Netherlands – France: The Emperor Wears No Clothes As Dutch Team Outplays World Champion (2-0)
World Cup winners France showed passiveness on and off the ball, which was thoroughly exploited by the Dutch team. Trailing, France’s strategy looked especially ineffective and incoherent. In a remarkable change of events, the Dutch team is now slaying big teams one at a time, making this truly feel like a new dawn for Dutch football after missing two international tournaments in a row.
Tactical analysis by Erik Elias.
Three teams in one group means a lot is at stake very late in the group phase.
A draw in this game would be enough for France to win the group, while the Netherlands had to win in order to prevent a direct battle for relegation against Germany, Monday in Gelsenkirchen.
After experimenting with a 5-3-2 shape in six friendlies, Dutch manager Ronald Koeman decided to go into the Nations League with the most popular formation in international football: 4-2-3-1. Playmaker Frenkie de Jong and scrapper Marten de Roon form the double pivot. 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. Roaming central forward Memphis Depay is probably playing the best football of his career now, and is joined up top by journeyman Ryan Babel and PSV Eindhoven’s hotshot Steven Bergwijn.
France missed Paul Pogba, Samuel Umtiti and Benjamin Mendy. In their places, Presnel Kimpembe and Steven Nzonzi started, while Lucas Digne started as France’s left back. Based on the eleven names on the sheet, one could have easily assumed that Deschamps maintained his 4-4-2 / 4-3-3 hybrid formation, Blaise Matuidi constantly shifting between filling in as a winger or tucking inside to be a midfielder.
It turned out Deschamps had altered his team’s formation to a true 4-3-3 shape. Nzonzi played as the holding midfielder with Blaise Matuidi to his left and N’Golo Kanté to his right. Antoine Griezmann played on the right, Olivier Giroud as a striker and Kylian Mbappé on the left.
France look after Frenkie de Jong, or not
Normally, Mbappé plays from the right in France’s compact 4-4-2 formation, but with less defensive responsibilities than the other three midfielders. Against the Netherlands, France formed a 4-1-4-1 shape against the ball with Kanté and Griezmann as the most right-sided players of the midfield bank of four, and Mbappé played from the left.
France’s 4-1-4-1 formation against the Netherlands’ 4-2-3-1 shape.
This formation easily morphed into a 4-5-1 structure if the Netherlands were enjoying possession on France’s half. Frenkie de Jong – if you have a Twitter account he might have appeared in your timeline – is the Netherlands’ main playmaker. He usually drops between the central defenders or in the left halfspace 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. to collect the ball and try to pass or dribble it forward. Frenkie de Jong’s elite skill at carrying the ball towards the opposing goal without causing turnovers is shown in this excellent article on Opta Pro.
One could assume that Deschamps switched Griezmann and Mbappé because of De Jong’s skills as a playmaker. This way, the more defensibly trusted Griezmann played next to Kanté in the zone where De Jong operates. In the opening phase, either Griezmann, Kanté or Giroud would consistently try to make sure De Jong could not play the ball forward.
The decision is extra curious, though, when taken into account the offensive advantage that France sacrificed, given that Daley Blind would have been Mbappé’s direct opponent. Blind is a great passer and rarely loses possession, but is not great as a defender and particularly lacking when it comes to his speed.
Defensive minded half of football concluded with opening goal
Everyone who watched the World Cup in Russia knew which team would have more possession in this match. Indeed, the Netherlands were allowed the ball by France and had 65 percent of it, as France maintained their passive approach and sought to keep the spaces tight on their own half.
The Netherlands showed to have learned from the dark period between 2014 and 2017, when they were predictable in possession and vulnerable for counterattacks. The fullbacks had license to go forward if the ball was on their side, but were clearly instructed to stay behind if the other fullback was in attack-mode, while the double pivot moved forward conservatively.
The first half thus consisted out of one team having the ball thinking about defending and the other team not having the ball and thinking about defending. The not so surprising result was that the first half was lacking big chances, or even goal scoring attempts.
