Tactical Analysis: How the Netherlands demolished Spain
“..den Koning van Hispanje,/heb ik altijd geëerd” are the last two lines of the Dutch national anthem and roughly translate to, “the King of Spain, I have always honoured” and when Robin van Persie & Co, let these words exit their mouth, we are pretty sure they wanted to do anything but honour the ‘Kings’ of Spain.
The result on Friday took the world by surprise – and a not very pleasant surprise for sympathisers of Spain. Though there were a number of fans touting the Netherlands to take three points from Spain and exact revenge, no one quite expected the carnage that would follow. Having drawn inspiration from Ronald Koeman’s very recent revival of a three centreback system for Feyenoord in a 5-3-2/3-5-2 hybrid formation and forced to shuffle things due to Kevin Strootman’s injury, Louis van Gaal took the system and implemented it in his Oranje team – which makes it very unsurprising to see three Feyenoord defenders in the backline that started against Spain. This particular formation had been used in the friendlies preceding the World Cup but still had its clan of doubters going into the tournament itself.
However, we saw it reap success against Vicente del Bosque’s men – as it did for Feyenoord against PSV. Spain (and PSV) play high-possession football and the key elements of their game were keenly noted by Van Gaal – he was after all, one of the major purveyors of Dutch possession-based ideologies in his time at Barcelona. In last Friday’s classic encounter, everything clicked into place for the Oranje and following, are some of the tactical details observed over the course of the 90 minutes.
Flexibility of the Dutch backline & Man Marking
When dealing with a setup like the one put out by Van Gaal, it is extremely difficult to contain the backline by numbers – is it a back three? A back five? And this is exactly what he wanted to achieve. In general, he set up with three centre-backs in Stefan de Vrij, Ron Vlaar and Bruno Martins Indi and two wing-backs in Daryl Janmaat and standout performer Daley Blind, but on the field, it was a very fluid system in defence which interchanged between a back three, four and five. This is inextricably also linked to the defensive strategy put into use.
Spain’s buildup in attack heavily involves the front three dropping back, moving up and playing between themselves again in a series of linkups with free movement. In particular, the innate understanding and coordination between Man City’s David Silva and the man who condemned Netherlands to being runners up for the third time, back in 2010 – Andres Iniesta – is something most teams fail to keep at bay. To contain or minimise this, Van Gaal tasked each of his centrebacks with marking one each of the front three. Initially, de Vrij was given Iniesta, Martins Indi – Silva and Ron Vlaar against the strong and physical Brazilian-born Diego Costa.
In the opening stages of the game, any time any of the front three got a sniff of the ball near the halfway line, the defender tasked with marking him will chase him like a predator after its prey and try to get the ball off him, force him to play back or hold him until his defence can regroup again to form a 4-man backline. It can be observed from the screenshot that all 3 have their eyes firmly fixed on their assigned target and stay close enough to them to be able to close them down at immediate notice. When Iniesta and Silva drop, both Martins Indi and de Vrij assume pseudo defensive midfielder roles, resulting in a backline of Janmaat-Vlaar-Blind. As the game progressed, Iniesta and Silva switched flanks but the task remained the same for Martins Indi and de Vrij – close them down as soon as possible.
In the above screenshot, as soon as the ball is played to Costa, Vlaar surges out of the heart defence to take up a defensive midfielder-like role while the rest of the defence shifts to play out like a normal 4 man defence – de Vrij and Martins Indi backtracking a bit, becoming a centreback pairing and the wingbacks tucking in. This switching is extremely fluid and, resorting to Oranje cliches, like ‘clockwork’ which is understandable, given Martins Indi and de Vrij are teammates at Feyenoord and Vlaar, an ex-teammate who left Rotterdam in 2012.
However, the shifting is not always perfect and Vlaar – ‘Roncrete’ as he’s known in the Netherlands – is not the fastest of defenders. Thus, Spain should have used the space available between the defenders more effectively. Here, Iniesta is on the ball and draws out de Vrij who is quick and rushes out but his teammates are still reacting and hence, opens up a big gap in behind de Vrij – where Alba is looking to head, taking Janmaat on one-on-one, but ultimately Iniesta cannot shrug de Vrij off and plays behind to Alonso. This is the kind of penetration Spain should have been looking to achieve, however they lacked a player who could run down the line and take on the wingback, making his job considerably harder such as Jesus Navas. As a result, both Blind and Janmaat had a considerably light workload, both coming up only against the opposing fullback directly and this was a major factor in Blind attacking like he did, since Azpilicueta is not as attacking a fullback as Jordi Alba on the opposite flank.
