netherlands germany

Germany – Netherlands: revamped Mannschaft dominates, but Dutch seal group win with last-minute comeback (2-2)

More often than we fans would like to admit, the result of a game of football has very little to do with which team actually played better. This Nations League match between Germany and the Netherlands was a prime example of that. The Dutch left Gelsenkirchen with a fully undeserved, but nonetheless crucial point against permanent Angstgegner Germany.

Tactical analysis by Sam Planting.

Make no mistake about it. Dutch football was in real crisis, just last year. Consecutive failures to reach the Euro’s and World Cup, combined with an exponentially declining impact on proceedings of Eredivisie clubs in the Champions League, made Dutch football fans feel insignificant. The caveman-like tactics employed by the coaches of the national team plunged them into true despair.

The key to a short term renaissance of the Dutch national team turned out to be the hiring of a tactically astute, somewhat conservative head coach. Ronald Koeman, whose managerial career did not seem ‘on the up’ after a rough, rough stint at Everton, took over the role as ‘bondscoach’ of the Orange in February 2018.

Last Friday, the Dutch national team looked really strong for the first time since… the 2014 World Cup? While they won the previous Nations League game, against Germany at home (3-0), the win against defending world champions France (2-0) felt cathartic.

In contrast to the tactically static, lackluster, and extremely possession-oriented playing styles under the previous coaches (Guus Hiddink, Danny Blind, Dick Advocaat), the Dutch team has transformed into a well-organized, defense-first, dynamically counter-attacking team under the guidance of Koeman. He has built the team around the strengths of his star players, the center-back pairing of Matthijs de Ligt and Virgil van Dijk, the deep-lying playmaking of Frenkie de Jong, and the fluid movement and individual quality of ‘false nine’ Memphis Depay up front.

All is well with Dutch football, eh? Well, not all. The German national team, still led by Joachim Löw – a long serving manager who, uncharacteristic for long serving managers, has shown remarkable willingness to adapt and even re-adapt – absolutely exposed the vulnerabilities of the Dutch in the first eighty minutes of this game.

Germany’s new setup neutralizes Frenkie de Jong

Löw made major adjustments to his side, in comparison to the last Nations League outing against the Netherlands. A 4-3-3 formation with a ball-winner (Emre Can) as the midfield partner of Joshua Kimmich and Toni Kroos was switched in for a 3-4-3 system with a lot of young, new faces.

Mats Hummels, who has struggled mightily for club and country this past year against quick counterattacks, was now flanked by Niklas Süle and Antonio Rüdiger. Thilo Kehrer (Paris Saint-Germain) and Nico Schulz (Hoffenheim) came in as wing-backs. But it was the forward line that was transformed the most: Leroy Sané and Timo Werner lined up as inside wingers, with the shifty and versatile Serge Gnabry as the connection man in the middle.

Germany’s way of pressing the Netherlands

The way in which Löw set up his 3-4-3 when the Netherlands tried to build up from the back, caused all sorts of problems. In possession, this Dutch team runs through the accurate passing and silky-smooth ball-carrying of De Jong, who is joined in the double pivot in midfield by the sober passing and active intercepting of Atalanta’s Marten de Roon.

Whenever the Dutch build-up started, the three German strikers lined up next to the two opposing defensive midfielders closely. The easy pass for Holland’s center-backs would be to the fullbacks. Whenever that lateral pass was played, the German wing-back would step out and force a sideways or backwards pass.

This strategy worked excellently for Die Mannschaft. With the wing-backs stepping out on the Dutch fullbacks, and then shuttling back to join the last line of defense quickly, Germany was basically neutralizing the Dutch build-up of six players with four of their own players. The ensuing ‘math’ for the Dutch front four was not advantageous: with at least six German opponents hanging back at all times. This unfruitful situation for the Dutch offense remained the same for almost eighty minutes of play.

True speed up front combined with Kroos’ passing: a lethal combination

Germany’s offensive game plan remained the same for 67 straight minutes – until Löw subbed in Marco Reus and Thomas Müller for Werner and Gnabry. They went back to same well over and over and over again, with great success: exploit the warp-speed of Werner and Sané in the halfspaces If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the half spaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. between the Dutch center-backs and fullbacks in transition, with Gnabry dropping back into midfield from his striker position and Kroos finding the two speedsters up front with pinpoint passing.

