Euro 2012 preview: Holland

June 5, 2012

Holland's probable starting line-up

After a reputation for playing beautiful football was undermined by Holland’s brutal performance in the 2010 World Cup final, Holland’s strategy in the past two years has been an interesting balancing act – Bert van Marwijk wants to look as if he’s moved on to a more open style of football, but remains reluctant to abandon the structure and functionality that took Holland to the World Cup final in the first place.

Despite retaining roughly the same core of players, Holland are a more attractive side than two years ago. They hold onto the ball for longer periods, and the circulation of the ball is quicker.

van Bommel partner?

But there remains a great debate about the style of play, and discussion about Mark van Bommel’s midfield partner is effectively a microcosm of the wider debate about the overall ideology of the side. Inevitably, Johan Cruyff has been keen to give his view:

“The problem with two holding midfielders is quite simple, but somehow many coaches don’t see it. The build up happens too slow – holding midfielders always need that extra touch, always need to have a look when they have the ball already. That takes time away. The opponent can position themselves to stop the killer pass and the forwards are all marked. Plus, having two holding midfielders means there is one less creative playmaker. It’s a double edged sword…we need one good controller in midfield and two creative players on the wide midfield spots, like Barcelona does…if our build up is slow, the effectiveness of our creative forwards will decrease significantly. Robin van Persie got a lot of criticism last World Cup, and I believe it was because we played to defensively and passively. We became a counter team. Our best players are up front, though. They need the ball, and they need it quick.”

Van Bommel’s place in the team is assured. His partner at the 2010 World Cup was another holder, Nigel de Jong. His karate kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso was the single most memorable example of Holland’s force in the final, and when another strong tackle (although it wasn’t deemed a foul) broke the leg of Hatem Ben Arfa in a Premier League game, van Marwijk dropped him from the Holland squad. ”It was a wild and unnecessary offence. He went in much too hard,” he said.

That strange decision was an attempt to improve Holland’s footballing reputation. The other two options for that role were, happily, much more forward-thinking players. Rafael van der Vaart often played there against weaker sides, and van Marwijk won the World Cup semi-final against Uruguay by gambling and putting van der Vaart on for de Jong at half-time. Van der Vaart would be the choice of his fellow players and probably the Dutch public too, but van Marwijk will find it difficult to field such an anarchic player in a deep position against quality opposition.

The other option is Kevin Strootman, the young PSV midfielder who made his international debut last year. He appears the perfect compromise – he’s not a defensive midfielder like De Jong, nor an attacking midfielder like van der Vaart. He sits deep and sprays the ball across the pitch, keeping the tempo high and providing a quick initial pass into the front four with his left foot. He started the final four qualification games, but also played in the 3-0 friendly defeat to Germany in November, when he and van Bommel were unable to cope with the constant waves of German attack through the centre of the pitch. He was removed after an hour, with de Jong brought on to provide defensive strength.

Strootman’s problem (and also van der Vaart’s) is that Holland have been drawn in such a tough group, with Portugal, Germany and Denmark. As the Dutch football site 11Tegen11 points out, the defensive approach of two holding midfielders is used against strong sides, while van Marwijk prefers to play with a deep-lying playmaker against weaker opposition. In such a tough group, de Jong seems likely to get the nod. He’s started the four friendlies since Strootman’s outing against Germany, and after all this fuss, Holland will play the same central midfield combination that started throughout the World Cup. As a result, their football will be more structured than fluid.


That’s not the only debate in the side. Upfront, despite Robin van Persie being the clear first-choice at the World Cup, and being in sensational form over the last 18 months, his position has faced a challenge from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who enjoyed a brilliant Bundesliga campaign with Schalke. Van Persie wouldn’t have been dropped – he could have been moved wider.

But in the recent friendly against Bulgaria, the use of both players resulted in a poor performance and a 2-1 defeat. It would be nice to get Huntelaar into the side, but structurally it doesn’t seem possible without moving van Persie – who remains the superior player – into a role he’s less comfortable in. Therefore, van Persie will start with Huntelaar on the bench.

Left winger?