There were some, though. As early as the second minute, Bergwijn received the ball between the lines and showed his vision, as he slid through Depay. His cross landed at Wijnaldum, who’s shot was beautifully saved by Hugo Lloris. In the ninth minute, Griezmann was on the end of a very rare French counterattack, but headed the ball into Dutch goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen’s hands. It turned out to be France’s biggest chance of the entire match.
This pattern wore on for the remainder of the first half. After a lot – a lot – of sterile possession Sterile possession means that a team controls possession for a spell of time, but fails to create actual goal scoring chances or offensive penetration with it. outside of France’s defensive organization, Wijnaldum put the Netherlands up in the 44th minute. A seamlessly innocent early cross by De Jong was horribly misjudged by Nzonzi and landed at the feet of Babel. His shot was stopped by Lloris, before it fell to Wijnaldum who placed the ball in an empty net.
The Netherlands’ cautious approach in possession shows in this passmap,
as well as De Jong’s capacity to repeatedly find striker Depay.
A high press is not France’s forte
What happens to France if their usual plan fails to deliver is a bit disturbing. After the break, the World Champions aimed to press the Netherlands higher up the pitch. It turned out to be a disaster, as all it yielded was more space for the Dutch team to play in.
On multiple occasions, France’s attackers or midfielders pressed a Dutch player and looked over their shoulder to see if one of their teammates had taken over the zone or man they had just left. All too often, this was not the case. It turns out that you can work as hard as you want, if your plan as a team is incoherent, you will look like a passive bunch.
In stark contrast, the Dutch four most attacking players all displayed an incredible work-rate both on and off the ball in a well-organized collective system. When France had the ball, the Netherlands would try to limit the space to play in, constructing a 4-4-2 shape. If the ball was won, the attackers and Liverpool’s Georginio Wijnaldum showed great ability to hold on to the ball and play lay-off passes to each other. Babel and Bergwijn played in a narrow role for the bulk of the match, which made interplay easier.
Spaces get to big in France’s new outlet
In the 65th minute, Deschamps introduced Moussa Sissoko and Ousmane Dembélé for Olivier Giroud and reverted to a 4-4-2 formation with Griezmann and Mbappé up top. The wingers tried to disorganize the Dutch defense by going in behind aggressively. It did not amount to much, though, and the only thing France could muster was a volley by Dembélé after a corner kick, that went well wide of Cillessen’s goal.
Now playing more open, a side-effect of Deschamps’ formation change was that he created more space for the Netherlands to produce counterattacks. The Dutch team should have scored their second goal earlier, really, but were stopped by a mix of their own finishing or Lloris’ goalkeeping. The fact France could not produce anything that remotely looked like a serious offensive threat, speaks volumes of their helplessness in this match.
The game ended with a pointless foul by Sissoko on De Jong, which gave the Netherlands a chance to finally get their second goal and end the match with a bang. France’s goalkeeper Lloris was brilliant throughout the match – recording nine saves in total – but could not stop Depay’s cheeky, Panenka-style penalty.
The Netherlands have found a new way of winning, in a style that is not distinctly Dutch, but fits the players Ronald Koeman has at his disposal like a glove. Whether it will work for them against teams that put up a defensive wall remains to be seen, but for now one can only compliment Koeman and his young guns for the demolition of both Germany and France.
This was the first official international match France lost since mid 2017, when Sweden managed to score a late winner in a World Cup qualification game. They trailed for a grand total of nine minutes in seven World Cup matches in Russia. It is probably a bit far-fetched to say they are totally broken because they lost this match against the Netherlands.
And, in the end, France more or less delivered the game they played most of the times in Russia, right? They allowed the opposition to dominate possession and waited for for counterattacking opportunities and set pieces to score. Said opportunities never arose in this game, and all in all, France left Rotterdam with a deserved zero points.
Being the low scoring sport it is, in the game of football, the end result is one of many outcomes. Maybe this is the kind of game that could have easily happened in Russia too, if France would have been on the other side of the tournament table, or if Belgium would have scored the first goal in the semifinal, or if Benjamin Pavard would not have put in that screamer against Argentina. If we put process over the outcome, genuine questions can be asked of the playing style of this France team.