Friday, 8 June 2012

Oranje a force to be reckoned with

Boasting the best attacking and defensive record in their qualifying group, the Netherlands cruised through almost every fixture, only faltering when they visited Sweden. The headlines were usually stolen by striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, as he put away nine goals during the qualification round, with six of them coming in the first three games.

Despite the Dutch defence looking vulnerable at times, the overpowering nature of their attack often ensured they outscored their opponents even if they conceded. After winning the first five qualifiers, they dealt San Marino a crushing 11-0 defeat, the biggest win in the country's history, before clinching a place at Euro 2012 with a 2-0 victory over Finland.
A midfield tailor-made for attack 
Dutch manager Bert van Marwijk has displayed a preference for the 4-2-3-1 formation, making use of the tactic in almost all of Netherland's qualifying and friendly games in recent months.
Against traditionally stronger rivals, two holding midfielders sit behind a playmaker and two slightly advanced wingers. If van Marwijk is feeling slightly more confident, one of the holding midfielders is sacrificed for a deep-lying playmaker, making it such that the team have two creative midfielders to initiate goal-scoring opportunities. The most adventurous variation, which was employed against the smaller nations during qualifying, is very similar to a 4-3-3, with forwards in place of the wingers.
A starting berth behind the main striker is likely to be occupied by Wesley Sneijder, and he will be expected to unlock defences for his team-mates to put away the goals. The Inter Milan player benefits from being two-footed, making his dribbles and passes difficult to read.
Defences have attempted to stifle Sneijder's influence in the game by packing the area just in front of their penalty box, and while the tactic might work to shackle other playmakers, this Dutchman has exceptional long-range passing to fall back on. Sneijder often drops deep to collect the ball in such circumstances, before sending killer long passes to his team-mates upfront or on the flank.
An accurate shot from distance is also one of his specialities.
In addition, the central midfielders behind Sneijder represent the most versatility in van Marwijk's midfield.
At least one of these positions will be occupied by Dutch captain Mark Van Bommel as the only true holding midfielder on the pitch. Nigel De Jong has deputized in Van Bommel's absence and his form for Manchester City could present a potential selection headache for the Netherlands' manager.
The other central midfield slot will be a toss-up for between Rafael van der Vaart and Kevin Strootman.
While van der Vaart's inventiveness for Netherlands has been overshadowed at times by Sneijder, he is likely to be the most experienced midfielder in the starting eleven. Despite critics arguing that a team featuring van der Vaart and Sneijder would be atrociously lop-sided toward attack, the duo are a sight to behold when linking up on the path to goal.
Strootman is the new kid on the block for Netherlands, getting off the mark for his country during the qualifier against Finland. The PSV player is considered a hybrid of the attacking and defensive nature of the Dutch, making him a genuine central midfielder.
While the youngster may not be as good a tackler as De Jong, he makes up for it with a strong physique and tireless running. The former Utrecht man also lacks the flair of van der Vaart, but he achieves a 93% passing accuracy on average for each of his appearances, and can be relied upon to distribute the ball from deep. The steadiness Strootman brings is deeply appreciated by van Marwijk, and he is looking increasingly likely to push De Jong further down the pecking order.
When faced with defences who sit back in front of their goalmouth, the Dutch turn to the wings. The players that have featured most there are Dirk Kuyt, Ibrahim Afellay, Eljero Elia and Arjen Robben, Between the four, the two most likely to start are Kuyt and Robben, as Elia has hardly featured for Juventus while Afellay only made his return from injury at the end of Barcelona's campaign.
Kuyt possesses none of the elegance or creativity of his team-mates. Nonetheless, his work-rate is famed across Europe, and he brings balance to the zealous Netherlands' attack. The former Liverpool player's diligence often sees him drop into central midfield alongside Sneijder, effectively producing a four-man group to protect the Dutch defence.