The opening goal for the Germans in the ninth minute was kickstarted by movement of the best individual player on the field, Leroy Sané, and a positional blunder by the player who struggled most on the field, Kenny Tete. After Hummels blocked a shot attempt by Memphis, he played into a wide open Kroos, who was allowed to carry the ball up field uncontested for a good forty yards. From there, Kroos played into Schulz, who quickly played it back. Tete stuck to wing-back Schulz, even though Sané sprinted into space behind him. De Ligt had to vacate his central position to cover Sané, and when Kroos played the ball into Gnabry, Van Dijk also had to leave this central space to step out. Gnabry tapped the ball through to a sprinting Werner in the uncontested center, and the Leipzig forward made Tete pay for his initial mistake.

The second goal, ten minutes later, was even more straightforward. Whilst Germany had a long spell of possession, Gnabry drifted back towards the midfield line again, when the ball was at the back. After Hummels played into Kroos, the playmaker was easily able to exploit the space Gnabry created by dropping. De Ligt stepped out on Gnabry, and nearby De Roon and Tete did not fill up the gap he left. Kroos lofted a beautiful ball into this open space onto a launched Leroy Sané, who finished in the far corner.

In the remainder of the first half and a big part of the second half, similar situations occurred often. The interplay between Gnabry, Sané and Werner up front seems like an important new addition to Germany’s playing style. Especially when Kroos is put in positions to reach these forward with long passes at full speed.

Dutch adjustments turn out well in bizarre final minutes

The Netherlands adjusted to the dynamic interplay of the German front three in the second half. Frenkie de Jong turned into a de facto third center-back by man-marking the central striker. Koeman swapped in the industrious Tonny Vilhena for Georginio Wijnaldum, to add more defensive balance in midfield. Up front, Koeman ‘subbed the sub’, by bringing in targetman Luuk de Jong for Javairô Dilrosun, who replaced the injured Ryan Babel earlier, with Memphis Depay now moving to thee left flank.

Both of the Dutch goals can be very easily explained. In a last-gasp attack – Holland needed a point for a pretty shocking group win – the Dutch had a lot of people going forward and in Germany’s box. Quincy Promes, who otherwise was invisible, brought them back in the game by finishing from outside a jam-packed penalty area.

The stoppage-time equalizer came from the captain’s boot. Virgil van Dijk started playing as a second aerially oriented striker next to Luuk de Jong in the final minutes. The left-footed Vilhena whipped a ball into the box from the right flank, and after Kimmich failed to clear it, it ended up at the feet of Van Dijk, who perfectly struck the ball in the far corner to give his squad a fully undeserved point – something the captain wholeheartedly admitted in his post-game interview – that made the Netherlands the surprising winner of a Nations League group with the last two world champions.

Takeaways

That last fact for Holland is pretty absurd, when you realize where they were at a year ago from a tactical point of view. For the ‘process over results’ geeks, this game exposed more future issues for the Dutch national team than things that went right, though.

It is interesting to see if, and how, Koeman will adjust his side against opponents who are able to neutralize Frenkie de Jong in possession, and exploit the defensively shaky fullbacks, like Germany did in this game.

This game was the best performance of the German national team in quite some time. Which is painful news for players like Jérôme Boateng, Sami Khedira, Emre Can and Thomas Müller, experienced guys whose qualities do not seem to fit this new system perfectly.

But there was also a lot of good news to take from this game for Löw & co. The young forwards played really well. Hummels looked like Hummels again. Kroos is finally provided with moving targets for his amazing quarterback passes. And, most importantly, Die Mannschaft looked like a tactically coherent squad again.

Sam Planting (27) writes for various Dutch media about football (VI Pro, Het Parool, Hard Gras) and does some stats stuff for television. Records ‘De Voetbalpodcast’ with his two best buds. Born and raised in Amsterdam. Former basketball player. Current aficionado of stand-up comedy and rap music. [ View all posts ]

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