Australia have a fine record in friendlies against the Netherlands, but this is their first clash at a major tournament.
The history of Dutch football is long, romantic and well-known. In short, they’re most famous for pioneering Total Football at the 1974 World Cup, a style of football that emphasised ball retention, fluid interchange of positions and free-flowing, attack-minded football. They’ve thus developed a reputation for being an exciting, attacking side, a stereotype that probably didn’t even ring true for the following tournament in 1978, where the Dutch had already begun the natural progression towards a more practical, conservative style. Total Football remains more an ideological concept than a realistic one, and although the Netherlands have generally kept with the 4-3-3 formation synonymous with it, have used more orthodox tactical systems in recent years.
Exhilarating performances at Euro 2008, for example, with a memorable pair of 4-1 wins over Italy and France respectively, were founded upon the use of two holding midfielders and ruthless counter-attacking football. Two years later in South Africa, the generational change was completed by Bert van Majwik’s use of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong as an extremely defensive double pivot, and summed up by their physical, cynical fouling in the final against Spain. Total Football might have long been dead, but the funeral wasn’t until that tournament.
Despite coming so close to the ultimate glory, however, there was mild public dissuasion at the nature of the tactics. That general feeling greatly intensified after the Netherlands’ dismal performance at Euro 2012, as they finished bottom of their group with zero points. That triggered much soul-searching about their roots, and the eventual appointment of Louis Van Gaal was unsurprising. The newly appointed Manchester United manager was actually Dutch coach when they failed to qualify for the 2002 World Cup, but has long seen as one of the standard bearers of ‘traditional’ Dutch football. The move, in essence, was designed to transition the side back towards a more enterprising, ‘Dutch’ style of play.
The irony is, then, that is a Netherlands side rather different from the cliched perception.
Still, true to history, Van Gaal used 4-3-3 throughout the Dutch qualification campaign, and played a fairly standard brand of modern football, looking to build play out from the back of midfield wide and introducing a new generation of younger, more technically skilled players. The Dutch breezed through qualifying with a 17-match unbeaten run.
However, an injury to vice-captain and excellent, all-round midfielder Kevin Strootman, who’d been enjoying a fine season at Roma, caused a serious rethink of tactics. “Strootman is a player who brings a balance to the entire team,” Van Gaal said. “I will have players like Rafael van der Vaart and Sneijder, of course, but no one will be able to replace Kevin.”
Quite amazingly, then, weeks out from the World Cup, the plan for 4-3-3 was ripped up, and replaced with something entirely different.
In came a 3-5-2/3-4-1-2, still a relatively obscure formation despite proving more popular at this World Cup (with variants used by Mexico, Costa Rica and Argentina). Van Gaal has stated they’ve trained with the shape in the five weeks of training camp prior to the tournament, and it’s somewhat similar to the shape used by Feyenoord at the tail end of this season – fittingly, four of the five defenders are from the Eredivisie side.
It’s not a 3-4-1-2 in the same way Chile’s formation sometimes appeared 3-4-1-2 in the Socceroos opening game, because Marcelo Diaz was predominantly a holding midfielder who only occasionally dropped in between the centre-backs to help retain possession. The Dutch system, rather, features three out-and-out centre-backs, and two disciplined, physical holding midfielders ahead of them.
Its purpose, broadly speaking, is to free up the front three – and the side’s most talented players, on paper – from defensive responsibilities, creating a 7-3 split when the side is without possession that is somewhat comparable to how Ernie Merrick set up the Wellington Phoenix in the A-League this season. Van Persie and Robben sit high up the pitch and spread wide defensively to block off passing lanes down the flanks, with Wesley Sneijder tucked in behind as a central playmaker but often becoming the most advanced player when pushing forward to press.
This remains the strongest department of the side, featuring the only real ‘elite’ players left in the Dutch squad (with Sneijder’s decline demonstrated by his move to Galatasaray, and Rafael Van der Vaart out with injury). There’s an alarming lack of genuinely elite quality in the rest of the side – lots of talented young players with lots of potential but few from Europe’s top sides/leagues – and thus a large component of the creative and leadership burden falls upon Van Persie and Robben.
The Netherlands’ truly staggering 5-1 win over Spain exaggerated the quality of their attacking (especially considering the third and fourth goals, crucial in the context of the match, were a set-piece and diabolical error from Iker Casillas). In reality, they succeeded with the rather simple approach of knocking balls over the top for the front two to chase. While this suits the mobile, predatory Van Persie, a ruthless and at times, impromptu finisher, it’s an unusual role for Robben, who we’re used to seeing as the definitive ‘inverted winger’ – starting high up on the right, and cutting inside onto his left to shoot.
In this system, however, he plays pretty much as a second striker – making darting runs in behind the defence from a left-sided position, but also drifting around the width of the pitch to collect possession and dribble directly towards goal. He and Van Persie can swap positions, allowing Robben to occasionally gravitate towards his favoured right-sided position, and Van Persie moving short towards the play.
Sneijder sits in behind the two but drops closer to the two central midfielders than he does to the strikers. This is a far weaker version of the Sneijder that dominated the 2010 tournament but he seems to benefit from having two players making runs in behind to aim for with his through balls, as well as looking for longer balls from deep positions.
This will be important in light of Van Gaal’s midfield pairing of De Jong and Jonathon de Guzman, both athletic, defensively-minded players who close down very quickly in midfield, and sticking tight to opposition midfielders – with the former normally the deeper of the two, meaning De Guzman will probably be the one to close down whoever plays at the tip of Australia’s midfield triangle.
