cross to the back post, as there are two Hungary players lurking there, only marked by one Dutch defender, Heitinga. This illustrates that a direct counter-attack that shifts the defence around can create opportunities to score. Better counter-attacking teams like Brazil, in the later stages may be able to exploit the attacking instincts of van der Wiel, which could be worrying.
The Dutch don’t operate a conventional 4+6 system (that of 4 attacking players accompanied by 6 defensive players), but of a very fluid system where players swap roles without rhyme but definitely with reason. The definite starters of Robben (Kuyt when not fit), Sneijder, van Persie and van der Vaart are all intelligent players whose movement off the ball has direction behind it. This produces some interesting positional changes.
Here, van Persie (blue) has dropped deep and van der Vaart (yellow, further forward) has moved into the centre and further forward whilst Sneijder (yellow) looks to move the ball into the space created by van der Vaart’s movement infield and forward, which will be taken up by van Bronckhorst.
Here is another example of van Persie (blue) dropping wide and Kuyt filling in the space, whilst van der Wiel (red) offers another option. These movements out of their traditional ridigly defined roles offer the opportunity for defences to move out of position and to capitalise on these defensive lapses.
From Kuyt (yellow) drifting inside, the defender following Kuyt moves inside creating acres of space for van der Wiel (red) to move into. Quite often in the Hungary game, Hungary found themselves defending a cross from the adventurous right-back who had time available to him to make the right cross.
These movements caused havoc in the Hungary defence for the whole ninety minutes. As well as this, they have players who can really run with the ball and create something from an innocuous position. The Netherlands, from their performances in warm-up matches, have shown superb understanding with one another and great movement, culminating in six goals against Hungary and four goals against Ghana. They have strength in depth, with Robben out, Kuyt can easily slot into the right side and offers something different. The clever movement of Kuyt allowed Holland to retain possession with ease as van der Wiel pushed forward and supported the attack, whilst with Robben they have a player who stays on the touchline, looking to dash infield or beyond the full-back onto a usually measured pass from Sneijder of van der Vaart, as well as his obvious goal threat from distance.
Bert van Marwijk has seemingly embraced this individualism showed by the Dutch, creating a system that allows his team to subsume the values of ‘Total Football’, creating wonderfully attractive football. Whilst not being under the international spotlight, this Dutch team have a fantastic chance to go far in the tournament and even if they do not go onto win it, they will play some of the most entertaining football you see this summer.