In a re-match of the past World Cup semifinal, Holland drew 1-1 with Uruguay. Suarez’ late opening goal seemed enough for the win, but an extra-time header by Dirk Kuyt ensured that Van Marwijk kept his excellent record as national manager intact. In tactical terms, Van Marwijk experimented with a very narrow fluid front four, playing Van Persie behind striker Huntelaar.
Holland’s 4-2-3-1 for today
As if to underline the statement that simple numerical notations fail to deliver accurate descriptions of the positional relations on the pitch, Holland appeared in a totally different flavor of 4-2-3-1 today. In personal terms only two changes were made in comparison to the Brazil game four days ago, but in terms of playing style, a truly different team was seen today. Boulahrouz replaced van der Wiel at right-back and Robben was kept sidelined due to a slight inguinal strain, freeing up the much desired starting spot for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar up front. Van Persie dropped to the offensive midfield role, with Afellay now left and Kuyt right winger.
Although Uruguay’s formation was not all that different from the 4-3-1-2 they fielded against Holland in the World Cup semi-final, the return of Luis Suarez, who was suspended for that game after his handball against Ghana in the quarter-final, made quite an impact in tactical terms. The front three now consisted of three true strikers, which initially led to a large gap between the midfield and the front three.
All three strikers carry an inherent talent for roaming and drifting, as Suarez, Forlan and Cavani are all used with a lot of positional freedom at their respective clubs. Therefore, they regularly dropped off and cycled their positions amongst them. In midfield and defense most players kept to a disciplined role to compensate for the offensive nature of the front three.
The first half
Although Van Marwijk fielded another 4-2-3-1 variant, in terms of playing style, his changes made quite an impact. Holland used a high degree of positional freedom among their offensive four players. Not only did Huntelaar and Van Persie, both nominal, although very different, central strikers, switch position constantly, but also Afellay tended to switch with the offensive central midfield player to take up the role that he performed so well against Brazil. On top of that, even Kuyt played mainly as an inside winger, which made the whole attacking line-up quite narrow.
The narrowness was well expressed on the right flank, where Holland relied on Boulahrouz to provide width there, which led to no less than 18 runs from deep from the Holland right-back. Admittedly, he didn’t have a direct opponent for most of the time, with Uruguay’s strikers all having a tendency to drift to the right, but Boulahrouz’s qualities are nowhere near Van der Wiel’s offensive skills and it would have been highly interesting to see the Ajax youngster in a match like this.
For the first quarter of the match, Holland’s narrow front four did good business. They maintained a high level of pressure, winning a lot of early balls and their short ground combinations were a joy to watch. Uruguay suffered from a ‘broken formation’ problem during that stage of the game, allowing De Jong and particularly Strootman to easily control the central midfield area, winning a lot of balls early in Uruguay’s possession.
It took until about the 25th minute for Uruguay to find the right balance between their midfield and offensive lines. Two of Cavani, Forlan and Suarez consequently dropped deeper, which helped change the orange-dominated first 25 minutes. Uruguay seemed more able to control possession and worked their way to some chances too. The best of those chances, a quick break through Suarez should have seen Cavani hit the back of the net with a header, but Pieters arrived only just in time to clear the ball off the line.
A fine line of balance
The before-mentioned attack illustrated Holland fragility playing this narrow-offensive formation. With Van Persie in the offensive midfielder role, Holland actually played a 4-2-4 formation in possession. Particularly with the wingers taking up narrow positions it was difficult for the two of De Jong and Strootman to defend the wider midfield areas.
So any unexpected loss of possession would allow Uruguay the chance for quick breaks starting from those areas, of which they had a handful during the first half.
The second half
Van Marwijk did try to solve the first half issues by adapting his wingers from the start of the second half. Afellay and Kuyt played wider and less offensive. With Van Persie initially occupying rather advanded positions, this turned the formation in a 4-4-2 shape. However, the fluidity remained as both 4-2-3-1 and 4-4-2 seemed correct at different phases of the game.
Although it started along the competitive lines of the first half, the game gradually adopted more and more friendly-like characteristics during the second half. No less than eight substitutions interrupted the flow of the game and up until Suarez’ late opening goal, the true competitive spirit was lacking.
However, Van Marwijk will be truly pleased with Kuyt’s winner in extra-time, which ensured that Holland maintained its excellent record of no ’90 minutes’ losses since September 2008
In the end
It’s interesting to see Van Marwijk taking the occasion of two top level friendlies to experiment with first defensive training in a disciplined 4-2-3-1 against Brazil and now a narrow offensive formation against Uruguay. Admittedly, a draw was probably a fair result as Holland’s defensive wide frailties were well exposed after Uruguay started dropping two forwards deeper to connect with their midfield.
With the front four playing this narrow, the much needed width could have been provided by playing with wing-backs. In this match however, Boulahrouz’ offensive shortcomings were well illustrated by the lack of danger coming from his 18 runs from deep. But with Gregory van der Wiel, Holland has an ideal candidate for this kind of position. It will be interesting to see whether this narrow 4-2-3-1 line-up will be used in the near future, and if so, how much of a difference Van der Wiel can make.