In possession, both De Guzman and De Jong are fairly limited, knocking it short to the wing-backs or Sneijder. De Guzman can carry the ball forward on the run, but could be replaced by Jordy Clasie, a short but tidy Xavi-like distributor. The midfield’s proactiveness defensively does somewhat account for their lack of incisiveness – they win the ball higher up the pitch, and are able to transfer it quickly to the front three. Milligan and Jedinak should be careful not to be caught on the ball.
Both Daley Blind and Darryl Janmaat – left and right respectively – are attacking full-backs intelligent and clever on the ball. Blind is involved in play more, provided two fine assists with chipped balls over the top against Spain and is versatile enough to play central midfield, while Janmaat is more about energy and will burst forward from deep.
The biggest issue playing a 4-2-3-1 against a 3-4-1-2 is the question of how to deal with the wing-backs – do you ask the wingers to track back, or instruct the full-backs to move high up the pitch to close them down? Cameroon took the former approach in their Group A match against Mexico, but were robbed of their attacking threat because of how deep Eric Choupo-Moting and Benjamin Maukandjo were forced to come to defend against Paul Aguilar and Miguel Layun. A similar approach would make it very difficult for Matthew Leckie and Tommy Oar (or Ben Halloran) to transition forward into counter-attacks.
Spain, meanwhile, had huge trouble deciding whether to push David Silva and Andres Iniesta, narrow wingers in a 4-3-3, out to the flanks to occupy Blind and Janmaat. When they didn’t, there was too much space between for Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta to be able to move forward and properly close them down, meaning the Dutch wing-backs were often free in possession, with De Vrij hitting a few cross-field balls to the left wing-back zone.
The result was that Blind was steadily involved, always available as a passing option on the left – he was their highest passer, while the combination between him and the left-sided centre-back, Bruno Martins Indi, was the Dutch’s most frequent.
Conversely, though, the Dutch could have a similar problem if Australia push their full-backs high up (as they have under Postecoglou) to create 2v1s – with a narrow front three, Blind and Janmaat could be theoretically overloaded.
Interestingly, Van Gaal admitted post-match against Spain that “if it was still 1-0 at the break, I would play 4-3-3 to keep the pressure on the ball,” suggesting a change of formation is a very likely possibility if the side ever go behind. They experimented with 4-3-1-2 in a friendly against Wales – Blind would move into midfield, with Martins Indi able (but not entirely comfortable) at left-back.
The 4-3-3 seems most likely, however, if Van Gaal does change formation. For width, Jeremain Lens and Memphis Depay are ideal substitutes (or potential starters) – both fast, tricky wide forwards able to play on either flank and dribble towards goal.
A Dutch 4-3-3 would also change the shape of the defence significantly, with Martins Indi and Vlaar becoming a partnership, and De Vrij dropping out. Martins Indi would still be proactive, however, and be more likely to move forward from the back to intercept passes. The 4-3-3 would also make the role of Australia’s full-backs simpler, with the wingers picking up the full-backs, leaving Davidson and McGowan free to concentrate on Robben and whoever starts on the left.
Off the bench, Huntelaar is a more traditional number 9, and would provide additional penalty-box presence. Jordy Clasie, as mentioned, is a different option in midfield, while Georginio Wijnaldum is a ‘shuttler’, and gets up and down in midfield.
The Dutch recorded one of the all-time great World Cup wins by utterly dismantling defending champions Spain – but strangely, still appear vulnerable in certain areas.
The key question from an Australian attacking perspective is what Martins Indi and De Vrij do defensively – stick tight to Oar and Leckie, or stay narrow and compact alongside Vlaar? Either way, Cahill won’t get as much freedom as he did against Chile, but Australia will still have an advantage in some area of the pitch, whether that’s with a simple Cahill v Vlaar battle, or down the flanks where they could overload the wing-backs 2v1. Generally speaking, quick counter-attacks, rather than crosses, should be more prominent here.
Defensively, the area of concern is the channel between full-back and centre-back, where Van Persie and Robben target their runs. If Postecoglou pushes the full-backs forward, the Netherlands will be able to hit the front two quickly and directly on the counter-attack, just like they did against Spain.
With more possession likely, however, Sneijder will be more involved here. Therefore, he must be closed down quickly by Jedinak and Milligan, especially as De Jong and De Guzman lack the quality to hit incisive passes. Furthermore, Postecoglou must be decisive about how he handles the unorthodox wing-back threat of Janmaat and Blind – ask the wingers to track them, or push the full-backs onto them? Neither solution is optimal, but Blind has already demonstrated his creative quality, and their threat simply can’t be neglected. Something of a hybrid approach, with the wingers tracking them to a certain point, before passing them off onto the full-backs.
Beyond all this analysis, however, is the possibility that Van Gaal changes shape. The 4-3-3 seems to be his preferred formation against inferior sides, and would allow him to have width high up the pitch.However, he might stick with the 3-4-1-2 for the simple reason of how successful it was against Spain. A mid-game change seems likely, however, and that flexibility gives the side an extra element of unpredictability.
For more on the Dutch (and next opponents, Spain), pick up a copy of the July edition of FourFourTwo for Tim’s tactics feature. On Twitter, follow Nikos Overheul for the best insight into the Netherlands.