Van Persie or Huntelaar?
Van Marwijk is blessed to be able to count on two deadly strikers this European Championship. Huntelaar has been prolific for both Schalke and Netherlands this past year, while PFA Player of the Year Robin van Persie has claimed the top scorer honour in the Premier League. However, only one can start upfront for the Dutch.
Perhaps the solution to the riddle would be best solved based on the nature of the formation van Marwijk chooses to utilize.
Going with a deep-lying playmaker behind Sneijder would call for a striker of Huntelaar's qualities. As good distribution from midfield is virtually assured with two playmakers, a goal-poacher like Huntelaar would pounce on every ball played through.
Van Persie's movement would be utilized well in the tactic with two holding midfielders. Since the playmaking would fall solely on Sneijder, the Arsenal captain's off-the-ball runs would help expose the gaps which Sneijder could send the ball into. In addition, his movement would also draw away defenders, creating space for his team-mates to occupy.
Van Marwijk could also choose to feature both Huntelaar and van Persie in the same starting line-up, having done so before in the qualifying stages. The coach played van Persie in a right wing position and Huntelaar up front meaning the latter had a striking partner of sorts as the Gunners forward often moved to link up with him. That freed up space on the right flank, which was exploited by full-back Gregory van der Wiel in his trademark romps.
Defensive frailties
A team is only as strong as its weakest link, and vulnerability for the Dutch is their defence. The days of Ronald Koeman and Frank Rijkaard are long over, replaced by a new generation of defenders that are nowhere as comfortable with the ball at their feet.
Netherlands only conceded seven goals during qualifying, thanks mostly to goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg's reflexes, though central defenders Johnny Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen played their part. The duo are likely to retain their place in Euro 2012 but given the manner in which they struggled at times to deal with weaker opposition such as Finland, it would be intriguing to see how they fare against Germany and Portugal in the group stages.
Mathijsen is especially vulnerable given his lack of international tournament experience. The Malaga player only featured once at World Cup 2010, and might be out of his depth when faced with the pressure of having to consistently perform against world-class strikers.
It would also be unsurprising if opposing teams focus on the Dutch flanks, given the highly attacking nature of the Oranje's full backs. First choice left-back Eric Pieters has been ruled out of the tournament due to injury, and finding an able deputy presents a potential headache for van Marwijk. The Dutch could be forced to slot in 18-year old Jetro Willems. The PSV Eindhoven left-back impressed during the country's friendly with Bayern Munich, but he remains a risky, inexperienced option nonetheless.
Count the Dutch out at your own peril
While the Netherlands almost always seem strong enough to win any tournament they take part in, they have only one major trophy to their name. Nonetheless, the squad taking part in Euro 2012 looks a good bet.
The team which scores the most goals in a game is the winner, and that logic could very well see Netherlands go far in this tournament if they manage to keep up their free-scoring ways. Van Marwjik's team should have enough quality to make it all the way to the semi-finals. However, their weakness in defence could see them once again falter when coming up against one of the other top four teams in Europe.
Final Holland squad for Euro 2012: Maarten Stekelenburg (AS Roma), Michel Vorm (Swansea), Tim Krul (Newcastle), Khalid Boulahrouz (Stuttgart), John Heitinga (Everton), Joris Mathijsen (Malaga), Ron Vlaar (Feyenoord), Wilfred Bouma (PSV Eindhoven), Gregory van der Wiel (Ajax), Jetro Willems (PSV Eindhoven), Ibrahim Afellay (Barcelona), Mark van Bommel (AC Milan), Nigel de Jong (Manchester City), Stijn Schaars (Sporting Lisbon), Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan), Kevin Strootman (PSV Eindhoven), Rafael van der Vaart (Tottenham), Klaas-Jan Huntelaar (Schalke), Luuk de Jong (FC Twente), Dirk Kuyt (Liverpool), Luciano Narsingh (Heerenveen), Robin van Persie (Arsenal), Arjen Robben (Bayern Munich)

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