Holland 2-0 Denmark: Dutch struggle to break down a disciplined Danish defence

June 14, 2010

A quiet game won by two scrappy goals – not really the performance we were hoping for from Holland. Some credit should go to Morten Olsen – his tactics stifled Holland’s creative players and Denmark did have chances to score.

Holland lined up as expected considering the injury to Arjen Robben – Rafael Van der Vaart played on the left, Dirk Kuyt was on the right, and Welsey Sneijder played behind Robin van Persie.

Denmark’s shape was broadly a defensive 4-1-4-1 which matched Holland in the centre of midfield – Christian Poulsen picked up Wesley Sneijder, whilst the two players ahead of him looked to track any forward runs from Mark van Bommel or Nigel de Jong.

Denmark defensive-minded

Denmark essentially set out looking for a draw, attempting to negate Holland’s strengths rather than maximise their own. They managed to do this rather well – Holland created few chances throughout the first half and there was no player on the pitch that really had any time on the ball – everyone was immediately confronted with an opponent and this resulted in a tight, cagey game of few goalscoring opportunities.

Denmark’s defending started from the front. They were keen to make sure Maarten Stekelenburg was unable to play out from goal-kicks to his two centre-backs, with Nicklas Bendtner and one of the wingers closing down and forcing the Dutch goalkeeper to hit his goal-kicks long. This seemed to trouble Holland who wanted to keep possession and dictate the tempo of the game.

Aside from goal-kicks, however, the Danish midfield sat inside their own half and didn’t look to pressure the Dutch player in possession until they got within 40-50 metres of the goal. Their defence, too, sat very deep and meant Holland were unable to play balls in behind Daniel Agger and Simon Kjaer.

Upfront Nicklas Bendtner was doing a decent job in holding up the ball and waiting for the midfield runners. He dropped relatively deep when the Dutch brought the ball into the Danish half, meaning that if the ball was won and played up to Bendtner, he generally had 5-10 yards of pace and could hold onto the ball much more easily than if he had pushed high up against the Dutch centre-backs.

Dutch congestion

A more detailed representation of the Dutch movement

Whilst Denmark were defending well, Holland were not helping themselves when in possession. There was surprisingly little width from the Dutch, with Rafael van der Vaart drifting in too much from the left, and Dirk Kuyt running into Simon Poulsen, who was the best player on the pitch until his mistake in the second half. Holland also found it difficult to get their full-backs into the game because they were tracked well by the Danish wingers. The only players who found space to operate in were Nigel de Jong and the two centre-backs – whenever they played the ball forward or wide, they generally received the ball back straight away as the flair players were closed down, and had no other options on.

A main part of the problem was that van der Vaart and Sneijder were operating in the same space. Sneijder likes to move to the left to find space, whilst van der Vaart looks to move inside. They needed to stretch the play to create spaces in the Danish defence, but the back four sat deep and narrow and dealt with crosses and through-balls well.

On the other hand, the Dutch narrowness and the Danes’ strict instructions to track individual players meant that Denmark ended up playing rather narrow too – it was not unusual to see three of the band of four midfield runners ending up within ten yards of each other when defending, and therefore it was difficult for them to find an out-ball, aside from the long pass up to Bendtner. The Danish four were happy to switch around both in and out of possession, and their best move came when the excellent Martin Jorgensen moved to the left and hit a huge diagonal ball to Dennis Rommedahl on the right, although he wasted the opportunity.

In all, it was a quiet first half – Holland and Denmark both touched the ball in the opposition box just three times in the first half, according to OPTA.

Goal settles the game

No obvious changes at the start of the second half, but an immediate goal. And with the Dutch problems with width on the left, it was ironic that the goal came when van Persie chased a hopeful ball into a deep left-wing possession and crossed the ball in. Poulsen’s header was awful, deflecting off Daniel Agger on its way in, and Holland were ahead despite Denmark’s excellent defensive display.

After that, little happened to actually change the scoreline. The half-fit Bendtner could only last until the hour mark and he was replaced by Mikkel Beckmann, not a natural striker by any means. The Danes didn’t appear to be able to shift from their defensive state to a more positive approach, and offered little goal threat for the rest of the game.

Natural width proves successful for Holland

The main interest came from the Dutch bench, where Elijero Elia replaced van der Vaart and played the left-wing role much, much better – keeping wide and skinning the Lars Jacobsen on two occasions shortly after his introduction, stretching the Dutch play and allowing Sneijder to move into the areas he wanted to play in. It was no surprise that the second goal came from his run in behind the defence – his shot was partially saved by Thomas Sorensen, but it hit the post and rebounded to Kuyt, to tap in and seal the game in the 84th minute.


Holland need natural width. Preferably from Robben, but if he is not available, the pacey Elia should be used to stretch the opposition defence and vary the threat. They had struggled all first half for any flair from the left side of attack, and their two goals came when first van Persie and then the substitute Elia caused the Danes problems from that very position, showing what they needed on a more permanent basis.

The Danes’ near-successful approach suggested that a deep and narrow defensive line could cause Holland problems, and the way the midfield was set out, to deliberately confront the Dutch midfielders and full-backs when they got the ball, could well be used even more successfully by a more talented side. It was basically the complete opposite of the failed Australian tactics against Germany yesterday.

The Danish objective was (a) to try for a 0-0 and if not, (b) to avoid an embarrassment. Their midfield was disciplined and defensive, yet contained four players with ability on the ball – against Japan and Cameroon they will look to break forward more, and having avoided the mauling many predicted, still have a good chance of qualification.

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