Uruguay’s system undone by van Bronckhorst and van Marwijk’s half time change
The Netherlands managed to squeeze through their semi-final against Uruguay, not through their attacking prowess that spoken of but not seen, but rather through a combination of an amazing strike, poor officiating and one substitution – oh, and one (maybe two) tactically interesting goal.
The game could be characterised and summarised after studying the passing statistics of Uruguay, Diego Forlán and Edinson Cavani only linked up successfully three times throughout the whole game – it was poor. In fact, Forlán attempted 36 passes and only managed to complete 39% of them. Ouch. With statistics like these, it’s not hard to imagine that the first two goals came from individual pieces of brilliance – rather than slick passing and movement from either side.
Uruguay set up in a defensive 4-4-2 that got more defensive as the game continued, with the defensive trio of Gargano, Pérez and Arévalo dropping deeper in the second-half.
This helped close down the space in midfield for Sneijder and the deep-lying van Persie, as well as halting Kuyt’s natural inclination to cut inside. The three of them hunted in a pack, closing down together and attempting to win the ball.
By having three deep midfielders it stopped the Netherlands from playing between the lines, making it difficult for the Netherlands to play how they like to. The Uruguay midfield, by being deep and narrow also made it hard for the Dutch wide players to have influence on the game, as they liked to cut inside – often running into a Uruguay roadblock (which actually is 75% man, 25% steak judging from Diego Forlán’s pictures of their mealtimes)
When possession was won back, it was usually quickly lost as the defensive philosophy of Tabarez’s side lead to a very direct passing style, reliant on long balls to the front-two. The Uruguayans reluctance to get forward made it very difficult for them to create clear openings, it was only really Alvaro Pereira who attempted to get forward and assist the forward line – making the first half very stodgy in midfield.
With Kuyt looking to cut inside and Sniejder really playing closer to the left than to the right, this theoretically should have allowed Robben plenty of space on the right-hand side. This is an obvious tactical ploy from Bert van Marwijk, as you do not want Sniejder and Robben competing for the same space, as Robben looks to cut inside and shoot. The problem for the Robben is that he is often predictable so if defenders and midfielders can double-up and attempt to send him down the line, he’s often ineffective and frustrating to watch. Seemingly perturbed, he waltzed into the middle of the park to attempt to get more of the ball – evidence of Uruguay’s persistence to double-up and attempts to send him the ‘wrong’ way.
It was left to Gio van Bronckhorst to entertain with a really wonderful strike and it was the only way the Netherlands looked like they were going breakthrough in the first-half. He actually received the ball plenty of times as he was the player who most benefited from Uruguay’s ultra-defensive 4-4-2.
By having a strict defensive trio that dropped deep and only closed down when the Dutch advanced within ten yards of their position, it left spaces for the full-backs to venture forward. The conservatism of the Uruguay midfield – with no natural wingers or wide midfielders, allowed van Bronckhorst to roam forward without a worry.
By concentrating on locking down the areas of central midfield, it created weaknesses somewhere else in the system which is the same for all systems, if you ‘overpower’ an area of the pitch, you leave weaknesses elsewhere, which is why you often hear the importance of obtaining a ‘balance’ in the team. It’s a strange term and is usually accompanied with some strange hand-gestures, as if a grocer was weighing apples in either hand to see which one was heaviest. So anyway, leaving that strange image in your head, balance matters and Uruguay lacked it.
As another aside, perhaps Jonathon Wilson’s statement that full-backs are becoming the most important position on the pitch is right – as games in this World Cup have been changed from players in the full-back position (Maicon vs North Korea, Phillipp Lahm’s influence against Argentina).
At half-time, Lambertus van Marwijk swapped Demy de Zeeuw for the more attacking-minded Rafael van der Vaart, changing an obvious 4-2-3-1 to an unconcealed 4-1-4-1. This was a good move from van Marwijk as two deeper lying midfielders were not needed when defending when the defensive trio of Uruguay were not looking to break forward.
This changed benefitted the Netherlands as adding van der Vaart into a move advanced position alongside Sneijder helped split the Uruguay midfield, making it harder for them to be in the same area of the pitch whilst covering the movement of both Sneijder and van der Vaart.
This change was vindicated for the second goal, with van der Vaart picking up the ball, attracting the attention of the three central midfielders – who then left Wesley Sneijder free on the edge of the box.
Van der Vaart is already attracting the attention of the defensive trio (marked white) – Sneijder is by now asking for the ball as this is the most space he has had in the attacking third for a long time. In fact, Robben decides correctly to pass it to Van der Vaart, who attracts the attention of the Uruguay trio who all proceed to close him down.
The layoff to van Persie (blue) is clever as the midfielders rush back to the defensive line to make sure he can’t lay it off to either Kuyt or Sneijder but they fail to do so. The ball eventually comes out to Sneijder who places a shot into the far corner.
The introduction of van der Vaart was a necessary one, it allowed Sneijder more space and for him to exert an influence over the game regardless of how contentious the goal actually was.
This substitution goes to show that there’s more to breaking down a rigid defence and midfield than purely throwing on another striker, which is often the suggestion from ex-players or co-commentators. Just simply changing roles in the midfield area can help create space for other players on the pitch whilst keeping strength in the middle of the park.
Credit must also go to Dirk Kuyt for the third goal that stayed wide, looking to stretch the defence, forcing large gaps between the defenders which led to Robben’s finely executed header.
The Netherlands have yet again won against a team who started well against them, looking to defend without offering much space for the Dutch, and it worked (for the first-half). The willingness of van Marwijk to make changes shows an astute understanding of the tactical side of the game and whenever they’ve looked like they might struggle, van Marwijk has changed things slightly and it has been perfect thus far – without being outstanding to watch.