Manipulation of Space & The Indispensable Wingbacks
Perhaps the most important ideology forming the very foundation of totaalvoetbal is the use of space, the idea that the field is what you make of it, and that you can enlarge it or shrink it. Typically, the idea is to maximise the field and make it as wide and long as possible when in attack and minimise it, make it compact and tight when you don’t. This is made for playing vs an opposition like Spain, who prefer to build and attack down the middle and do not prefer crossing the ball into the box due to the vertical challenge faced by many of their attackers (not everyone is Tim Cahill), barring Diego Costa. Hence, when they lost the ball, the Men In Orange narrowed the pitch down to force Spain to play in congested areas.
In principle, this role depended heavily on the two wingbacks to be constantly on their toes – tucking back in when possession has been lost and immediately sprinting off to support the front three or four when in possession. As far as Spain are concerned, at least, as previously mentioned, this team lacks a player who can make the wingback suffer – à la the unselected Jesus Navas – in fulfilling his role of constantly moving up and down the field, being the only true sources of width and ultimately Spain made it easier for the Dutch, playing exactly into the Netherlands’ hands and what they prepared for.
Had Blind – who is not the fastest of defenders – come up against Navas – the man Jose Mourinho described as ‘Speedy Gonzalez’ -, he would’ve certainly had much more on his plate than he did, against Navas’ City teammate Silva.
Having said that, due credit must be given to both Blind and Janmaat. Blind performed his duty ‘to a T’ as Thierry Henry said, especially in the attacking quotient. Those who have followed him over the course of his time at Ajax so far will know he is a fantastic passer of the ball, with quite a range under his belt and every time he received the ball, he always looked to play the ball up to Robben or van Persie first, rather than dribble at Azpilicueta, who has come off of a great season with Chelsea albeit on the other flank. When he did get up, he made some exquisite linkups with Robben and Sneijder, providing a real threat from the flanks.
Meanwhile, Janmaat – who received considerably less credit – was one to pity, with a large proportion of the attacks coming down his flank as well as the pacy Jordi Alba to deal with. The Dutch no. 7, joining a list of defenders wearing traditional attackers’ numbers, could not offer as much on the attack, but his reputation for bursting down the flank at Feyenoord more than precedes him. This match was a crucible for the Leidschendam-born rightback, who has been scouted by a number of clubs including Napoli and Arsenal in the past, to prove that he can be depended on at the back against world-class opposition.
The Pique-Ramos Fiasco & Dutch capitalization
However, there has never seemed to be a complete understanding between Ramos and Pique on field – which was exposed as early as Spain’s group stages match vs Italy, where a pass from Pirlo split the extremely wide gap between Ramos and Pique to send Antonio Cassano through on goal, only for the veteran to shoot just wide.
It was not only the gap between Pique and Ramos but also the space left behind by Alba when on his marauding runs down the flanks. This abundance of space in the Spanish defence had been negated to a large extent by the presence of Sergio Busquets, one of the world’s best ‘controllers’ who drops back to almost play a 3rd centreback at times between Ramos and Pique, effortless in doing his defensive work to let people like Xavi and Iniesta operate in front of him, unencumbered. It was not only the gap between Pique and Ramos but also the space left behind by Alba when on his marauding runs down the flanks.
Both of these points were noted by van Gaal, who gave van Persie and Robben very specific roles and made them work like a pivot up top. When Spain are in possession of the ball, van Persie, and Robben do not go past the halfway line to defend – a point Louis himself emphasized in one of his post-match interviews after the friendlies.
