Holland 3-2 Uruguay: fortune favours the brave

July 7, 2010

The starting line-ups

Holland progress – they shaded the contest, and took the initiative to try and win the game by throwing on an extra attacking player at half-time.

Both teams named the expected starting XIs, and both set out broadly as predicted in the preview. Uruguay’s midfield was a cross between a standard four-man system and a diamond, with Walter Gargano playing much further up the pitch than we are used to seeing him. Alvaro Pereira stayed wide, whilst Diego Perez played a reserved role on the right.

The first half was a fairly tame affair – Holland’s passing was slow and unadventurous, whilst Uruguay’s pressing was very good. Diego Forlan and Edinson Cavani chased the ball in the Dutch half whilst the other eight players stayed the other side of the halfway line, literally trying to prevent the ball coming into their half.

Uruguay were reasonably happy for their opponents to control the ball, as they have been throughout the tournament; they have managed an average possession of just 40% – a lower percentage than any team to have reached the quarter finals since 1966, according to OPTA.

Equally, Holland were reasonably content to knock the ball around in non-threatening areas – again, this can be backed up with a stat from OPTA – only 53% of Holland’s passes have been in the opposition half at the tournament, the lowest of any team.

So what did we have? Holland holding onto the ball but doing little with it, Uruguay intent on playing defensively and not allowing Holland space to break into. Mark van Bommel and Demy de Zeeuw were seeing plenty of the ball but failing to get it to the creative players, justifying Jonathan Wilson’s description of Bert van Marwijk’s side as “team in which six players defend, three attack, and Dirk Kuyt runs about”.

Robben threat

The immediate battle was in Uruguay’s left-back zone. As expected, Martin Caceres was fairly comfortable dealing with Arjen Robben coming inside onto his stronger foot, partly because Caceres is a centre-back, partly because he is right-footed. Alvaro Pereira also did a good defensive job, dropping deep and doubling up quickly whenever Robben got the ball.

Uruguay’s concern about Robben, identified as the main threat beforehand, and the lopsided nature of their midfield meant that Dirk Kuyt was constantly in space on the opposite flank, and he had a very good game. Kuyt is a notoriously unselfish player who gets praised mostly because of his work rate, but equally his positional awareness is excellent. That flank was noticeably more free for Holland to work in, and that may have contributed to the opening goal – although in fairness, it was all about a superb strike from Giovanni van Bronckhorst rather than anything to do with tactics.

Uruguay were slow to support the front two throughout, and the Forlan-Cavani partnership was often crowded out by the presence of six defensive-minded Dutch players. It was basically up to those two alone to get goals, and it didn’t help that they only combined (in terms of a pass from one to the other) three times all game. That said, they worked well for Uruguay’s equaliser – Cavani’s slight bit of movement created space for Forlan in the hole, and his swerving shot deceived Maarten Stekelenburg and ended up in the net.

Half-time change

The formations after Holland's half-time switch

At half-time, neither side were playing particularly good football, which was probably to Uruguay’s advantage. It was effectively a bore 0-0 with two excellent shots thrown in.

Holland were struggling to link defence and attack, whilst Uruguay weren’t getting enough men into the final third. One reason for both those factors was Oscar Tabarez’s use of Walter Gargano, usually a holding midfielder, in an advanced position. He did a good defensive job high up the pitch, but never looked to support the two strikers, despite being the best-placed Uruguay player to do so.

Maybe with that in mind, van Marwijk made an attack-minded substitution at half-time. He probably decided he didn’t need two holding midfielders against a side not looking to break from the centre of midfield, and removed de Zeeuw, putting Rafael van der Vaart on in his place to link the play. This switched the team to something more like a 4-1-4-1, with Mark van Bommel on his own ahead of the defence. Oscar Tabarez didn’t respond.

Did it work? Well, yes and no. It meant Holland got the ball to their forward players more quickly and easily, and Holland retained the ball in more threatening positions. However, it also meant that Kuyt and Wesley Sneijder were playing deeper than they had been previously, and therefore there seemed to be less of a direct goal threat from those two. Robben remained pressed up high against Caceres.

Another knock-on effect was that Uruguay had more space to break into, with only one Dutch holding midfielder, and they were themselves looking more threatening in the second half. That was, until Sneijder’s fortunate goal – which deflected off a Uruguayan defender, narrowly avoided the (possibly) offside Robin Persie, before squeezing in off the far post. This came after the Dutch had been looking under pressure – as Alvaro Pereira said after the match, “The main difference was the timing of the Dutch goals. They scored their second right in the middle of our best spell.” This may have been the case, but Uruguay never really forced the issue – in particular, they created nothing in wide areas. Holland’s two apparent weak links – Khalid Boulahrouz and van Bronckhorst – both had excellent games.

Holland seal it

The third goal was more pleasing on the eye – Kuyt again showed his positional awareness by keeping width on the left-hand side when other Dutch players were haring into the box. He had time to cut back onto his right foot, before curling an inch-perfect cross over for Robben, who had made a run in from the opposite flank. His header bounced in off the post – the third time Holland had scored via the woodwork in this game – and it looked to be game over.

Tabarez sent on another striker, Sebastian Abreu, in place of Alvaro Pereira, and Uruguay got a goal back in the 92nd minute with a neat strike from Maxi Pereira following a free-kick – a deserved goal for the Benfica player, who has provided a consistent threat from full-back in the competition. A late scramble produced a tight finish but no final goalscoring opportunity, and Holland held on to record a famous victory.


This was a game decided by very fine margins, and despite Holland winning the game following a half-time change in formation, it’s difficult to attribute too much of their success to tactics. Nevertheless, with this being a Holland side that have been criticized for a perceived lack of adventure and flair, we should credit van Marwijk for a bold attacking move. In the second half, Holland had five attacking players whilst Uruguay had only two, and the team who made more of an attempt to win the game prevailed.

Tabarez must rue the fact he had injuries and suspensions to cope with, limiting his tactical options. It was a slight surprise that he didn’t reshape his side after van der Vaart’s introduction, especially as his philosophy so far has been to adapt from game to game according to his opponents, but then Uruguay were on top before the goal went in. Tabarez has proved himself to be an astute tactician at this competition, and a run to the semi-finals should be considered a success.

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