Brazil 0 – 0 Holland: Lessons from a useful friendly

Posted on 6 June 2011


In what was beforehand regarded as a potential ‘unfriendly-like friendly’, Holland kept Brazil at 0-0 in a rather disappointing match, more so from the host’s perspective than from the guest’s. From a Dutch perspective, several interesting lessons were to be learned. For one, goal keeper Tim Krul made an impressive debut, keeping a clean sheet in the process. Furthermore, the absence of Sneijder and Van der Vaart saw a return to a more genuine double holding midfielder version of the 4-2-3-1. This system, that Van Marwijk also used during the World Cup, offers more defensive stability than the 4-2-3-1 with a deep-lying playmaker and it proved itself with a clean sheet in this difficult away match. In most matches Van Marwijk will probably need the more offensive version of the 4-2-3-1, including the deep-lying playmaker, to break down inferior opposition, but a more defensive alternative seems welcome against equal or superior opposition, like for example  during the Euro 2012 tournament.


Brazil’s 4-3-3

As expected in the build-up to the coming Copa America, Mano Menezes fielded a full-strength first team. However, several interesting choices were to be seen in it. The first one being the left-back position, where Real Madrid regular Marcelo wasn’t even selected for this match and Fenerbahce’s Andre Santos played instead.

In midfield, the same three players from Brazil’s previous friendly featured in a compact triangle, with Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva acting as the holding midfielder. This relatively sober and compact midfield meant that any creativity had to come from the wide attackers, Robinho on the right and 19 year old Neymar on the left. Up front, Fluminense captain Fred played the classic, rather static number nine role, allowing both wide players to connect with him at feet and express their creativity.


Holland’s 4-2-3-1

The starting line-ups

The main absentees in Van Marwijk’s selection were Maarten Stekelenburg, Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart. And with second choice goal keeper Michel Vorm also out injured and World Cup third choice veteran goal keeper Sander Boschker no longer featuring on a regular basis for Twente, some choices had to made there. Van Marwijk allowed Newcastle’s Tim Krul his debut, keeping N.E.C.’s Jasper Cillessen on the bench.

Up until the final minutes before the kick-off, speculation was still going on about the adjustments made in the absence of Sneijder and Van der Vaart. The latter has firmly established himself as Holland’s deep-lying playmaker with excellent performances in the recent Euro 2012 qualifying campaign. A true one-for-one substitute in this role would only be Barcelona’s Ibrahim Afellay, who acted in this role during his final season and a half at PSV. But using Afellay in this deep-lying role would require someone else to step into Sneijder’s shoes in the offensive midfield position. Using Van Persie here and playing Huntelaar as the lone striker would seems the most rational approach then, but Van Marwijk opted for a different solution.

Perhaps pressed by the offensive qualities offered by both Robinho and Neymar, he played two genuine holding midfielders, which allowed either of them to assisted their full-back in defending Brazil’s main offensive threats. Utrecht’s Kevin Strootman was fielded beside Nigel de Jong, with Afellay in a central offensive midfield role and Robin van Persie up front.


Two teams in different phases

The most interesting aspect of the game was the fact that both sides went into it with completely different intentions. Brazil is one the brink of the important Copa America tournament, which will provide the final series of competitive matches before the 2014 World Cup is contested in their home country. No less than a win will do for the expectant Brazilian fan base, and therefore, for Mano Menezes to keep his side on track to revenge the loss of the 1950 World Cup, the only ever before contested on Brazilian ground.

In contrast, the Dutch squad managed an even impressive as comfortable 100% record from the post World Cup qualification series for the Euro 2012 tournament. With most players nearing the end of a long season and no major tournament in sight, focus will be on long-term development and laying a foundation for Van Marwijk’s next goal: the Euro 2012 tournament.


The Dutch defense

The first half of the match was characterized by a very defensive stance of the Dutch team, leaving the initiative to Brazil, who had a hard time creating chances against the disciplined defensive structure of their opponents. It was almost as if Van Marwijk set his team out on a defense training mission, with both holding midfielders playing a very conservative role and always present to assist their full-backs on covering Brazil’s main threats: Robinho and Neymar.

A further sign of Van Marwijk’s defensive intentions was the deep positioning of wingers Robben and Kuyt. This prevented Brazil’s full-backs from overloading their counterparts, which is a key element of their game and has become Dani Alves’ trademark at Barcelona. With defensive winger Kuyt tracking his every run, Alves’ presence was hardly felt in the first half.

The third sign of the Dutch intentions was Van Persie’s positioning. He consequently dropped to the level of Lucas Leiva during Brazil’s possession, which freed up a midfielder in terms of zonal marking. This also allowed the aforementioned doubling-up on the wings without conceding space in front of the central defense zone.


Brazil’s answer

For the entire first half, the Dutch disciplined positioning held out and Brazil had a tough time finding space for their attacks, while the Dutch offensive quartet proved dangerous on breaking plays. But things were slightly different after the break. While in the first half both Robinho and Neymar mainly occupied wide positions, aiming for wide dribbles and service to striker Fred, in the second half they had much more positional freedom. Frequently drifting inside, they created more space for Andre Santos and particularly Dani Alves to make their overlapping runs.

On top of that, Elano took up a more offensive role, appearing in the opposing box now and then, and his through-ball for Neymar created one of the best goal scoring opportunities of the game. As a result of their more offensive intentions and positioning, Brazil started winning possession in their opponent’s half, resulting in a handful of goal scoring chances, as opposed to hardly any during the first half.



Substitutions, substitutions, and oh, a red card

Most international friendlies tend to become messy after the hour mark, when loads of substitutions disturb the pattern of play. This match was no exception to that trend, and this was even more true after the Ramires red card, for a foul on Robben, just like Felipe Melo during the World Cup quarter final. In the end neither side found the net and loud whistles of the home fans were heard as the teams cleared the pitch.


In the end

Focussing on the Dutch team, some interesting defensive lessons were to be learned from this friendly. In that sense, it was certainly a worthwhile effort at this stage of the season.

In personal terms, goal keeper Tim Krul made an impressive debut in difficult circumstances. He made a number of excellent saves to help his team towards the goal of keeping a clean sheet. Of further mention is the performance of Kevin Strootman, who made his first start for the national team on this World class level. It makes it hard to remember that he played his matches for second tier side Sparta as recently as six months ago.

Van Marwijk opted for a genuine 4-2-3-1, much like the system he used during the World Cup. As we know, during the Euro 2012 qualifying campaign, the system got reworked to a deep-lying playmaker 4-2-3-1, which is a more effective tool in breaking down inferior defensive sides. Therefore this difficult away friendly proved an excellent occasion to train the alternative, more defensively stable, system. And if a clean sheet is what it’s supposed to be judged by, it was a success.


Kevin Strootman tackling Neymar, only half a season after making the step up to the Eredivisie


More on the same match:

Jack Lang (@snap_kaka_pop) provides the Brazilian view of the match 

Keir Beals (@kingkeir) studied the Van der Wiel – Neymar match-up 

Posted in: Friendly