Man for man, the Dutch have one of the best squads in Euro 2012. Man for man, they and Germany are an even match. Some could even argue that the Dutch have the edge, what with players like Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie in their squad.
But the Dutch faltered against the Germans, just as they did against the Danes.
What is going on here?
A bit of ill luck and gross inefficiency in front of goal could be put down as major factors responsible for the loss against the Danes.
Had the Dutch a little bit of luck, they might have converted a few of their chances. It is even arguable that Maarten Stekelenburg wouldn't have been beaten at his near side and between the legs, but one can only blame luck so much.
In my match review of the Dutch's first game against the Danes, I identified a big factor that I thought was the undoing of the Dutch in that match and which I thought could be their undoing in the competition.
I was right. The problem resurfaced today with devastating effect.
Cursorily, some would identify it as too much space for Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Özil to work with. Others might identify it as lack of cohesiveness in the Dutch team against the Germans. Still others might say it was lack of a cutting edge in their attack. Yet others could say it was a defense too soft and too easy to breach.
All this is true.
But tactically, what was responsible for this? I identified this in the aforementioned article as transitional space. Let me illustrate.
The diagram shows the Dutch lineup against Germany.
The return of Joris Mathijsen in place of Ron Vlaar was supposed to strengthen the Dutch defense, but the evidence of two conceded goals isn't a strong support for this assumption. This, of course, isn't to say Mathijsen was at fault for the two goals Germany scored.
The box in bold yellow is where my so-called transitional space lies. The Dutch played most of the time with a straight line of four players at the back—as illustrated here— thus, taking literally the structural four in most modern formations.
The other area where the Dutch team concentrated its players was at the front, where Wesley Sneijder tended to push forward to link up with the three forward players: three because, both Robben and Ibrahim Affelay pushed higher up the pitch and wide.
What results from these two observations is a concentration of Dutch players at the back and at the front. The fact that the Dutch team played with two holding midfielders was part of the problem, since they played just in front of the straight line of four men at the back.
This left a huge transitional space, a wide gap in the midfield, which the Germans exploited with devastating effect.
The Dutch played with two ineffective holding midfielders in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. Christopher Lee/Getty Images.
The white triangle in the diagram above represents the space in which the German trio of midfielders—Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mesut Özil operated.
Özil was the most advanced of the three, acting both as the traditional creative player at the tip of the midfield and as a supporting striker, pushing forward to support Mario Gomez.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, who was the fulcrum around which the entire German revolved, was the true initiator of potent attacks. He also roamed the space in the middle to disrupt any rhythm the Dutch could build.
Sami Khedira was the true holding players for the Germans, with whom Schweinsteiger linked to shield the German back four.
Notice in the diagram above that the German team was more strategically positioned on the pitch than the Dutch team was, and that made a great deal of difference.
The difference between the German and the Dutch midfield is that the former strategically distributed it three main midfielders across the midfield while the latter did not, hence the huge transitional space.
In other words, the Germans, unlike the Dutch, played with just one holding midfielder, although their formation looks deceptively as though they play with two. Schweinsteiger is a territorial box-to-box rather than a holding midfielder. This is a big difference.
It is the reason Schweinsteiger controlled a great deal of territory for the Germans, effectively conducting affairs therein.
Bastian Schweinsteiger, a box-to-box midfielder type, was hugely influential in the Germany-Netherlands match. He is seen here in action against Portugal. Joern Pollex/Getty Images.
The Dutch shot themselves in the foot by having two backward tending holding midfielders, who—by and large—stood off the ball rather than press it. The big problem from this though is that the Dutch could not press the space in the midfield to compress the area of skirmish and make things difficult for the German.
I already identified this problem in the above referenced article. There, I said:
"Possession football is harmless when the area of major possession is in the team's own half and off the back four of the opponent."
Again I said:
[T[he lack of a true box-to-box type in the Dutch formation hampered their transition of possession between defense and attack. It also meant they ceded control of the vital area of the field.
The lack of quick transition between defense and attack due to the transition space—which the Danes took advantage of by concentrating their own three midfield men there—meant that when the ball eventually got switched, the Danes were properly positioned to stifled the Dutch's attacking move.
A lot of times, possession remained at the area of concentration identified above and in the diagram. This rarely rattled the Danes.
I then concluded:
"It's a problem the Dutch must eliminate in the next two games if they are to turn around the big problem of losing their first match."
I recall all this in lieu of rehashing it, even though I could be accused of self-indulgence.
The following diagram offers solution to the problem of transitional space.
Solving the Problem
Notice how I have pushed the full-backs forward.
This maneuver restricts the opposition's flank players and helps compress the space of skirmish. Positively, it puts the players in close proximity with each other. This allows both quick transition between defense and attack, and triangular passing.
Notice also that I've pushed Mark van Bommel forward and closer to Sneijder. In essence, I have made him the box-to-box midfielder.
A box-to-box midfielder is the most hardworking midfielder on the pitch territorially. He is the link between the most advanced midfielder (the so-called creative midfielder, who usually wears the No. 10, though not always) and the holding midfielder.
He can advance forward to become the fourth man in attack—sometimes the sixth or the seventh man, depending on the position of the full-backs—and he often and frequently tracks back to support the holding midfielder. This provides great dynamism to a team's midfield as was the case with Germany.
In addition, I've pushed back one of the wingers—Arjen Robben—a little. I make him thus what I called a False-11 rather than a true winger. I also essentially alter the dynamic of the forward players, although this is a minor issue in the face of the larger one under discussion here.
What this means though is that Robben would mostly drift in diagonally as a left, wide playmaker. This compresses the space in the midfield even further.
The two advance forward players would thus be the central striker (Robin van Persie) and the right winger (Affelay). These are then supported by two immediate supporting forwards: the Creative Midfielder (Sneijder) and the False-11 (Robben).
The yawning gap in the midfield (refer to it again in the following diagram) was the undoing of the Dutch.
It resulted in the three forward players being isolated, who by the way positioned to widely apart (another problem in itself, the reason why I'd prefer the False-11 option).
Secondly, it also meant that although the Dutch played with two holding midfielders, they were practically useless as far as protecting the back four was concerned.
They were "useless" because they didn't press the ball away from the back line to offer it relief, the result of positioning too closely to the defense line.
A territorial box-to-box alleviates this problem. This was the difference between the two 4-2-3-1 formations on display in this match: same formation different interpretation, different approach.
The conclusion is that the Dutch still have a slim chance to qualify for the quarterfinals. To do so, they must fix this problem with transitional space. One thought that the introduction of Rafael van der Vaart would eliminate this gap. It didn't.
The Dutch must however find a solution for this problem going into the Portugal match. Otherwise they'd be out for good.