3 reasons why Netherlands have looked unconvincing under Frank de Boer
When it was announced that Frank de Boer would be taking over the Dutch national side, you would have expected fans to rejoice at the thought that a homegrown legend would be at the helm. After all, he was once their most capped player and was assistant to Bert van Marwijk in the 2010 World Cup where the Netherlands went all the way to the finals, only to lose to Spain in extra time. He also became the first manager to win four consecutive Eredivisie titles when he did so with Ajax, from the 2010/11 season to the 2013/14 season and his managerial career looked all set to reach great heights.
However, a dip in form towards the end of his tenure at Ajax was followed by poor stints at Inter, where he lasted just 85 days, and in the Premier League with Crystal Palace, where he was manager for just seven games, and it seemed like it had all come crashing down. A revival of sorts was on the cards when he moved to the MLS with Atlanta United, where he won two trophies in his first season but a dip towards the latter stages once again saw him leave before he was announced as the new Netherlands boss a few months later following Ronald Koeman’s departure. Under de Boer, however, the national side was winless in their first four games and have had three wins out of eight. In this tactical analysis, we will look at the tactics of de Boer as manager of the national side and our analysis aims to identify the reasons behind their unconvincing performances.
While de Boer has preferred the 4-3-3 formation to start, it morphs into a 3-1-4-2 formation in-game with one of the midfielders dropping to the backline. A single pivot sits ahead of this defence allowing the full-backs to move forward and join the attack along with the remaining midfielder. However, in the case of the Netherlands, this limits their build-up from the back. As seen in the image above from the match against Turkey, Frenkie de Jong is acting as the pivot while Martin de Roon has dropped in between the centre-backs. Turkey’s press, however, means that they have cut off the passing lanes to the other central midfielder, in most cases Georginio Wijnaldum, and the wingers are close to the advancing full-backs as well.
Should de Jong look to play a risky pass forward, he could see his side concede possession and become vulnerable to a counter with a 4v5 disadvantage. The only safe option for him is to play it back to one of the back three or the goalkeeper and then once again look to cycle the possession around while searching for a free teammate up the pitch. Often, this leads to long balls aimed towards the full-backs or any forward making a run in behind and with the opposition offering no real passing lane, possession is usually conceded.
To try and combat this, we also saw de Boer push the central-midfielder out from the backline and into midfield in order to enable his side to play out more effectively. However, in the match against Spain, we see how even this was ineffective. Both the pivots are man-marked by the Spanish midfielders while the forwards in the press look to put the other centre-back in their cover shadow. The winger also applies pressure on the free centre-back in case the ball-carrier is able to find a pass to him as well. Once again, the only real way to play out of this is a long ball towards the flank or the half-spaces for one of the forward players to chase and the Dutch concede possession again.
The absence of Virgil van Dijk and Matthijs de Ligt means that the Dutch have lacked a proper ball-playing centre-back capable of producing the same quality as the pair and as a result, their build-up play has suffered. De Jong has often had to receive the ball and turn or dribble his marker in order to find some space in midfield to progress but naturally, this is not always possible. This has largely reduced the side’s attacking threat and their ability to create quality chances.
Over-reliance on wing play
So how exactly do the Netherlands attack? Well, as the title of this section suggests, the attacking style is heavily reliant on wing play. With forwards like Luuk de Jong among the ranks, the Dutch aim to put crosses into the box as their primary method of searching for a goal. We spoke earlier about how their build-up means that the ball almost always ends up with the full-backs or wingers when transitioning out from the back. There is minimal effort to play through the centre, with Wijnaldum, or any other central midfielder, moving towards the wings to aid in ball progression down those areas. The aim of these tactics is to create a situation where the wingers can operate in the half-spaces while the full-backs provide width and along with the central midfielder, triangles can be created in order to cycle possession.
However, an over-reliance on such a strategy means that the side becomes predictable. The opposition knows that there is probably no danger of an attack through the middle and can commit men into the box to prevent the cross, as shown above, and even commit men to the flanks to create overloads and win back possession. Spain opted to cover the men in the box, dropping their midfielders back to somewhat zonally defend the cross while the centre-backs can mark the attackers in the box. The full-back and winger can also engage the crosses and look to close them down, all the more weakening the quality of the cross and lowering the threat.
It becomes all the more difficult against sides that like to sit deep as well and the game against Turkey was a prime example. Despite the Dutch committing three men into the box, Turkey had all their defenders back to defend and could also put two men to engage the ball-carrier and prevent the cross. Netherlands were matched 2v2 down the flank and outnumbered 3v4 in the box, meaning that the cross into the box was not the most effective way of scoring.
More interestingly, the gap in the centre of the pitch is evident with none of the central-midfielders pushing forward to fill it and provide an extra attacking option down the middle. A more effective use of the space between the lines in the middle of the pitch could have seen more efficient passes from the flanks and with the quality of shooting that the Netherlands have among their ranks, they could have created far better chances. Their persistent wing play meant that they were often one-dimensional in attack and apart from Memphis Depay cutting in from the flanks occasionally, there is not much else that the Dutch offer in attack through the middle. With midfielders like de Jong and Donny van de Beek who have excellent awareness of space and clever movements, it is not that the side lack quality in midfield capable of exploiting such spaces and the side would do well to make use of them in the future.
