The Netherlands got off to a successful, albeit rocky, start to the World Cup on Monday against African Champions Senegal. The Dutch side started very slowly, and created only a few chances in the first 60 minutes of the match, while struggling to move the ball into the final third. Here, I’ll take a quick look at the main storylines and what they mean for the Dutch going forward in the tournament.
The Matthijs de Ligt at wide centreback experiment fails again
Last week I wrote about the many odd selection choices Louis van Gaal has made as the head coach of the Dutch national team. One of the selections that I covered in that piece was Van Gaal’s preference for Jurriën Timber at the right of the Dutch side’s back 3 over Bayern Munich star Matthijs de Ligt. However, in a surprise last minute swap, Van Gaal changed from his preferred pre-tournament lineup, inserting De Ligt in Timber’s place. This move surprised many, including De Ligt himself. Voetbal International quoted De Ligt after the match as having said the following:
[translated from Dutch]
“I had not expected [to start the match vs. Senegal]. I have done well at Bayern, and I play at a high level there, [so] of course I hoped I would, but I didn’t expect it.”
De Ligt did not impress in this match. Many felt Senegal winger Ismaila Sarr repeatedly got the better of the former Ajax man, and that he failed to contribute going forward. It’s easy to write this up to De Ligt simply playing poorly, but the Munich man offered us a more interesting explanation in another quote from the same interview:
“I’m having a difficult time,” the centreback said, “I am not a right back, but I had to play as a right back [a lot] today. Especially because I play on the left side for Bayern it takes some getting used to and is completely different for me. Especially [having to defend] against a winger it is difficult.” Finally he added, “Maybe someone like Timber is better suited to the role Van Gaal wants.”
It’s easy to see this as excuse making from De Ligt — nominally, he was playing as a right centreback on Monday, not as a fullback, and ultimately he failed at a few things you would expect even a centreback to be able to do. However, he’s also right — as I highlighted last week in my world cup preview of the side, Van Gaal typically favors Timber on the right of his back 3 because of the Ajax man’s comfort on and off the ball in right back spaces. Overwhelmingly, these were the areas where De Ligt was found out. Below are all of De Ligt’s uncomfortable moments in the first half of this match. Note the situations in which they occur.
Basically what we have here is 2 mistakes in possession in spaces where you typically see a right back, and then after that 2 fouls in the same spaces. It’s really not the disaster-class that many perceived it to be. Granted, both fouls were in dangerous areas, but it’s far better to commit them than to be turned in space — which, at no point in this match actually happened to De Ligt. Ismaila Sarr, the Bayern man’s direct opponent in this match, completed his 2 dribbles in this match against Denzel Dumfries and Virgil van Dijk. Though it’s fair to say that De Ligt is not suited to the role he’s been given in possession, he faired fine out of possession given that Van Gaal selected him to nullify the perceived higher physicality of this Senegalese side (De Ligt’s words, not mine). Senegal created very few big chances in this match, and only one shot in the box was created from De Ligt’s side. Although it seems likely that Jurriën Timber will return to the starting lineup, and that will no doubt significantly improve this Dutch side’s ability to play out from the back, I would say De Ligt wasn’t primarily responsible for the underwhelming performance of Oranje on Monday.
Senegal successfully identify and exploit 2 of Oranje’s key players
Another of the seemingly odd selection choices that I wrote about last week (I apologize for the repeated self reference) is Van Gaal’s preference for Daley Blind and Denzel Dumfries as the two wingbacks in his 3–4–1–2 formation. Despite neither being the typical all around fullback that many envision at the position, both players are key to this side. Aliou Cissé, Senegal’s manager, seemed to recognize this. Knowing that Blind is Oranje’s main progressor, and one of their main creators, and being in the knowledge that Dumfries struggles to execute technically with the ball at his feet, the Senegalese set up with a slightly lopsided defensive shape that invited the Dutch to pass the ball to Dumfries in deeper areas, while simultaneously denying Blind the ball. Have a look at the images below to help you visualize this.
