Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Shades of Oranje (Rowan Ricardo Phillips, 6/24/14, Paris Review)

Holland has, since 1974’s “Clockwork Oranje” team, led by Johan Cruyff, been the symbol of offensive football; that team, and the great Ajax teams of the mid-seventies, were the great global ambassadors of an offensive 4-3-3 formation. Those teams were coached by Rinus Michels. Michels, Cruyff, and Johan Neeskens then went together to Barcelona; Cruyff ended up coaching Ajax and Barcelona. To this day, both Ajax and Barcelona play 4-3-3. Doing otherwise is taken as a great affront; when a coach does that, however rarely, his days are often numbered.

But in the case of the Dutch National team, there are exceptions. One would be France ’98, when Guus Hiddink deployed a 4-4-2—four defenders, a midfield diamond, and staggered forwards—and the occasional 4-5-1 to great effect. Another would be now, with Louis van Gaal, whose tactical decisions have been more fluid and unpredictable. Holland debuted against Spain with a 5-3-2—that’s five defenders for a team famous for attacking.

As you know by now, Holland scored five goals in the span of forty-five second-half minutes. Spain didn’t know what hit them. In their next game against Australia, Holland again played 5-3-2. Australia had clearly studied the formation, and consequently Holland sputtered through the first half. In the second, they switched to the tried-and-true 4-3-3 and put the sword to the team from down under.

Now, against Chile, with everything and nothing to play for, more changes were afoot. Holland had to make due without one of their star strikers, Robin van Persie, who’s been suspended. Instead of making a like-for-like switch and simply replacing van Persie with another forward, they changed the entire formation, playing a 4-2-2-2 and subbing another forward, Dirk Kuyt. But they were playing him as a carrilero—a wide player who defends and attacks equally along a specific sideline—out on the left. Kuyt is right footed. The stratagem was effective: Chile hardly had a shot on goal. But the South American commentators were appalled. How could Holland just throw away their tradition? Holland should always want the ball. That’s the legacy of the orange shirt. And here they were just letting Chile have the ball to themselves.

Although Chile seemed a shade of the side that had been so spectacular during their first two games, a Chilean broadcaster in the booth, Luis Omar Tapia, paid the team a telling compliment amid the general distaste that was being expressed of Dutch side before them. To paraphrase, he said it was lovely to watch this Chile, as they were designed first and foremost to recuperate the ball, to take it from the opposition—most teams now, he said, didn’t emphasize this trait, and it was beautiful to see Chile do so. It was telling, but not in the way he intended: he’d implied that Van Gaal’s tactics were working on the pitch. Chile, to be effective, needed the opposition to have, or at least desire to have, the ball. Instead, Holland left Chile increasingly toothless with the ball. Holland’s second goal came on a corner kick—taken by Chile.

By the end of the game, Holland had won 2-0; once again, their best players had been expressive and decisive, and even the most romantic devotee of 4-3-3 could see the point. Van Gaal’s Holland will not here be burdened by its history, but will change as needed, even if they risk looking unattractive for large parts of a game.

Saturday, June 21, 2014


Team Focus: Germany's Adaptation of the 'False 9' Can Steer Them to Glory (Ben McAleer, Jun 21 2014, Who Scored?)

Löw instead used Bayern Munich’s Thomas Müller as the focal point in attack and despite having featured as a striker 8 times for Bayern last season, this is perhaps not his best position. Müller is best suited in the number 10 role, or out on the wing to cut inside and go for goal, but was flanked by Mario Götze and Mesut Özil against Portugal.

While it may not be an exact blueprint of the ‘false 9’ system Vicente Del Bosque deployed at Euro 2012, Germany’s approach still bears a striking resemblance to the Spain of two years ago. In Monday's win, Philipp Lahm and Sami Khedira operated as the two deepest-lying midfielders, similar to Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in Poland and Ukraine, while Toni Kroos played the "Xavi role".

With no player attempting more passes (79) than Lahm and only Kroos (96.2%) enjoying a better pass success of every Germany outfielder than his Bayern teammate (93.7%) in the win over Portugal, Lahm is capable of matching the exploits of Alonso and Busquets 2 years ago. However, question marks remain over Khedira’s role in the team. The midfielder missed a substantial chunk of the season with a cruciate ligament injury and though he did not put a foot wrong in the win over Portugal, Bastian Schweinsteiger’s expected return may be well timed.

Schweinsteiger may not be a destroyer in the same vain as Khedira, but his passing and creative ability from deep renders him one of the finest players in his position, while his reading of the game means he needn’t use a similar approach as Khedira to break up play. Alongside Lahm, the duo can replicate Alonso and Busquets’ midfield threat from 2012 and with Kroos deployed alongside his Bayern teammates, the trio can pick apart any side on their day.

In defence, Löw opted against using natural full-backs in their Group G opener, instead deploying Benedikt Höwedes and Jerome Boateng at left and right-back respectively. The pairing made just 4 starts between them in the league and Europe last season at full-back, so the decision to field the duo either side of Mats Hummels and Per Mertesacker can be considered an unorthodox one.

This is pretty much ideal for the USMNT's formation.  With the two defensive midfielders clogging the middle you spoil the false 9 formation--as witness Mourhino's success against Barcelona.  And with Zusi and Bedoya and Johnson and Beasley on the wings you put pressure on defenders playing out of position.  We won't need to beat Germany to move on, but we can.