As we saw earlier, the Netherlands were very easily pressed when they looked to play out from the back. However, when it is their turn to press, they falter again. On paper, the pressing tactics may seem good, with the Dutch committing five to six players and looking to man-mark their opponents. The forward and one central midfielder are to handle the centre-backs while the wingers mark the full-backs. The remaining two central-midfielders are to take care of the opposition midfielders who drop deep to receive the ball. However, the implementation of these tactics has been poor so far. The major flaw with the tactics is that there is a huge gap between the first and second line of pressing. Out of the three central-midfielders, one joins the forward while the remaining two take on more defensive responsibility and cannot push up too high as they would leave spaces ahead of the backline.
This means the wingers have to remain narrow and cannot stay close to their full-back who usually stays close to the touchline. Now, this results in the full-backs being relatively free, or free enough to receive and play a pass while the opponent midfielder also has space to drop into and receive the ball. One of the Dutch forwards also looks to keep the centre-back in his shadow while pressing the goalkeeper and this opens up a passing lane for the opponent midfielder. A Dutch midfielder also needs to press this opponent midfielder and moves out of his position so as to engage, leaving spaces behind him. In the above image, the goalkeeper passes to his midfielder that has dropped deep and he, in turn, plays a quick pass to the centre-back who can now push forward into space and find his teammates further forward. This simple combination of passes has bypassed five Netherlands players and all of a sudden the defence is on the back foot and scrambling back in nearly a 5v5 situation.
The same problem arises when one of the centre-backs looks to progress with the ball. The 3-1-4-2 shape of the Dutch has the front two lines close to each other, leaving large spaces between the defence and midfield off the ball. The front two are both cutting off the pass to the opponent midfielder while the line of four is, in the above situation, caught in no man’s land. The Spanish midfielders are much higher up the pitch and behind them and their tactic of staying close to the front two is pointless with the defensive line being further behind.
A simple pass from the centre-back between the lines finds his teammate who is now in plenty of space and a 4v4 situation is created at the back. The Dutch central midfielders are too far ahead to recover and offer numbers in support and with a simple pass from the centre-back, the press is breached and the backline is exposed.
Failure to close down space can be seen even further back as well with the Dutch defence allowing the opposition ample space on the edge of the box. The main defensive strategy of the Netherlands has been to get players back and defend with numbers and generally they are strong in the air to repel crosses into the penalty area. However, under de Boer, there has been a reluctance of the backline to move up and close down players in space. In the above image, Álvaro Morata drops back and gains possession from a loose ball in the air. None of the Dutch defenders has engaged him and after controlling the ball, the Spaniard still finds himself in ample space on the edge of the box. The Dutch defenders have almost looked afraid to move up from their position and the hesitation finds them in poor positions.
In the image above, the defenders are neither closing Morata down nor in position to track the run of Koke, who is making a run in behind. Not doing either then allowed Morata to bypass the defence with a simple pass to Koke who found himself one on one with the goalkeeper. While the chance was not converted, it exposed the weakness of the backline and this has been done on countless occasions by various teams throughout de Boer’s tenure.
The recent game against Turkey was another prime example of this defensive weakness. The Dutch defence finds themselves disorganised, allowing runs down the right side as well as providing space for the forward to dart into space around the penalty spot. Moreover, they fail to close down the ball carrier and have almost invited him to shoot. Burak Yılmaz did not decline, taking the shot on and with the help of a deflection, found the back of the net. The goal conceded was completely against the run of play, with the Dutch dominating possession prior to this. In fact, three out of the four goals that Turkey scored came from such scenarios, with the defence failing to close the opposition down and allowing shots from distance that were stunningly converted.
While the chances that they allowed were of a lower quality, the Netherlands side were made to pay with some sharp shooting and it is not sustainable to take it for granted that shots from distance can be saved. The ineffectiveness of the defence in closing down space is something that the opposition can, and have, taken advantage of by pushing more players into the half-spaces to try and work their way through the backline. Once again, while van Dijk and de Ligt are probably better readers of space and quicker to close players down, it is not possible to rely on just the pair to sort out this threat and de Boer needs to ensure that his midfielders are also well positioned in the defensive phase.
Frank de Boer’s start as Netherlands boss did not get off to a bright start, with a loss on debut to Mexico, albeit in a friendly. In the seven games after though, he has won three, drawn three and lost just once which makes for decent reading. The wins, however, have come against the likes of somewhat lesser sides such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Poland and Latvia and as we discussed in our analysis, the tactics do not seem sustainable. Pressure is mounting as well, with the Netherlands having failed to qualify for the previous World Cup and with the Euros also fast approaching it would be a shame for a side boasting an immense amount of talent to exit the tournament early on.