As you can see, Senegal were shifted heavily towards the ball side of the pitch when it was on the Dutch left flank (Senegal’s right). However, when the Dutch shifted to their right (Senegal’s left) the Senegalese defensive shape looked a bit different.
Although the Senegalese defensive shape is still a symmetrical 4231 in both cases, they opted to cut the passing lane from Aké to Blind more often than not, whereas, when the ball was with De Ligt, they opted instead to leave a defender man to man with Dumfries, allowing him the ball. If you’re still having trouble understanding this, here’s how denying Blind the ball looks in practice:
Ultimately, the effect this had was dulling the Dutch sides’ effectiveness in possession by daring Dumfries to drop out of the opposition box and create on the ball. This worked out great for Senegal. Dumfries ended the match with more ball losses than any other player on the pitch, and the Dutch created almost nothing down the right flank in settled possession the whole game. Here’s one example of Blind’s being denied the ball leading to Dumfries in acres of space:
Contrast that with the few instances in which the Dutch did manage to work the ball to Blind:
Later on in the match this scheme fell apart a bit — Senegal lost midfielder Cheick Kouyaté to injury in the second half, and this gave Blind a bit more breathing room. It was that change, along with the introduction of another key player, that swung the match in favor of the Dutch late. Make no mistake, though — Senegal came into this match with a plan to give themselves the best chance possible, and a big part of it was preventing the Dutch wingbacks from playing to their strengths.
Oranje sorely miss Memphis Depay
While the performance of Matthijs de Ligt, Daley Blind, and Denzel Dumfries in this match certainly had a lot of bearing on the frequency and security with which the Dutch could work the ball into dangerous areas, equally if not more important to the anemic performance of the Dutch attack was their poor execution in the final third. Generally speaking it’s reductive to single out one player when a side generates so few chances — however, in this case I think it’s apt. Vincent Janssen taking Memphis Depay’s place in Oranje’s starting lineup really crippled this team in the final third. Have a look at some of Janssen’s execution in this match:
I certainly cherry picked a bit here — Janssen did link together two good moves in this match. However, quality in top level football is not about whether or not you can execute once or twice a match— it’s about how often you can execute consistently — and Janssen just cannot execute with the efficiency needed to play for a side with Oranje’s aspirations. I wish him well, but I think the Dutch are begging to be beaten if he plays again in this tournament. The moments I have highlighted above are only those wherein he gets on the ball — there are plenty of others where his lack of pace and limited creative and goal scoring instincts prevent him from getting on the ball in good areas at all.
The good news for the Dutch is that Memphis Depay was available to come on late in this match for Janssen, and that, when he did come on, he had a transformative effect. Suddenly the Dutch were able to get the ball up to their front 2 and keep it there, culminating in 2 goals for the Dutch. Note the difference Memphis’ clean touch and execution makes in both goals:
Although Memphis’ contribution here clearly isn’t the key moment, his ability to take up an incisive position on the back line, maintain it, and in turn lay it off cleanly on one touch is a competency that changed Oranje’s attack in the minutes before this goal — simply because these are all things Janssen doesn’t do as frequently and can’t do as effectively.
Even before Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy makes a mess of the shot here, Memphis’ ability to create space while holding off a defender on the move allows the Dutch to effectively maintain the ball and create shots in the final third. His presence is critical.
All things considered, despite the disappointing performance from the Dutch, I’d say that the main issues they had in this match are addressable. If Memphis Depay starts vs. Ecuador on Friday, and is fit going forward, that alone will make the Dutch far better than they showcased in the first 70 minutes of this match. The potential inclusion of Timber would constitute a smaller improvement, however, these tournaments are often determined by similarly small margins. Being able to play out of the back more cleanly would make this side that much less vulnerable defensively. As for Senegal’s exploitation of Blind and Dumfries — if other sides employ similar tactics, a simple solution for Van Gaal would be put Leverkusen fullback/winger Jeremie Frimpong into the lineup in place of Dumfries. The former Celtic defender is far more technical than his compatriot, and is not the type of player who you’ll be rewarded for daring to beat you. At the very least it’s something for Louis to keep in his back pocket as tougher fixtures loom.