Holland 1-0 Japan: Little tactical excitement

June 19, 2010

There have been a few low-key games at the World Cup so far, but this was one of the worst. Holland continue to disappoint with a lack of attacking flair, whilst Japan were content with a draw, and didn’t threaten until the 90th minute.

Both sides kept faith with their opening day line-ups. Holland continued to play both Rafael van der Vaart and Wesley Sneijder despite the impressive substitute appearance of Elijero Elia against Denmark. Arjen Robben was not fit enough for consideration.

Japan lined up in their customary shape, which is often described as a 4-3-3 but is closer to a 4-1-4-1 as they generally spend most of the game without the ball, so the wide players take up defensive positions ahead of the full-backs.

The natural result of the two shapes was a fairly static game – Yuki Abe looked to prevent the ball being played into Sneijder’s feet whilst the two Japanese central midfielders tracked Mark van Bommel’s runs, and allowed Nigel de Jong a little bit more time on the ball.

Dutch face same problems

Japan’s tactics were essentially a carbon copy of the Danish tactics that had stifled Holland so well in the first game. One holding midfielder with four midfield runners who dropped into very deep (and central) when they didn’t have the ball, and this made it very difficult for Holland to play through them.

The Dutch problems were the same as in the first game – a lack of natural width. van der Vaart always looks to come inside into Sneijder’s space, whilst Dirk Kuyt often finds himself alone on the right when Robin van Persie drifts to the left, and is not a particularly tricky or pacey player anyway. The most disappointing thing about the Dutch so far is how reserved their full-backs have been, particularly with the protection of two holding midfielders screening the back four.

Instead, they looked to Sneijder and van der Vaart to create in tight spaces, but again they found themselves trying to operate in a similar space, and were often crowded out. Holland played at a slow pace which allowed Japan to drop back into good defensive positions, and they needed to move the ball forward more quickly.

Japan's 4-1-4-1 formation meant they regularly got nine players back into their own third of the pitch. The goal was notable in coming when Holland got Dirk Kuyt into the box alongside Robin van Persie, something that rarely happened in the first half.

Part of the problem with this is that Robin van Persie still looks like he’s trying to regain full match fitness – some quick, straight balls towards him, dropping off the centre-backs, were met with uncharacteristically poor first touches, and this wasn’t helped by a surprising lack of desire from the band of three attackers to make runs into the space he created.

Change in approach after half-time

After half-time Holland were more content to cross the ball into the box. The wingers played slightly wider and the full-backs were more advanced, although often van Persie was often the only target. Most of the aerial balls were met by the head of towering defender Marcus Tulio.

Ironically, the goal came from Tulio’s only poor header of the game; it rebounded to the edge of the area, where Sneijder thumped it into the net. It was the second time in as many games that Holland had relied on a poor defensive header to get the breakthrough – and strangely, both times the mistake came from an opposition defender who had been the best player on the pitch until that point.

Looking at it from another perspective, it was the second time Holland had broken the deadlock by putting a cross into the box, suggesting that this approach (which seems quite unnatural to their attacking players) might be more effective than constantly playing through the centre.

Japan pushed forward looking for an equaliser, but found it difficult to revert from their defensive-minded shape to a more attacking approach. Their only real goalscoring opportunity game in the final minute, from a long ball that Tulio headed on for substitute Shinji Okazaki, who blasted over.

The main effect of Japan becoming more attacking was to leave gaps at the back – which Ibrahim Afellay exploited well after his introduction, again suggesting that some pace is needed in the Dutch attack.


In all, a very disappointing game. In entertainment terms it was underwhelming, and we really learned nothing more about either side tactically. Japan’s 4-1-4-1 cancelling out Holland’s 4-2-3-1 was predictable from merely setting the sides out on paper.

Japan’s near-successful defensive tactics reinforce the view that defending deep against Holland is the best way to stop them, but despite the technical quality upfront they rarely tested the Dutch defence and weren’t ambitious enough to deserve anything from the game.

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