Ideally and typically, one would drop near the halfway line of the flank on which Spain were attacking and the other, stick himself in between the two defenders positioned centrally. On the right flank, the gameplan was for the defenders to find de Guzman (most of the times) who would turn away and pass forward to the striker near the halfway line. We saw this in the 8th minute, where Robben got the ball in that area and you can see the movement of van Persie and Sneijder. Van Persie splits the two defenders that are most central at this moment – Azpilicueta and Pique, while Sneijder makes the run in behind Pique and eventually splitting him and Ramos, Robben doing well to feed him the ball.
And Sneijder almost gave the Netherlands the lead in that instance. (also pictured is a Daley Blind bursting his lungs to make use of all that lush grass ahead of him and complete the defence-to-attack transition)
On the left, is a slightly different game plan. Blind’s passing abilities have been previously mentioned and van Gaal is aware of them, which is why Blind was encouraged to either go up and cross right from the byline into the box (one cross dangerously evading everyone in the box), or play a long ball from the halfway line, but make sure it is central – which is where now both of van Persie and Robben would stay. This is how the equalizer was made.
Robben stands in between Pique and Ramos and van Persie, between Pique and Alba. Blind sends up a ball to the Dutch captain that his boss, Frank de Boer would’ve been extremely proud of and van Persie teaches kids that if you are going to dive in the game of football, you better at least make sure it is something like that. Though he timed the start of his run well to evade the offside, van Persie arrives too early on the spot but with time to estimate the trajectory of the ball, heads the ball into the back of the net and Casillas stood rooted to the spot.
This gap again, was exploited for the goal that put the Dutch in the lead in the 52nd minute. A quick switch saw the ball go from the right flank to the left, where Blind put in another fabulous – this instance, first time – ball up to Robben, who dragged Pique out only to cut sharply and sprint towards goal, exhibiting fantastic control to get the ball down and finish past Casillas.
Now, what the tactics above mean is that very importantly, Busquets’ significance in the equation takes a severe blow. Robben and van Persie are not running from deep – specifically instructed by van Gaal to stay up high – and neither are the balls played to their feet, where by Busquets can shield the defence much more effectively. Busquets is a harassing presser himself but bringing the ball out to wide positions near the halfway line as well as the relative inefficacy of Silva/Iniesta tracking back means the Dutch have more time to think clearly and move their play quicker, be it Blind crossing on the left or Robben or van Persie dribbling down the right. There was little risk taken here by van Gaal regarding the matchday form of Busquets or Alonso (who many believe should not have started ahead of Martinez), he just created a system that took them out of the game when the Netherlands had possession.
Moreover, the long, aerial ball played from deep is not meant to fall to the attacker right at his feet. Instead, it is deliberately set up to land deep in the Spanish ‘D’, in behind the defence. This is owing to the general lack of coherence and communication between Pique and Ramos as well as the speed of Robben and van Persie on the counter. The use of Robben as a striker was put under doubt by many before the World Cup, who felt it reined in Robben’s capabilities. But as we saw vs Spain, it did more of the opposite, unleashing him in an unencumbered role, where he could drift to the flank as well as cut inside.
Now, whether the 5-3-2/3-5-2 system was a one-off meant only for the Spain game and whether the 4-3-3 will make a return this summer is yet to be seen, and the possibility of this signifying a ‘shift in power’ is still premature, but van Gaal has implemented a system that benefits the experiences veterans in attack and the young, wet-behind-the-ears Eredivisie stars in defence. They look poised to qualify from their group and more importantly, avoid Brazil, as long as they can keep up this good work.
Tiki-taka is ultimately a descendant of Totaalvoetbal but it isn’t Totaalvoetbal as Sjaak Swart neatly put it a few years back: “In four passes, we’d be in front of the goal. Nowadays, they take twenty passes – backward, sideways, backwards. We didn’t play like that. We went for the goal. We could play 60 minutes of pressing.” What we saw last Friday from the Dutch was perhaps not a replication of Totaalvoetbal, but it was certainly closer to that when compared to the team that played Spain 4 years ago.
And it makes one think maybe, had The Netherlands stuck to their roots that night in Johannesburg, they would have a star on their shirt.
Priya Ramesh is an Indian-born Dutch football fan who grew up in Amsterdam and now lives in Singapore. She is a freelance football writer and has a fondness for people called ‘Frank’. You can follow her on Twitter @Priya8Ramesh.