A rationally explainable, but emotionally dissatisfying 2-1 win of Holland over Finland

Posted on 13 September 2010

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Another slightly delayed post on our recent national team’s performance. And yet again, for future reference and for the message conveyed in this particular match, it still is important to review Holland’s performance against a stubborn and, apart from the first 20 minutes, well organized Finland side.

Finland's extremely deep 4-2-3-1 making Holland's formation look like a 2-4-3-1

Oranje, as always, lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with man-in-the-hole Sneijder given a high degree of positional freedom, looking to see a lot of the ball and being involved in a very high proportion of the attacking plays.

But, while the central axis stands firm, the players that Van Marwijk uses on the wings bring variety to the line-up, and hence to the playing style. Part of this variety is forced, due to first choice wingers Robben and Kuyt being injured at the moment, but the wings are also the playground for switches in playing style, as we’ve seen in this match after the introduction of pacy wingers Elia and Lens.

In this game, van Marwijk uses new Tottenham signing Rafael van der Vaart on the left wing and PSV-star Afellay on the right. Both of these players are played slightly out of position, preferring a central role to dictate play behind one or two strikers. So we might anticipate a natural tendency to drift inside, potentially limiting space for Sneijder, like in the World Cup 2010 game against Denmark.

Another change to the line-up concerns the left-back position, which is up for grabs after Van Bronckhorst’s resignment. High-profiled candidates for this role at the moment are PSV’s Erik Pieters and Ajax’ Vurnon Anita, while also Royston Drenthe’s performances at Hercules will be eyed closely. Against Finland, Anita was preferred over Pieters, who playing an unconvincing game against San Marino.

The Finish self-fulfilling prophecy

Finland fielded a 4-5-1 variant with very deep positions for the side midfielders, probably anticipating fierce Dutch wing play. They chose to pack the midfield in numbers, in an attempt to break down the Dutch passing game and to limit spaces for Sneijder to drift into. However, their starting formation proved somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy as the lack of a direct opponent allowed the full-backs Anita and Van der Wiel to make frequent appearances on the wings. This doubling up on the wings proved particularly efficient on the right wing, where Afellay’s technical qualities contributed to a series of early right crosses.

Note the extremely deep 4-2-3-1 that Finland deployed in the opening phase of the game

The early opening goal was a direct result from the smart Sneijder-Van der Vaart connection. These players know each other extremely well, having grown up at the Ajax youth academy together and having played together at Ajax and Real Madrid. A quick trademark Van der Vaart pass found the run of Sneijder into the box, where Heikkinen initially cleared the ball for a corner. Immediately, the exact same players smartly combined for a short corner, allowing Sneijder to cross freely and find Huntelaar, another past Real Madrid man, for the header.

With the Finland team defending this deep, lacking all sorts of pressure, Holland was happy to circulate the ball, controlling possession and thus, given the early lead, controlling the game. Their technical superiority was always going to generate chances and a one-sided game was on the hands, even so that those in favor of describing the 4-2-3-1 as a 2-4-3-1, or even a 2-4-1-3 at times (Q8 in this Michael Cox interview), are encouraged to use the first twenty minutes of this game to convince people of their point.

A curious fifteenth minute foul, where Heikkinen slapped a running van Bommel in the box allowed Huntelaar to score from the penalty spot, his fifth goal in two matches. While everyone involved in this match might have been expecting a thumping of the Fins, it took only a few minutes for them to find a way back in to the match. Mikael Forsell got ahead of de Jong to head home from a corner.

The Finish ‘plan B’

Perhaps inspired by their quick response to going 2-0 down, Finland started to take the game to their opponents. They operated from a less withdrawn stance, looking to disrupt their opponents’ play a lot earlier. As illustrated by comparing the next screen with the previous one, before their goal they simple barred their box, cropping this area with players. Now, they positioned their first pressing line, consisting of the striker and the three players next in line (two wingers and the man-in-the-hole), between the Dutch back four and their midfield. This often led to positions like in the second screen, where Holland could no longer circulate the ball, patiently looking for an opening in the Finish defense. In big contrast to the first twenty minutes, lots of long balls and cross passes left the feet of central defenders Mathijsen and Heitinga. Furthermore, Finland confronted their opponents with a lot of early physical challenges, and, the modern tackle: interceptions.

The path to the encircled Van Bommel and De Jong now blocked by a more advanced Finish midfield

Despite previously being hailed for making successful in-match adaptations, this time Van Marwijk did not respond quickly enough and Finland succeeded in creating a handful of goal-scoring opportunities. If not for the shot stopping qualities of Maarten Stekelenburg, Oranje would have had to start all over again at this stage of the match.

Half time changes

The second half started with a deeper playing Dutch side, bringing more control to their game through longer spells of possession, albeit mainly around the halfway line. This deeper defensive outline forced Finland to either stretch their lines further apart, or give up their very deep defensive line. And while such a tactical plan may not warm the hearts of the demanding Oranje crowd, from a rational standpoint it seems justified. After all, Finland would have to score in order to gain anything from this match.

With both teams now sitting rather deep and refraining from early pressure, the game developed into a rather tame affair. A few sparks of Sneijder’s technical brilliance aside, Oranje did not succeed in breaking down the nine-men Finnish defense and Van Marwijk’s plan of sitting deeper did not lure the Fins away from their own half.

With about half an hour to go, Van Marwijk executed step two  if his plan to profit from the Fins having to give up the deep defensive line. He brought pace to the team, introducing Elia for Van der Vaart and Lens for Afellay. As the Finish team did indeed move a bit up the pitch in order to search for the equalizer, Holland tried to use this space for balls in behind their opponents’ defensive line, but often with too poor an execution to create real danger from it.

The final fifteen minutes of the game were mainly enjoyable for the frantic scansion of Ruud, Ruud, Ruud, with the crowd forcing Van Marwijk to bring his 34-year old cult hero on the pitch. While it could be received as somewhat of a disrespectful way to treat Huntelaar, he could always take comfort in his return of five goals in two Euro 2012 qualifications matches. Van Nistelrooy proved his excellent attitude by working hard during his ten minute spell on the pitch, but to no effect as the match panned out to a 2-1 score-line.

In conclusion, Finland will regret their all too defensive initial game plan and their English manager Stuart Baxter will be left wandering what would have been if he had started out the way Finland played after their goal. Van Marwijk did respond to the Finish change, although it took him until half time to do so. By sitting deeper against a Finish side that did not give in to chasing the equalizer, Oranje played the game out rather well from a rational point of view. The supporters in the half filled ‘De Kuip’ stadium however, took little comfort from this, having seen a rather dull second half in the first home match of the vice World Champion heroes.