Here there are three options, who all offer something very different. There is Dirk Kuyt, who offers the most defensive protection (which is important, as Holland lack a reliable left-back, which will be discussed shortly), and his ability to play deep alongside the two holding players in the World Cup final gave Arjen Robben the freedom to effectively become a second striker – which should have won Holland that game, had Robben not squandered two great one-on-one chances. The balance Kuyt provided shouldn’t be underestimated.

Then, there’s van der Vaart. Unlikely to start in the wide role and with Wesley Sneijder a certainty in his favoured number ten position, the possibility of playing van der Vaart on the left is appealing – with Robben more direct on the right, having a player who can move infield and become a ’second number ten’ alongside Sneijder gives Holland another playmaking option. That’s especially important, of course, if they’re playing a static defensive-minded duo deep in midfield. But the problem is that Sneijder himself likes to drift to the left, and Holland would risk having roughly the same type of player doing the same job.

Therefore, it seems that Holland’s left-sided player will instead be a proper winger, Barcelona’s Ibrahim Afellay. He spent most of the campaign injured, and hasn’t played a full game for a year – but looks likely to start, bringing a system of two wingers stretching the play. His performance in the final pre-tournament friendly against Northern Ireland secured his place – two goals and an assist.


This is the real problem area. Giovanni van Bronckhorst has retired and is the only player from Holland’s first-choice World Cup XI not to be in the current squad. His natural replacement was PSV’s Erik Pieters, but his foot injury ruled him out of the tournament. Instead, van Marwijk will probably select Jetro Willems, Pieters’ club back-up. He’s an excellent prospect – fast and technical – but is 18, inexperienced and was uncapped until two weeks ago.

The only alternative is Stijn Schaars, ten years older and more combative, but a holding midfielder, although he is left-footed. This creates another, unwanted debate about the more appropriate style of player.


Aside from these debates, Holland are unchanged from the World Cup. The defence is relatively weak, although critics said that two years ago and they performed admirably. This weakness, however, is another reason for van Marwijk selecting two holders.

The final questions are about the roles of van Persie and Sneijder, who effectively play as a front two. Van Persie didn’t perform particularly well as a goalscorer at the World Cup (partly because he wasn’t 100% fit after a long injury lay-off) and spent much of the time holding the ball up and assisting others. “In the whole World Cup, I was only put [through] in front of the keeper four or five times,” he complains. “Cesc [Fabregas] did it four or five times a match.” The role of Holland’s forward is not about poaching – and van Persie has increasingly become a poacher at club level – but about playing as a team player. He has no problems doing that, it’s just a case of whether he has become accustomed to being a penalty box player.

Equally, the reason Sneijder wasn’t putting him through on goal was because he, with five goals, was Holland’s main goalscoring threat, despite the fact his goalscoring record at Inter was average. Since then, his role at Inter under various coaches has become extremely confused – and although he generally performs well for Holland, it’s still an odd situation.

Finally, Holland have great options from the bench. Huntelaar, Kuyt, van der Vaart and Strootman will be options, as will clever centre-forward Luuk de Jong and explosive winger Luciano Narsingh. It feels like at least one of those ‘different options’ will be needed in each game.


A marginally more attractive footballing side than in 2010, but a less secure, stable starting XI means Holland are arguably a weaker team. In such a tough group, van Marwijk will go for two holding midfielders and is unlikely to change that in the knockout stage, which Holland will expect to qualify for. With each position having two contenders who interpret the role very differently, this is all about finding the right balance between defence and attack.

Quick guide

Coach – Bert van Marwijk

Formation – Basically a 4-2-3-1, though the position of the wingers and Sneijder hint at a 4-2-1-3 at times

Key player – Wesley Sneijder

Strength – A plethora of attacking options

Weakness – A slightly dodgy defence, and a tendency to pass too slowly when two defensive midfielders are used

Key tactical question – Who partners van Bommel?

Key coach quote – “A good team plays within a certain structure. You hear coaches say their team can play four or five different systems but I don’t think that’s realistic. What you can do is vary the details – that way, we can make life difficult for our opponents.”

Betfair odds: 8.0 (7/1)

Recommended bet: van Persie to outscore Huntelaar at 1.45

Further reading: David Winner’s excellent book Brilliant Orange, the very promising iPad magazine Orange Crush and the Dutch tactics site 11Tegen11

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