Holland 2-1 Slovakia: long balls towards wingers win it for the Dutch

June 28, 2010

The starting line-ups

Another quiet but effective win for Holland, who progress to the quarter-final, where they’ll face a stronger test from either Brazil or Chile.

Holland welcomed back Arjen Robben, who made his first start of the competition, having appeared as a substitution in the final group game against Cameroon. He replaced Rafael van der Vaart, who himself had become injured. The rest of the side was as expected.

Slovakia named a very attack-minded team – playing both Vladimir Weiss and Miroslav Stoch from the start for the first time in the tournament, in addition to three-goal Robert Vittek, auxiliary forward Erik Jendrisek and the main creator, Marek Hamsik.

They still kept their broad 4-2-3-1 shape they had used in the victory over Italy, but it meant that Hamsik was deployed very deep in the centre of midfield, often coming short to receive the ball from the centre-backs, before looking to play the ball towards the four forward players. He did this job reasonably well, but sometimes got caught too high up the pitch when the Dutch won the ball back, and Slovakia missed having him roaming behind the main striker.

The attacking band of Stoch, Wiss and Jendrisek had fluid roles, all drifting across the pitch and interchanging throughout the game. This added a slight element of unpredictability to their attacks, but often resulted in them all becoming relatively central. The game rather passed those three players by in the first period, with Slovakia looking to play long balls to Vittek, who struggled for support. Alternatively, they played it along the ground to his feet, where he would drop off towards the ball – but the Dutch defensive square of Mathijsen, Heitinga, van Bommel and de Jong made it difficult for him to find space in that area.

Weiss and Stoch fail to get at van Bronckhorst

The most disappointing thing from Slovakia is that neither of their pacey wingers really looked to continually get at van Bronckhorst. When there was a player on that side, he stayed very tight to his man, trying to prevent them turning if there was a ball played in to feet. This was never really exploited with a ball into space behind him – both Weiss and Stoch looked to drift into the centre when they started from a right wing position, which made Slovakia’s build-up easy to defend against, and didn’t utilize those two players’ main attribute – their pace.

That said, the Dutch were solid on that side because Dirk Kuyt was deployed on the left, rather than his usual position on the right. His hard work and defensive awareness helped van Bronckhorst throughout the game, and he gives a lot of balance to the Dutch when they don’t have the ball. He was also excellent in an attacking sense, even when he wasn’t directly involved – he stretched the play by staying wide on the left, taking his position according to the movements of the three other attackers, and making good runs from out to in. His aerial presence also offered the Dutch a different option with their passing – they could look for a long diagonal ball towards him, whereas Wesley Sneijder and Robben prefer balls to feet.

Inverted wingers

The use of Kuyt on the left and Robben on the right also offered a rare glimpse of last season’s tactical trend – inverted wingers, cutting in from the flanks onto their stronger foot. Robben has done this all season for Bayern Munich, and he opened the scoring here with his signature move. He got the ball on the right, ran down the flank until about 25 yards out, before cutting in and stroking the ball into the near post past Jan Mucha. The goal had come from a direct ball from the back when Slovakia were high up the pitch, a type of attack Holland hadn’t been able to construct until now, against their defensive-minded opponents. Jan Durica defended rather poorly for the goal – not doing enough to show Robben down the line.

The Dutch dominated the game after that, without looking too dangerous when they went forward. van Persie showed a couple of good turns but still doesn’t look as sharp as he’d hope to be, whilst the full-backs became increasingly conservative as the game went on. The Dutch won the game from the centre of midfield – Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel controlled possession and the tempo of the game when they had the ball, and were disciplined and reliable in a positional sense when they didn’t. Those two have arguably been this side’s star performers so far, which says a lot about the nature of their wins. de Jong barely crossed the halfway line, but was always an option in the centre of the pitch, and never played passes more than 10-15m long, preferring to leave that to van Bommel.

Problems at the back?

The concern for Holland will be in the centre of their defence, where both Mathijsen and Heitinga looked to step up, leaving themselves exposed on more than one occasion. Slovakia’s golden opportunity to get back into the game came when the defenders both moved forward ahead of Vittek too late, leaving him one-on-one with Maarten Stekelenburg in a similar situation to Vittek’s opening goal against Italy. This time, he could only blast at the goalkeeper.

Holland sealed the win from another long ball from the defence towards a wide player. This time, Kuyt made an excellent right-left run through the defence to meet van Bronckhorst’s lofted, curled quick free-kick down the channel. Mucha misjudged the bounce, Kuyt nodded it past him, before squaring for Sneijder to tap into an empty net. That was game over.

Slovakia continued to attack, and the Dutch still looked slightly vulnerable at the heart of their defence. They got a goal back when a deflected shot found Martin Jakubko in front of goal, again when the centre-backs had looked to move forward when the ball was in a central position. He was brought down by Stekelenbug, Vittek dispatched the penalty, but the full-time whistle went straight away.


A fairly tame battle in tactical terms – 4-2-3-1 v 4-2-3-1, with the more technically-gifted side prevailing. Vladimir Weiss may regret fielding such an attack-minded team, particularly because it didn’t allow Hamsik forward into his most dangerous position – but credit to him for giving it a go. His side did have opportunities to get back into the game, and defended reasonably well for most of the contest against van Persie, Robben and Sneijder, so his tactics can probably be justified.

The Dutch march on into the quarter-final without having played their best football so far. They are suspect in the centre of defence, but paradoxically defend well from further forward. The shield of van Bommel and de Jong makes them difficult to play through, Kuyt works very hard on one side whilst Robben pushes the full-back backwards on the other. The front four also have a good understanding when moves break down – returning to defend the zone closest to them, even if it isn’t their natural starting position. Sometimes, Sneijder ended up defending on the left and Kuyt in the centre, whilst van Persie was happy to track back on the wing if necessary.

There’s still a feeling they haven’t been properly tested yet, but you can’t fault Holland’s results so far.

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