Portugal vs. Netherlands: 6 Things We Learned from Euro 2012 Group B Final Match
The highly rated Dutch suffered the ignominy of leaving a major tournament without securing a single point.
Despite losing their first two matches to Denmark and Germany, the Dutch still had the chance to progress to the quarterfinals of the Euros provided they could beat Portugal by a margin of two goals and provided the Germans would beat the Danes.
The Germans beat the Danes. The Dutch couldn't even draw with Portugal. As a matter of fact, Portugal outplayed them and beat them 2-1, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a brace.
The changes Dutch fans have clamored for—the benching of Mark van Bommel and the inclusion of Rafael van der Vaart and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar—were rung, and although the Dutch scored an early goal through Van der Vaart, it seemed as though this was the signal for them to fall apart.
Fall apart they did, proceeding to play second fiddle to Portugal throughout. The following are six things we learned from the match.
1. Tactical Adjustment in Vain
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The Dutch attempted to eliminate the problem I had identified in my previous analyses, the problem of two much space between their defense and the forward line, the space I had called transitional.
Bert van Marwijk brought in Rafael van der Vaart for Mark van Bommel, dropped Ibrahim Afellay, switched Wesley Sneijder to the left (in the False 11 position) and put Robin van Persie in the creative midfield cum supporting striker position. The adjustments allowed Klaas-Jan Huntelaar to come into the lineup, who, in the run long, was pretty ineffective.
Van Persie spent most of the match dropping deep in the search of the ball. Tactically this was a good thing, but it represented the major problem in the match.
Having made this tactical adjustment, another problem surfaced: the failure to maintain possession where it mattered, in the midfield. Rather, the Dutch dwelled too much and too long on the ball at the back, seemingly unable to play it out.
This allowed Portugal to exert pressure on the ball very high on the pitch, in other words, on the Dutch defense, a pressure that was enhanced and sustained by the directness of the Portuguese, who, when they won the ball, ran at the Dutch defense and caused all kinds of problem.
The Portuguese were tactically efficient; the Dutch were not.
The ineffectiveness of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was the result of the above tactical problem. When the ball spends too much time at the back, you can’t hurt your opponent.
This was also the reason Van Persie had to drop deep for the ball. This, in itself, wouldn’t have been a problem had the Dutch then attacked as a unit. They never did.
When they attacked, they went wide and there was severe lack of movement off the ball.
2. Tentative at the Back
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The Dutch's slow, tentative start to the game was rather discomfiting. I suspected there was a strategy to this somewhere, and when Rafael van der Vaart scored in the 11th minute, I thought that maybe Bert van Marwijk did have a plan after all.
But it all fell apart thereafter, and Portugal's goal in the 28th minute could have come a lot sooner. It was as though it was the Portuguese who needed desperately to win the match, not the Dutch.
A big problem here was the Dutch's failure to move the ball quickly. Possession spent too much time at the back. There was the enigma of a fear to have the ball in the midfield where they really needed to have and keep it.
Instead, there were too many back and lateral passes, which in the end proved useless.
Too much possession at the back meant the defense was constantly under pressure. This is true whether you have the ball or not.
When you have possession in the middle, you give breathing and recovery space to the defense. This wasn't the case here.
3. Y Formation Devastating
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Portugal relied on what they refer to as the "transition," essential in counter-attacking football: the quick turnover of the ball from defense to attack.
It was always three-prong (the Y), with two off the ball runners, one as a decoy and the other to receive the ball. It proved devastating.
The red solid arrow illustrates how Postiga would drop back when Portugal were out of possession and then would quickly advance forward when they regained possession (the dotted arrow). Diagonal arrows designate the "Y," and illustrates the counter-attacking runs of the front three.
The Dutch could not handle the direct runners on the ball in the persons of Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo and Hélder Postiga.
In defense, the Portuguese spaced their central defenders wide, with Miguel Veloso, their holding midfielder, dropping back to occupy the space just in front of the back two.
