Moldova 0 – 1 Holland: Is the deep-lying playmaker the way forward?

Posted on 10 October 2010


The runners up of the past World Cup have started their Euro 2012 qualifying campaign well. Holland is grouped with Sweden, Hungary, Finland and Moldova, San Marino. The Dutch and the Swedes were expected to battle for first place, and indeed so far these two team managed to win all of their matches.

Compared to the team that finished second in the past World Cup, Holland has been changed on several positions. In discussing the 0-5 away victory at San Marino, the positional changes have been explained in detail. Of the team playing the final against Spain three months ago, seven players featured again in the match against Moldova.


Mutations to the Dutch team

The four changes are mainly on the left side, where Erik Pieters plays at left back. The PSV players seems to battle for this position with the currently injured Vurnon Anita of rivals Ajax. Another PSV player features on the left wing, where Ibrahim Afellay replaces Eljero Elia, who is also injured at the moment, and of course Arjen Robben still misses out due to his hamstring injury too. Therefore, Kuyt is positioned on the right wing, instead of on the left as was the case during the World Cup.

The starting line-ups

Upfront in-form Klaas-Jan Huntelaar replaces the injured Robin Van Persie, which was also the case during the first two Euro 2012 qualification matches, where he managed to score no less than five goals, proving a huge contrast with Van Persie’s one goal during the seven World Cup matches.

The most notable mutation was of course the absence of Nigel de Jong who was punished for his violent tackle, injuring Hatem Ben Arfa in the Manchester City – Newcastle match. New Tottenham signing Rafael Van der Vaart was rewarded for his run of excellent performances for the Spurs by featuring alongside Mark van Bommel in defensive midfield, although his natural tendency the see a lot of the ball, meant that he played the deep-lying playmaker role , rather than de Jong’s ball-winning midfielder role.


The playmaker in a 4-2-3-1

Moldova, meawhile, set out with a flat 4-4-2 formation, keeping a deep defensive line and limiting space for Holland, who, as expected, dominated possession 63%-37%. The evolution of the 4-2-3-1 has taught us that the attacking midfielder, who originally was the second striker in a 4-4-2 formation, had been withdrawn into a midfield role, thereby creating a 3 v 2 dominance in the central midfield area. However, the better team’s 4-2-3-1 is more and more confronted with a packed midfield playing in close proximity of a four-men defensive line. ‘The classic nr. 10 struggle’ by Zonal Marking excellently describes the two alternatives taken up by the classic central playmaker in response to this defensive trend.

One response is the shift of the playmaker to the wing, in an, often inverted, inside wing role. Christiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid is an excellent example of this . The other response to the defensively packed attacking midfield area is to move the attacking midfielder further forward, looking to finish moves, rather than initating them. Wesley Sneijder’s development at Inter during the past and into the present season is an excellent example of this trend. His five World Cup goals underline his more advanced position and his tendency to finish moves rather than initiating them. With the introduction of Rafael van der Vaart behind Sneijder, Holland’s main playmaker is now Van der Vaart in a deep-lying role. Van der Vaart’s passing performance against Moldova was highly impressive, completing 91% of his 103 passes.


The first half

The game initially evolved pretty much as expected.’ Oranje’ dominated possession and played an extremely advanced defensive line in combination with intense pressure, looking to win balls early in their opponent’s half. Sneijder’s flair and technique provided a handful of opportunities, mainly for striker Klaas –Jan Huntelaar, but his shorts were stopped by the Moldovan goalkeeper. Shortly before half-time it was Huntelaar’s finishing skill after another Sneijder assist that provided the 37’ opening goal.

The Moldovan attack had been limited to two off-target long range shots and Holland created at least six attempts from inside the box. Just like in the match against Finland a few weeks ago, Holland gained the advantage of a first half goal, and just like in that match, a successful opponent’s tactical change was about to happen. Knowing that their initial plan to grind out a 0-0, Moldova made a few half-time changes.


Moldovan half-time changes

Curiously it was striker Viorel Frunza who was taken off the pitch. The tall front man had scored Moldova’s only Euro 2012 qualifications goal in the match against Hungary and he was expected to from their major attacking threat. On came Igor Bugaev, who had played just 28 minutes in two previous appearances as a sub in the matches against Finland and Hungary.


Moldova's flat 4-4-2 just after half-time. Note the extremely short field with Holland's already extremely high defensive line and Moldova pushing further forward too.


Their basic formation was still a flat 4-4-2, but their defensive line was pushed up a bit further and the midfield, as well as both strikers, aimed to press the Dutch players earlier. Again much like Finland did quite successfully a few weeks ago. Initially Moldova did not achieve what they must’ve been aiming for, and it was only for an excellent save from goalkeeper Namasco that Sneijder did not score a beautiful 52nd minute curling shot from just inside the box. Ten minutes later Dirk Kuyt should have put the game away for Holland, but his close range shot went well wide.

A rather messy phase followed. Moldova’s advanced defensive line tempted Holland’s midfield to play more direct balls who were by and large unsuccessful. Moldova, meanwhile, resorted to direct long balls hoping for a lucky flick in the box. In spite of a few half chances, mainly stemming from set pieces, Moldova didn’t come close to scoring the equalizer.


In the end

On simple observation this match may just be another of those ‘dominant team beating smaller but stubborn opposition’ matches. But there was more to it this time. Omitting Nigel de Jong and introducing Rafael van der Vaart in a deep-lying playmaker role changed the philosophy of Holland’s 4-2-3-1. With four attack-minded players in front of the, now deep-lying, playmaker, the variety of passing options available was certainly sufficient. Van der Vaart’s contribution of completing 91% out of 103 (!) passes ensured that possession could be converted into chances throughout the match.

Against Sweden we can count on the same interpretation again, and we’ll see whether it stands the test against higher rated opposition.

Post-script: thanks to Opta for providing Van der Vaart’s exact passing stats.