Holland consider playing the fab four together

June 2, 2010

The potential Dutch line-up with a front four of Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie

There would surely be no more popular World Cup winners than the Netherlands. The country that has produced so many great footballers and such a distinct, wonderful way of playing the game is still without a World Cup win.

Discussing the tactics of the Dutch side is not possible without a brief look at the history and culture surrounding the way they play their football. Attempting to sum up why the Dutch have underachieved is not possible within one article; David Winner has essentially written an entire book on that very subject. He begins a chapter by asking,

“Why have the Dutch never won the World Cup, despite having so many wonderful, intelligent players and such a deliciously original and beautiful concept of the game? To an outsider, the manner in which Dutch national teams regularly fail in major tournaments is hard to comprehend. What weird, remorseless, fatal inner logical causes Dutch players, coaches and the federation to exhaust themselves in pointless pretty feuds about tactics, power and money? Why, when it so obviously defeats the purpose of achieving success, do the Dutch so often pick the wrong coach or spend all their time and energy complaining about the coach they do pick? Why do their gifted teams so often fall asleep against inferior opponents? Why do their stars walk out on the eve of major tournaments? Why don’t they ever seem to ask themselves why?”

He concludes,

“The most obvious diagnosis for the Dutch tendency to fail at the vital moment surely lies in the nature of Dutch individualism and antipathy to autocracy. Holland’s democracy, individualism and profound distrust of authority all have deep historical roots.”

Later on, Winner asks Dennis Bergkamp why Holland have so often disappointed in major tournaments. Bergkamp replies,

“It’s difficult. Because we’re not really a killer team…it we were a killer team, we might forget to play the football we’re good at. You never know there that will end…”

The alternative would be to play Dirk Kuyt on the right, switching Arjen Robben to the left and dropping Rafael van der Vaart

The 2010 episode

So, is anything different this time around? Probably not. The Netherlands have a wonderful array of attacking talent but a slightly suspect defence; so we have all the required features of a classic Dutch show – wonderful football in the group stage followed by an alarming collapse when things get serious.

They had amongst the most impressive results of any of the 31 sides who qualified for this  tournament. In an admittedly weak group, they had a record of eight wins from eight games, 17 goals scored and two conceded.

They maintained a shape throughout qualification that was described as both 4-2-3-1 and 4-2-1-3 – in this case, the notation is probably not important; the basic shape is clear.

Fluidity in the final third

The formation may be settled, but the starting XI is not. Wesley Sneijder, seen by most as the key player in this side, only started two of those eight games because of injury. Both Arjen Robben and Rafael van der Vaart were in and out of the side, whilst Robin van Persie managed to pick up a long-term injury almost as soon as qualifying was over, but is thankfully now fit. The attacking player who started the most games, Dirk Kuyt, may find himself with a place on the bench.

The reason for that is the delicious prospect of a Sneijder-Robben-van Persie-van der Vaart quartet, which would unquestionably be the popular choice. And for once, public desire to squeeze four out-and-out attacking players into the same side might just work – all are versatile, offering a plethora of attacking options, and in theory, it should work brilliantly.

“In theory” is the key, however. Those players have never started a Holland game together as a front four, although they were on the pitch as the same time for a blistering 33-minute spell against France in Euro 2008, one of the most remarkable international performances in recent history. Incredibly, Ruud van Nistelrooy was also on the pitch – and if they can work together that well with another striker on the pitch and just one holding midfielder, surely they can work as a front four in a 4-2-3-1 for Bert van Marwijk.

Will Sneijder-Robben-RVP-RVDV work?

As he does at Arsenal, van Persie plays in a false nine role drops deep to receive the ball in midfield positions

It certainly seems to be popular with the players themselves, as Robin van Persie recently revealed, saying “Nothing negative about Kuyt, who is a good player and deserved his credit but this is my opinion…with these four players in one team we really will be unique and will have an excellent chance of success.”

There is a suspicion, though, that Kuyt will get a starting spot – he offers a more disciplined, defensively aware option in the front four. Most likely for the chop would be Rafael van der Vaart, and then Bert van Marwijk would have to decide how to play his quartet – van Persie or Kuyt could play upfront, with the other three behind, but they offer two quite different options; van Persie drops deep in a false nine role, whereas Kuyt is more focussed on holding the ball up. The former seems the most natural option.

The friendly against Ghana showed the fluidity of the front four. Sneijder (the central playmaker) and Afellay (the left-winger) have switched on the near side, whilst van Persie (the striker) and Kuyt (the right winger) have switched on the far side.

The system is a ‘deliberate’ 4-2-3-1, rather than a system that started out as a 4-4-2 but evolved with the wingers pushing on and one striker dropping off. The four front players are happy to rotate, as seen on the right. This is also key defensively – when Holland lose the ball the front four are not obliged to return to their starting position, they simply move to the zone closest to them if the nature of the attack has taken them off-course.


The two central midfielders will be two destructive players, Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. De Jong comes short to receive the ball from the central defenders slightly more often, but also charges forward and attempts to link up with the forwards more – although don’t expect much of a goal threat from the central midfielders.

The back four now looks fairly certain to be, from right to left, Gregory van der Wiel, Johnny Heitinga, Joris Mathijsen and captain Giovanni van Bronkhorst. Slightly unusually for a Dutch side that has often featured a central midfielder dropping back into the defence, or even a back three, there is relatively little of note about the defence – the centre-backs stay central, the full-backs look to get forward and provide an outlet for the midfielders. Generally only one of them push forward at a time, although with two holding midfielders in front of the defence, it is not suicidal if they both get forward.


There has been speculation that this is a slightly more pragmatic, less spectacular Netherlands side than usual – but that may be, as with Brazil, a case of viewing their previous World Cup displays with orange-tinted glasses.

The key to the success of this Dutch side (in purely tactical terms) will be the organisation of the defenders. The attacking players will surely score goals, and you know what you’ll get from the two central midfielders – battling qualities and reliable, simple distribution. The back four are relatively weak players individually, maybe the weakest of the true contenders for this competition.

As always with defending, though, it is not so much about individual quality as it is about cohesiveness and mutual understanding. If the Dutch back four can work well together, they have a real chance of wining this competition – but then that wouldn’t be the Dutch way, would it?

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