van Marwijk finally changes his approach: Holland needed to win by two clear goals (and also rely on a helping hand from Germany in the other group B match), so van Marwijk went for broke. The three worst players in the Dutch side were dropped for this game: Heitinga (at fault for Denmark’s goal), van Bommel (caught wandering for both of Germany’s goals) and Afellay (completely anonymous throughout the tournament). This personnel reshuffle also led to a change in set up, with van der Vaart a more attacking option in the centre alongside de Jong, Sneijder starting in his preferred left side role, and van Persie playing behind Huntelaar.
The wings have it: Despite this reduced Dutch presence in front of the back four, Portugal still focused on attacking down the wings. The Portugal left/Holland right was the most obvious threat, as Ronaldo and Robben enjoyed a competition between themselves over who would do the least amount of defensive work, but Nani and Sneijder were also involved a great deal, albeit with neither creating much of note in the first half.
Robben created the opening goal by cutting inside off his wing and teeing up van der Vaart to curl a shot in at the far post. It had been coming, as Holland completely dominated the opening 10 minutes, particularly down the right flank.
On 15 minutes Robben was dispossessed by Coentrao and Portugal broke for the first time. Ronaldo cut inside Vlaar, who provided a decent impression of an oil tanker with his turn, but scuffed his shot into the near post. This moment signalled to both sides just how vital this flank was going to be, and each reacted differently to the threat.
Bento switched the sides of the midfield that Meireles and Moutinho were operating in, moving the more attack-minded Meireles over to the left to support Ronaldo. Perhaps Meireles had started on the right side in order to work with Nani to attack Willems, who had been exposed regularly against Germany, but it was clear that the Dutch right side was struggling so Portugal went all-in on that flank. With a single protective midfielder, Holland couldn’t absorb this move as they would normally do, and van der Vaart found himself dragged back and to the right to try to protect van der Wiel. From this moment, van der Vaart was peripheral, trying to play a role he is not good at, and not being able to get forward to provide the role he was picked for. van Marwijk’s inability to spot this handed the initiative to Portugal, and Holland never regained it.
The effect of this midfield switch is most clear in Ronaldo’s shooting chalkboard. That aforementioned break was the only real chance he had in the first 20 minutes, but in the last 25 minutes of the half he had plenty of good opportunities to score, and if anything was particularly wasteful of most of them. This regular destruction of the Dutch right side didn’t spark van Marwijk into considering a change, perhaps thinking that this was part and parcel of the attacking approach that Holland needed to adopt.
Ironically the Portuguese equaliser would come from the opposite flank, as Pereira made an unchallenged horizontal run in from the right and poked the ball through to meet an out-to-in run from Ronaldo, who finally found the back of the net on weight of chances alone.
At half time, van Marwijk made two changes to his instructions. First, he belatedly moved de Jong to the right side of centre, in an attempt to free up van der Vaart and provide some additional protection on the right side of his defence. Second, he switched Robben to the left wing, moved Sneijder infield and pushed van Persie out to the right side. It’s hard to tell which was the worst move of the three; Robben was now playing on the flank where he is less effective, taking his out-to-in threat out of the game, van Persie was now further from goal and less likely to help out defensively than even Robben, and Sneijder was now in his less effective central role, from where he tends to drift to the left anyway. It meant that there was precious little support for Huntelaar through the centre, particularly with van der Vaart expected to play box-to-box – difficult for a man who usually tires after 60 minutes even without any defensive responsibilities.
Needless to say, it had very little impact on the game, as there was now a huge gap between the forward line and defence and three quarters of the players in the forward line were now in unfavoured positions. Needing two goals, van Marwijk introduced Afellay, which moved van Persie back into the centre, but oddly he kept Robben on the left and put Afellay on the right, so both wingers were in their less natural positions. They weren’t switching, they remained on these wings for the rest of the match. Afellay replaced Willems, and the above diagram shows the absence of the left back which allowed Portugal to break and kill the game. It looked likely, as by this time van der Vaart was dead on his feet and unable to help out in defence at all; strangely van Marwijk never looked to bring him off or make more than a single substitution as Holland chased the game.
Portugal progress, by reacting to an obvious flaw in the Dutch approach and ruthlessly exposing it. In truth, the winning margin should have been bigger had Ronaldo taken some of the great opportunities he was provided with – he took the headlines with two goals but was generally selfish and wasteful for most of the rest of the game. As Holland pushed forward late on, they absorbed the pressure and exposed the gaps left at the back.
Holland were never part of this tournament. Starting with a defensive system which placed too much reliance on the front four to break down resolute defences, they struggled, then abandoned this approach in the final match which caused the players to play a role they were unfamiliar with. van Marwijk kept faith with underperforming players, of which there were many, instead of using his squad. He also made some odd decisions, including moving players out of their most comfortable positions when looking for a result. Finally, the big names didn’t perform. Sneijder was poor all tournament, save for a single excellent pass in the first game which seemed to buy him a lot of patience that the rest of his performance didn’t warrant. van Persie scored a great goal but had several chances that he would have tucked away blindfolded if he was wearing an Arsenal shirt. Afellay looked every bit a player recovering from injury, van Bommel was uncharacteristically lacking in concentration, and Robben was Robben. Holland finish bottom of the group, with zero points, and it’s hard to argue they deserved anything else.
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