Germany 2-1 Holland: German flexibility outwits the static Dutch midfield

June 14, 2012

The starting line-ups

The second excellent Group B game of the night, and another encounter decided by superiority in one particular zone.

Jogi Löw continued with the same starting XI that defeated Portugal on Saturday.

Despite widespread predictions that Holland would change at least one of their front four, Bert van Marwijk’s selection featured only one change, with Ron Vlaar dropping out of the side now Joris Mathijsen was fit to start. Clearly, van Marwijk believed that the majority of Holland’s play against Denmark was good – it was just the finishing that let them down.

Germany were much the better side here – they were more comfortable on the ball, their movement was better and they played at a quicker tempo. It was something of a surprise to see them hanging on towards the end of the game, having been so superior in the first half.

Wide positions

Whereas the earlier Group B game was contested on the flanks, the battles in wide zones here were quiet, with the full-backs coming out on top. Ibrahim Afellay had another disappointing game, and Jerome Boateng again deserves great credit for his defensive performance, having been unsure of his place in the side before the tournament (although he picked up a second yellow card, and will miss the game against Denmark). On the other side, Philipp Lahm played Arjen Robben wonderfully – Robben was predictable, always coming inside onto his left foot, but Lahm had extra knowledge from Bayern, and Robben only succeeded with one of his five attempts to dribble past an opponent.

At the other end, Gregory van der Wiel against Lukas Podolski was something of a no-score draw – it’s difficult to remember either significantly involved in the play – while Thomas Muller was probably the wide player who looked most dangerous (mainly with a couple of crosses towards Mario Gomez) against the inexperienced Jetro Willems – although the Dutch left-back certainly didn’t have a poor game.

Central midfield

This game was all about the midfield, and the contrast between the two systems. Holland were very structured – Nigel de Jong was retained alongside Mark van Bommel, while Wesley Sneijder stayed high up the pitch, more like a second striker than an attacking midfielder. Holland were effectively outnumbered 3 v 2 in the middle, but this wasn’t necessarily a problem if they sat deep, kept their positions, and forced Germany wide.

Holland’s trouble inevitably started from the movement of the fabulous Mesut Ozil, who drifted towards the right of the pitch in the first half, combining with Muller. As the deepest-lying Dutch midfielder, de Jong generally followed him – which left Mark van Bommel covering a large space of the pitch in front of the Dutch defence.

Third runner

Van Bommel then had to pick up the second runner – either Sami Khedira or Bastian Schweinsteiger. But the great value of Germany’s fluidity and bravery in midfield was demonstrated by the fact that the other player didn’t merely stay deep and pick up Sneijder. Germany left him to the centre-backs, generally keeping one full-back in a defensive position to maintain three defenders at the back if the ball was lost. That meant they had a third midfield runner.

The first goal highlighted this brilliantly. De Jong started off marking Ozil in a central zone, but ends up being dragged to a left-back position. Van Bommel tracks Khedira, who also moves towards that side of the pitch. Therefore, the entire central midfield zone has been opened up for Schweinsteiger – with Sneijder miles away. Schweinsteiger  gets the ball, and slipsin Gomez, who spun and finished excellently. This was an isolated incident, but it had been coming.

For the second goal, something similar happened. De Jong moved with Ozil towards the left-back position and van Bommel had erroneously been tracking Khedira when Schweinsteiger was higher up the pitch. Schweinsteiger was then free to receive Ozil’s pass, and played in Gomez again. In fact, Schweinsteiger only passed to Gomez twice in the first half, and both were assists.

Holland changes

Holland had to adjust, and van Marwijk brought on Rafael van der Vaart for van Bommel, which helped Holland connect the midfield and attack. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar replaced Afellay, with the Schalke striker playing upfront as van Persie moved to the flank, switching around with Robben.

Much in the opening game, the change didn’t initially seem to give Holland much extra threat. Their good play in the first half came when van Persie and Robben combined on the right, or when van Persie’s movement (often in behind Mats Hummels, maybe hoping Hummels would be drawn to Sneijder) allowed him a chance after a ball from the centre of the pitch. These combinations were no longer evident, and for the first part of the second half, Germany were comfortable.

Dutch switch

But then, van Marwijk switched van Persie and Sneijder. The former was now a number ten, the latter moving inside from the left. Now, there were some decent moments – although there was still little cohesion from the Dutch front four, and every bit of good play was down to individual moments. Sneijder had a powerful effort blocked by Boateng after Robben beat his man for the first time. Then Sneijder cut inside from the left and shot just wide of the far post. Van Persie, meanwhile, created a goal out of nothing by coming deep to get the ball and firing in from outside of the box. Holland were back in the game, but through individuals rather than the structure of the side.

Germany didn’t defend well in the second half. Compared to at the World Cup two years ago, their shape wasn’t impressive – the second bank of four was slow to form and Holland found space out wide. It was surprising Löw didn’t use his substitutes earlier, to give extra energy to the side, and perhaps some more defensive protection.

But Holland didn’t do enough to merit a point. Their pressing was terrible – the front four or five would close down high up the pitch, then the defence and de Jong would stay on the edge of their own box. Germany played through the first ‘line’ easily, then held the ball, and held on for the win.


This was the perfect demonstration of how a flexible midfield duo can outwit the opposition. Germany were brave, and risked being caught on the break by leaving Sneijder free between the lines, but the alternate forward runs from Schweinsteiger and Khedira confused van Bommel, while de Jong was distracted by Ozil’s usual selfless off-the-ball movement to the flanks.

In more general terms, this was all about cohesion. Germany did everything together – they pressed as a unit, defended as a unit, and broke through with integrated movement and clever passing. Holland relied on individuals, while the defensive shape of the side was poor – quite damning, considering van Marwijk went for the defensive option of two holding midfielders. Germany aren’t mathematically through, Holland aren’t mathematically eliminated, and this was only a one-goal win, but the difference in quality was huge.

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