Meanwhile, the two full-backs pushed forward to engage Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneider further up the pitch, on and off the ball. Their formation was practically a 2-3-2-3 formation. See the diagram above.
Even when defending, they seldom or never did so with a flat back-four. (The first 15 minutes of the match might have been the exception to this when the Portuguese were content to have a feel of the match first.)
The widely spaced back four, plus the strategic holding midfielder, was an effective counter to the Dutch's attempt to control the midfield. As it happened, the Dutch found themselves stretched too often.
The strategic spacing meant that the Portuguese knew exactly what to do with the ball whenever they recovered it: The attacking channel was well charted and well drilled.
In contrast, the Dutch played most often with a flat back-four and were too tentative in transition and too flat-footed. The slow, ponderous build up took away any element of surprise from their attack. It also put paid to any real potency.
4. A Collection of Player Sans Effective System
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The failure of the Dutch is a great example of the difference between a collection of players and a team, a system.
As I conclude in the next slide, this was a gargantuan failure of the system, and illustrates the fact that formations in themselves matter little. How they are translated practically is what is important, what turns them from lifeless bones to living matter.
Here, then, you had a bunch of stars who did not cohere as a unit. Think of Greece, even Portugal, who don't have star-studded squads, and yet they've outperformed the Dutch in their respective ways.
England is a good example of how a group of players can be turned into a workable unit. It thus isn't star players that matter, it is the cohesiveness of the system that does.
System must be first, stars second. When the first works, the second is a bonus, a huge catalyst. When the first doesn't, the second is useless.
It is the responsibility of the manager of a team to make this translation.
5. Change of System May Be Needed
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Most of the reactions to my previous analyses focused on the players: "This or that player didn't do this or that." This is true. But blaming the players is to miss the point.
No matter what anybody says, the Dutch team had some of the best players in the tournament. So why did it fail?
One commenter on my previous article identified this quite insightfully as the Liverpool problem.
By this he meant Liverpool's inability last season to create scoring chances and to translate their good individual players into a cohesive unit.
My point is precisely that for the Dutch; this was a systemic failure, not the inability of players per se. But trust the press—they'd needle and lambast the players for days to come.
For a person who thinks sacking managers almost always borders on the stupid and nonsensical, it might surprise the reader to hear me say that the Dutch should get rid of Bert van Marwijk.
The failure of the system is the responsibility of one person alone: Bert van Marwijk. This becomes more poignant when one remembers that this group of players is almost to a man the one that almost won the World Cup two years ago.
Someone might then ask: If this is so, why sack Van Marwijk? Wasn't he the same person who led the Dutch to success two years ago?
He was, and the objection is sound.
But if you consider that the exact problem I have identified here has been present since the Netherlands' last Euro 2012 qualifying match, and has remained fastidiously in place throughout the friendly matches since then (a fact I identified in the past), one then wonders why Van Marwijk didn't eliminate this problem, why he didn't make the necessary adjustment to his system before the tournament commenced.
My analyses (even the ones before the tournament) have been consistent: decrying the problem in the midfield. So these aren't reactionary.
One would think the expert (Van Marwijk) would have noticed this problem and eliminated it. He didn't, and this has caused the Dutch a huge embarrassment at the Euros.
My verdict is that it isn't the players who should be blamed. It is rather the manager who should take the blame for his failure to make his system work.
His was a disjointed system. He should take responsibility for it.
6. Portugal May Surprise
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On the day, Portugal were the better team even though they were second best to the Dutch in terms of individual players.
Their system was balanced and cohesive, and the fact that even Germany labored to beat them can only augur well for them.
They could yet advance far in the competition. Although the Czech Republic, who they are to play in the quarterfinal, have themselves found form after their own disappointing beginning to the tournament.
But for a team many didn't think would get out of their group (Portugal, that is), even if they get knocked out in the next phase of the competition, they would have achieved more than what was expected of them.
It is a good augury as well that Cristiano Ronaldo is recovering his scoring form again.