Holland 4 – 1 Sweden: Lessons of a high defensive line

Posted on 13 October 2010


A clear victory in a match that Holland dominated. By exploiting Sweden’s high defensive line ‘Oranje’ managed to score an early goal and an in-form Afellay and Huntelaar built upon this to achieve a comfortable 4-1 margin.

Perhaps it’s not a unique situation, but it won’t happen all that often that when two countries fill in their first eleven names on the team sheets, the away team has as many players playing in the home team’s national competition as the home team itself. But so it was last night. Four Dutch starting players currently play for Eredivisie clubs: Stekelenburg and Van der Wiel for Ajax, and Pieters and Afellay for PSV. And last night’s Sweden team counted four active Eredivisie player too: Toivonen and Isaksson for PSV, Granqvist for Groningen and Wernbloom for AZ. Add to that the fact that Ibrahimovic, Elmander, Majstorovic are former Eredivisie players too!


The starting line-ups: Holland's familiar 4-2-3-1 and Sweden's 4-3-1-2 that started out more as a 4-1-3-2


The Dutch deep-lying playmaker

In the absence of Nigel de Jong, Holland tends to play a deep-lying playmaker 4-2-3-1 formation. A formation that allowed Rafael van der Vaart to excel in the previous match, a 0-1 victory in Moldova. In the preview on the Holland – Sweden match, the ins and outs of this formation have been discussed quite extensively.

The Swedish plan

Sweden manager Erik Hamren started with a 4-3-1-2 formation where Ibrahimovic and Elmander played as the striker pair, but with enough freedom to roam wide, looking to receive balls there. Another element of freedom was added by their frequent shifts with Ola Toivonen, the attacking midfielder, who regularly plays (or played) a striker role at his club PSV.

With the Dutch playmaker role now shifted more backwards, pressing the players Holland focuses on for their passing becomes more difficult. On one hand, Hamren deserves praise for his plan to press high, using a fairly high defensive line early on, but on the other hand his team’s failings to execute the plan were exposed within five minutes of play.

Playing a high defensive line is just an element needed to effectively press the opponent. Other elements needed to achieve this goal are a well-working offside trap and midfielders and attackers who press the man with the ball, most notably the opponents playmaker, or other well-known passers.

The first goal

It’s clear now that this pressing did not work out for Sweden. But why did it not work out? What element were they missing?

Looking at the build-up of the first goal provides some answers to this question. The screenshot below for one illustrates Sweden’s high defensive line, but it also shows Huntelaar dropping from the striker position to receive the ball at feet. He will lay it off immediately, but his movement reduced the Swedish back line to three man on line, if only for a short while.


Holland plays from left to right. Note Sweden's high defensive line as well as the fact that Huntelaar's run reduces their back line to three defenders


The ball is quickly circulated from the right to the left side of the Dutch midfield, Sneijder makes a move that’s very similar to Huntelaar’s move just a few seconds earlier, this time dislodging Sweden’s central defender Granqvist for a moment. At the same time Van der Vaart makes a run from deep into the area that is now vacated in central Swedish defense.


Note Sneijder (short arrow) making central space by dragging his marker away. Van der Vaart (long arrow) makes the run from deep


A brilliant touch by Sneijder plays Van der Vaart free in this area and Huntelaar finishes this nice team move. Two fairly identical runs to play the central defenders out of position and the high defensive line proves difficult to maintain.

After that

Sweden upped the pressure after the opening goal. Holland still dominated possession most of the time, but it was generally more in their own half now. By withdrawing Larsson and Wernbloom when not in possession to play more close in front of holding midfielder Svensson, they were better able to frustrate Holland’s passing game in the important areas. In fact, they started the match with an over optimistic 4-1-3-2 formation, in order to quickly adjust back to the 4-3-1-2 that was probably intended to be.

Ironically Sweden’s best first half chances also came from a failing of a high defensive line. Holland missed an offside trap an Toivonen found himself a clear run at goal, but his lob went just wide.

Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt had to be substituted halfway through the first half due to injury. He was replaced by PSV’s Jeremain Lens, a quick wing player who generally plays a more wide role than Kuyt does. This, according to the ‘split-winger’ principle, as explained in the game’s preview, meant more freedom for his contralateral wing partner Afellay to roam inside.

This inside winger role allowed Ibrahim Afellay to probably play the best game he’s played in an Orange shirt so far. While Lens played a very disappointing game, loosing possession most of the time, Afellay was very successful in his runs, was involved in a lot of attacks and managed to capitalize on a Sneijder pass after Sweden squandered a throw-in. A comfortable 2-0 half-time lead it was.

The second half

Far less interesting from a tactical point of view, the second half did offer more Swedish aggression early on. Unfortunately for them it mainly brought about a few yellow cards and perhaps more, should Ibra’s body-check on Heitinga have been seen by the ref.

Sweden could not maintain the required level of pressing as Holland’s midfield succeeded in playing a quick ball circulation. Again, Ibrahim Afellay excelled here. His cross found Huntelaar to score 3-0. With that goal Huntelaar managed to equalize Marco van Basten’s 24 goals for the national team, and he does so with only 40 caps played.

The game was mostly over by then of course. Afellay managed to grab a second goal to underline his excellent individual performance of the night and Andreas Granqvist got one back for Sweden late in the game.

In the end

Well, the deep-lying playmaker game worked very well again. Sweden’s high defensive line was rather easily exploited very early in the match. Of course, this put Sweden in an uncomfortable situation where, being a goal down, they had to come out and attack while at the same time they wouldn’t want to maintain this type of defensive line. This certainly came to the aid of Holland, but to be fair, it was a very good ‘Oranje’ game.

Having played two games now with this deep-lying playmaker 4-2-3-1 formation, it will certainly be difficult for Van Marwijk to go back to his defensive block of De Jong and Van Bommel together again. Next up is Turkey in a home friendly on November 17. We’ll see by then if Nigel de Jong still has his role to play like he did at the World Cup…