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On the fourth day of World Cup, South Africa gave to me: a lesson on how to defend against the Dutch

June 15, 2010

For the first half, the Danish constricted the life out of viewers and the Dutch attack. As tight as the game was, the Danish central defence consisting of Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer provided a great performance for that half, reducing space and causing the Dutch attack to make mistakes in the attacking third.

Average position of the Dutch

From looking at the Dutch average positions on the pitch (highlighted are starters), it was clear to see they were awfully narrow which made the Danish midfield’s job easy. They could close down the space and the intricate triangles that the Sneijder, van der Vaart and van Persie all love to play. Christian Poulson’s heatmap shows just how deep he stayed during the match, putting pressure on Sneijder and van der Vaart in the middle.

Heatmap of Christian Poulson

As predicted in this post here, Dirk Kuyt spent a long time in-field, requiring van der Wiel to get forward and provide the width. However, he was not as profligate going forward as was seen in warm up games and was a great out-ball for the Dutch in those games. Credit must go to Simon Poulson and Thomas Enevoldsen who had a good understanding on how to defend. Poulson pushed forward and his strength often pushed van der Wiel off the ball.

In the middle, Kjaer and Agger were willing to step out of their high-defensive line and get tight to van Persie, who is a true false-nine in his movement. By having pace to recover, both Agger and Kjaer were confident that if he did manage to bring them out of position, they could recover or the other central defender could cover the space created.

The pace of Poulson, Agger and Kjaer allowed Denmark to play a high-line too and anyone who entered the space between midfield and defence was marked tightly. At one moment in the first half, Simon Kjaer chased Wesley Sneijder back to the Dutch side of the D to restrict the possibility of him having time on the ball. By constantly tracking Dutch forwards running deep, they forced them deeper and deeper where the Danish central midfield could close down all angles for a pass.

In this example, Kjaer has forced van Persie into a midfield position where there are five players in the vicinity looking to win the ball.

The only sight of goal van Persie got in the first half was through a freak-deflection and then Daniel Agger had the ability to get back into a sufficient position to draw van Persie onto putting it onto his right foot and shanking it wide.

Denmark eventually dropped deeper throughout the second half as they looked content to lose 1-0, and the goal came from Daniel Agger’s allowing Wesley Sneijder too much time on the ball, to take several touches and then play in Elia.

In the first half, the defensive line would have been higher and Kjaer would have moved up with Agger, creating lots of space behind Agger. This gives Sneijder time to control the ball and turn with it. Elia runs into the space created by Sneijder moving deep and Agger following him out, he has the pace to beat the slow, lumbering Lacobsen and have a shot that hits the post for Kuyt to tap in (Kjaer could have prevented this by staying alert, but he didn’t.)

The Danish produced a well-drilled defensive display that deteriorated in the second-half, possibility because of fatigue, but it could be used as a blueprint as how to defend against the Dutch. By having a high-line, a packed midfield and central defenders who are willing to step out and follow the fluid movement of van Persie and Sneijder, the Dutch were not able to carve out any clear openings until different kinds of players came on and scored from a lapse in Danish defensive duties.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim permalink
    June 15, 2010 3:05 pm

    I love the analysis on this site, it makes me want to watch even the snooze inducing games over again.

    The one thing I think the Danes (and any future opponents of the Dutch) needed to add to their defense was at least the hint of a counter attack. I thought even a few counters to a speedy winger could have helped by keeping the Dutch defenders slightly more honest. Too often the Danes got control of the ball after a mistake or corner and had no target further up field than a 10-15m above their own box.

    • June 15, 2010 3:27 pm

      You’re right, they offered nothing going forward. I’d also worry because Bendtner isn’t someone I would trust to put away the small number of chances they may make in a game.

      They set up just to defend well without much consideration for how they were actually going to score. The introduction of Elia was a needed and clever one, he split the defence well for van Persie to create space for supporting players to run into. It was an interesting game to analyse (not great to watch, however).

  2. sandy permalink
    June 15, 2010 5:16 pm

    A few of observations-

    Holland have won many of their games (in this 19game unbeaten streak) in this way. 1 or 2-0 with very controlled performances.

    You’re spot on about the Kjaer and Agger’s role in keeping RvP and Sneijder quiet. Of course that changed with the introduction of Elia. Having him on the pitch forced the tiring Danish defenders out of position and allowed Sneijder more space and options. It should be noted that RvP still doesn’t look 100% and the two top class Danish CB’s made it very difficult for him. He will improve as the tournament goes on.

    I’m not sure if this is the complete blueprint to defend against the Dutch, mainly because they will not always be this narrow and this is not how they will always play. As this was the first game, the manager was cautious and opted for Kuyt AND VdV. While this doesn’t allow for the best football, it also makes us very difficult to play against.

    We had talked in the previous article after the Hungary game about a more cautious approach from Holland, this is it. It will be interesting to see how organized teams would defend when Robben or Elia start over VdV or Kuyt. Having one pacy winger changes the defensive strategy because on CB will have to be in a postion to cover his fullback if and when he gets beaten allowing RvP to isolate the other CB.

    What Denmark showed with their high line and compressed defense and midfield is that unlike previous teams, there is no ball playing CB capable of pinging long-balls over the top (De Boer to Bergkamp in 98!) thus causing the opposition defense to drop back a bit. Heitinga is comfortable on the ball and having played DM, his passing has improved but maybe not to the level required.

    About the Danish not counterattacking, I honestly think, they don’t have a central midfielder capable of springing counter-attacks effectively and a lot of the time you will see Agger or Kjaer bring the ball out of defense. They were really looking at damage limitation (Goal difference and injury-wise) with a view of being more competitive in terms of possession against Japan and Cameroon.


    One sure fire way to mess up the Oranje – Wind up De Jong. The guy is tackling like an Australian. He’s a red card waiting to happen.

    • June 15, 2010 7:07 pm

      What side do you expect Robben to start on when he plays?

      When Robben / Elia plays, I suspect the opposing teams to double-up on them which will help Sneijder as the defending team will be stretched. It’s an interesting tactical variation and one that allows the Netherlands to change their game-plan without changing their shape.

      That’s a good point about no good ball-playing centre back who is able to play a ball over the top, both Kjaer and Agger could do that job for you, unfortunately.

      By handing the ball back to Agger, the Danish really could not string together a quick counter-attack, the Dutch could just re-organise and keep their shape. Kahlenberg really struggled to get on the ball and de Jong was impressive in his closing down.

      • sandy permalink
        June 17, 2010 5:13 am

        Where Robben plays depends if it’s Kuyt or VdV making way.

        By the way, did you see Casillas with the poor tackle/clearance leading to the goal like we talked about earlier? I found a clip of him doing something (very)slightly similar earlier this yr.

        Also, did you catch Gokhan Inler man-marking Xavi? It helped that Xavi was playing a little higher up than he does how Barca, making that more possible for a DM like Inler.


      • June 17, 2010 2:21 pm

        Yeah, I was only able to have one eye on the game unfortunately but I did see it. He really does love going to ground with his feet out doesn’t he? Reina is much better at coming out, looks a lot more comfortable.

        I’m going to be re-watching the game later on, I did notice Inler was following Xavi around, I’ll write an article on what they did right and where Spain went wrong later.


  1. On the sixth day of World Cup, South Africa gave to me: A strong Swiss defence & a system change for Uruguay | Talking about Football

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