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Who cares about ultimate failure? van Marwijk’s 4-2-3-1 allows for the best of Dutch individualism

June 9, 2010

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.

Going forward

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.

For example,

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.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Rob permalink
    June 9, 2010 3:25 pm

    Nice write-up, Tim.

    Does neither holding midfielder drop back in to the defensive line when der Wiel bombs forward? There doesn’t seem to be any sign of them in those images of the Hungary counter-attack!

    • June 9, 2010 3:44 pm

      Nope, apparently not, van Bommel seems to drift further forward, kind of playing in the hole when they have possession high up the pitch. de Jong prefers just to sit deeper and give his teammates an option if they want to go back deep. You’re right, neither of them drop into a conventional defensive position.

      Makes them very good at holding onto the ball but if I were Dutch, as soon as they lose the ball, I’d turn away in fear. Really entertaining to watch though.

  2. June 9, 2010 4:09 pm

    Really interesting look at the dutch defence, very well illustrated as well! Does the left side suffer in attack because of van Bronckhorst’s reluctance to get forward?

    • June 9, 2010 5:00 pm

      Well, it seems that when Robben is playing, van Bronckhorst is better positioned to go forward as Robben doesn’t really create too much space for van der Wiel to work with, therefore it’s up to van Bronckhorst to push forward and provide an extra man in midfield and support the attack.

      I don’t think it suffers per se, as it is very much their game plan when Kuyt is on the pitch to use that side of the pitch to create chances.

      However, sometimes van der Vaart found himself needing some support outside that van Bronckhorst was reluctant to give, so found passing inside to Sneijder, van Persie or de Jong. Their left side is definitely not as fluid and quick as their right side.

  3. June 9, 2010 4:34 pm

    “..if I were Dutch, as soon as they lose the ball, I’d turn away in fear.”

    Excellent statement. Excellent write-up.

    I think it will be a very entertaining trip to the QF’s where they will crash and burn against Brazil (probably take quite a hammering infact).

    • June 9, 2010 5:01 pm

      I happen to agree with you there. I think any counter-attacking team could put these away, and who else is better at it at the moment than Brazil?

      It’ll be interesting to see whether the Dutch change their style of play for the bigger games. I suspect they’ll walk the group stages and then struggle.

  4. sandy permalink
    June 9, 2010 6:23 pm

    You have to consider Van Bronckhorst’s age when you look at how often he get’s forward. He is obviously more conservative than Van Der Wiel but is experienced enough to make timely runs and is a lot more efficient in terms of the final delivery than VDW. I like the comparison with the way Barcelona’s wingbacks operate. Van Der Wiel needs to improve his end product but the runs he makes opens up loads of space just like Alves.

    Good spot on De Jong not operating in more defensive positions but we have not played against teams of high enough caliber to warrant him doing so. I think (well hope really) we will make that adjustment in the knockout phases. That will be key against Brazil.

    • June 10, 2010 10:18 am

      When Robben plays, you can see van Bronckhorst getting more opportunity to get forward compared to van der Wiel.

      I hope you make defensive adjustments too for the knockout phases, I’m just worried that it’ll ruin the fantastic football that you’ve shown you’re capable of in the last couple of weeks.

      • sandy permalink
        June 10, 2010 2:23 pm

        Re: GvB From what I’ve seen in qualification that’s not the case but I guess we’ll have to disagree there.

        I don’t think those defensive adjustments will ruin the fantastic football entirely. We were more pragmatic during qualifiers (esp away games) and came away with some victories playing decent football but not as free-flowing as the last couple of weeks. The knockout phases might see a return to that especially when we play teams like Brazil who have been basically setup for the last two years to nullify teams like Holland and Spain.

      • June 10, 2010 2:42 pm

        I wasn’t able to delve further into some qualification videos, thanks for the extra information. I’m looking forward to seeing how the system changes and how well you’re able to keep possession.

        I’ll look to get a piece up after a knockout game to see how the system changed. I’m rooting for your lot this summer.

  5. sandy permalink
    June 10, 2010 7:05 pm

    Cool. Look forward to that.

    I see that Spain is the subject of your next piece. So much has been written about them but I haven’t read much on how they can be beaten. It would be interesting to read about how man-marking Xavi has been effective for teams like Osasuna and Espanyol. Since he set’s the tempo of the game, disrupting his rhythm could be an effective way to stop Spain from dominating possession. Also, Casillas has been shaky at coming out of the area to play sweeper this season and with Spain’s high line, it could be an area that teams exploit. Just some thoughts.


    • June 10, 2010 9:02 pm

      Sorry, only just saw this post now. Hope you’re able to enjoy my latest bit, it’s not exactly different admittedly.

      They are some really good ideas, especially the Xavi man-marking business. I may have a look into that after seeing how people attempted to deal with him. These are all interesting ideas, you don’t write a blog yourself do you?

      Pepe Reina looks a lot more confident playing a sweeper role, he’s had a fantastic season.

      • sandy permalink
        June 11, 2010 4:03 pm

        No, I don’t write a blog. Just comment and post on a few forums. I’ve thought about making some posts but I haven’t been able to put the effort (screenshots, tactical diagrams etc) like you or the ZM guys ;).

  6. June 13, 2010 3:22 am

    I see that Spain is the subject of your next piece. So much has been written about them but I haven’t read much on how they can be beaten. It would be interesting to read about how man-marking Xavi has been effective for teams like Osasuna and Espanyol. Since he set’s the tempo of the game, disrupting his rhythm could be an effective way to stop Spain from dominating possession. Also, Casillas has been shaky at coming out of the area to play sweeper this season and with Spain’s high line, it could be an area that teams exploit. Just some thoughts.


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