Portugal 2-1 Holland: van Marwijk makes changes, but Holland crash out with zero points
Portugal suffered an early setback, but played better football and fully deserved their win.
Paulo Bento kept the same starting XI for the third game in a row.
Bert van Marwijk made three changes. In defence, Ron Vlaar replaced Johnny Heitinga in a straight swap. It was further forward where he made significant alterations – Rafael van der Vaart came in for Mark van Bommel in order to add some creativity to the midfield, while Klaas-Jan Huntelaar started upfront, meaning Robin van Persie played just behind a and Wesley Sneijder went to the left, the system Holland used at the end of the Germany match.
There was a huge contrast in styles here – Holland were a bunch of individuals without any cohesive structure, while Portugal were disciplined, organised and clear with their attacking intentions.
This was van Marwijk’s final roll of the dice, and while Huntelaar playing upfront was a clear change, the major story was in the midfield zone. Instead of two holders – which utterly failed against Germany (albeit against a side with excellent movement and a good understanding in midfield), the duties in midfield were clearly split. De Jong sat deep and protected the defence, while van der Vaart moved forward to create.
There was some flexibility between these two, but it was a surprise that de Jong generally stayed to the left, and van der Vaart to the right. That’s the most natural way to play, as van Bommel plays to the right and so it caused less disruption. But it was surely preferable to play de Jong centre-right, able to stop Cristiano Ronaldo when he broke past Gregory van der Wiel. The alternative argument is that Jetro Willems needed help against Nani, but Ronaldo was the primary threat, and de Jong should have been in that zone.
Van der Vaart’s display was classic van der Vaart – he curled in a superb opener, yet his presence made Holland completely open at defensive transitions, and utterly lacking shape without the ball. In this game, with Holland needing a big win (and a favourable result elsewhere), it was probably the correct decision from van Marwijk to go with the more offensive option in the centre of midfield – it was win or bust – but this performance basically supports his theory that against big sides, van der Vaart is simply too anarchic to play deep in midfield. Kevin Strootman always seemed the best compromise between a holder and a creator, and it’s frustrating that he didn’t play a minute in this tournament.
Even though van der Vaart offered more attacking presence than van Bommel, Holland hardly excelled going forward. Van Marwijk persisted with this shape, presumably on the back of it looking half-decent against Germany. But there were no promising attacking combinations – Miguel Veloso stayed goalside of van Persie and the other two Portuguese midfielders stayed near, forming a triangle around the Arsenal forward, which cut Holland’s central player out of the game.
Arjen Robben contributed little from the right, while Sneijder had his quietest game of the tournament, drifting into that position occupied by the three Portuguese central midfielders. Huntelaar barely got the ball, although his excellent reverse run, overlapping Fabio Coentrao, was important in creating space for Robben to lay the ball into van der Vaart for the Dutch goal. That off-the-ball run was subtle and selfless, but important in making life easier for his teammates. Maybe Holland needed more of that from others?
Portugal played well, primarily looking to break through the flanks with their two wingers. Ronaldo had an excellent game in the final third, combining well with Nani. There were still concerns about Ronaldo’s defensive work, and van der Wiel motored past him far too readily – but with de Jong rarely in a covering position, Portugal had a quick out-ball when they won possession. It wasn’t too different from the situation against Denmark, when Ronaldo’s poor defensive play nearly cost Portugal the win – but whereas he missed two one-on-ones in that game, today he more than compensated. (Besides, Portugal were quick to cover the space behind Ronaldo, with Joao Moutinho or Raul Meireles, depending on who was closer, moving out to that flank.) Van der Wiel was out of position when Ronaldo hit the post early on, a warning sign of things to come.
Despite attacking mainly down the flanks, Portugal also found space inside, almost accidentally, because Holland were so open there. De Jong covered the first midfield runner, usually Meireles, while Moutinho got space deeper and completed 36 passes, ten more than any other Portugal player. (Although Portugal’s passing figures are actually quite low, as they played on the break for long periods. Holland needed to win 2-0, so were always the side to make the running.)
Van Marwijk changed things around – van Persie moved to the right, Sneijder to the middle, Robben to the left. It seemed a change for the sake of it, with no real motive or specific intention, just a “may as well try something” move. Holland didn’t look any better. Portugal brought on Nelson Oliveira upfront for Postiga, and the young Benfica forward once again impressed with his good movement inside the penalty box.
But the key substitution was when van Marwijk went for broke – Willems off, Ibrahim Afellay on down the right, and van Persie forward to partner Huntelaar. Holland, in theory, went to a back three, with Mathijsen moving across slightly – but they didn’t really, they were effectively still a back four, just with no left-back.
It showed: Nani missed a sitter whenhe was unmarked for a Ronaldo cross, then Portugal punished Holland directly down the right, with Nani setting up Ronaldo. That was game over.
Bento introduced Custodio, the truest’ holding player Portugal have, with Meireles departing. Rolando replaced Nani – as against Denmark – for some penalty box defending late on. In the end, Portugal came closest to scoring the game’s fourth goal, with Ronaldo increasingly dangerous on the break.
Third favourites for the tournament, yet going home with zero points. That is actually a harsh reflection of Holland’s tournament – no, they weren’t very good, and yes, van Marwijk made mistakes. But Holland were extremely unlucky to lose against Denmark, with van Persie’s surprising lack of composure in the penalty area a major reason for the failings, rather than poor tactics from van Marwijk.
Against Germany, they were outclassed by a very fine side, granted. But tonight was not a ‘true’ game – Holland needed to win by two goals, they had to relentlessly push forward even when winning. Overall, Holland were bad, but not quite ‘zero points’ bad. It’s not van Marwijk’s fault that van Persie stumbled when presented with a great chance against Denmark, nor is it his fault that Huntelaar missed a one-on-one when brought on as a substitute – that’s simply an individual finishing badly, and a whisker away from an ‘inspired masterstroke’. Better luck against Denmark would have completely changed their campaign, and if you’re unfortunate against (on paper) the weakest side in the toughest group, you’ve really got an uphill struggle.
The decision to go with two holders against Germany made sense in theory, because Germany are so good in that zone. The criticism should not be “Why he didn’t play a more offensive player?” but “Why didn’t van Bommel and de Jong do their jobs?” That, of course, is van Marwijk’s responsibility too, but the criticism should be directed at the right issue.
The ‘problem position’ in midfield could have solved with Strootman, who isn’t the answer to all Holland’s failings, but would have played an important, selfless role in midfield. He didn’t play enough. On the other hand, Afellay was given too many chances and Robben contributed little. The big names were given too much leeway, and this fits into the rumoured problems in the dressing room – that, more than tactics, appears Holland’s main issue.
It’s tough to judge Portugal so far. Their gameplan wasn’t a million miles away from working against Germany, but then they defeated Denmark despite Bento failing to fix his side’s clear weak spot. This performance was good, but against a Dutch side chucking men forward in search of a two-goal win. This played into Portugal’s counter-attacking plans, and they won’t get that freedom in the knockout stages – especially not if they concede the first goal of the game.
Certainly, Bento has the most talented attacker in the tournament, and Ronaldo illustrated that today. More interestingly, Bento also has reliable options from the bench – Oliveira and Silvestre Varela have both contributed a lot in the three group games. Is it a coincidence that both are accustomed to being superbsubs with their clubs?