Occupying: Space, Bodies and Minds Part 2 — Understanding Donyell Malen
Image Credits: Eric Verhoeven
By: Kees van Hemmen
On Sunday I wrote about Wout Weghorst, and why he shouldn’t be replaced by Donyell Malen in the Dutch national team’s first XI. Yesterday the Dutch beat North Macedonia, and Malen played quite well in Weghorst’s place. For completeness, I’ve decided to do some quick-ish hits on how Malen played, and what, if anything, it changes.
Disclaimer: I’m only looking at clips up until Oranje switched to a 4–3–3.
Here’s Malen’s first major involvement:
At the beginning:
And in the middle (which is actually the end)
To start this move, Donyell is high and makes a run wide of the two centrebacks to get in behind. This is where he’s most comfortable — many of his best moments in Eredivisie play were in transition. Notice he’s outside of the two defenders, not between them. This is a departure from Weghorst’s positional tendencies. Donyell doesn’t like to occupy defenders, he prefers to elude them.
On to the next example:
Where things stood in the beginning:
Where they wound up:
To begin with, the North Macedonians make multiple individual defensive errors here. Malen certainly does well, but, beyond the two mistakes I’ve highlighted above, the centreback marking him doesn’t cover when Malen drops deep. Recall in part one, where I wrote about how a striker staying on the last line keeps centrebacks from following other attackers when they drop into space? Well, if the centrebacks aren’t going to follow you one way or another, that stops mattering. Malen does well here, but this chance is spoon fed to the Dutch. Unfortunately, there isn’t someone in position to get behind the centrebacks for the final ball (something that a traditional striker might’ve done — though things would’ve transpired differently had Malen not dropped off to receive the ball).
Let’s look at another one:
Memphis and Blind do great work here, but, as you can see, Malen’s natural tendencies hurt Oranje in this scenario. This isn’t an indictment of Malen. What he does here is healthy behavior in a different side with different footballers surrounding him. This is a reminder that being the best player doesn’t always mean being the right selection. Dynamics matter almost as much as quality. Let’s move on to look at the opener.
I’m not gonna break this down too much. It’s brilliant counter attacking play, and it showcases two of Malen’s biggest strengths — blistering pace, and onball ability in transition that perhaps no one else in this side sports. That said, at the end of the day, this is counter attacking play — our discussion surrounding Weghorst on Sunday was about scoring from settled possession. Malen showcases here why he’s a valuable substitute late on in stretched matches — or a potentially useful starter in ties where the Dutch have less of the ball than their opponents. It is in these scenarios, where Oranje’s opponents are likely to have their defensive lines high with greater space in behind, that he is at his most threatening.
Another big chance created by Malen in transition here — he’s making that inside out run I discussed in part one of this piece. But again note, to begin with, how out of position the defender he’s running behind is. Not only is this a product of a stretched gamestate — it’s a product of very poor defending. Weghorst’s offball movement and nous is all about creating space, and creating mistakes — Malen’s is all about exploiting space, and exploiting mistakes. We have to ask ourselves which is more important as the Dutch progress in this tournament.
Let’s break down one more moment Malen had at centre forward.
This is a good goalscoring run! So why am I highlighting it if I’m trying to make the point that Weghorst is the more valuable player in possession for this side? Look at the second frame, where Malen is standing still. I want you to imagine Malen making a run at that moment to the near post. Is he more likely to be marked? Yes, almost certainly. But I can also almost guarantee you he’s dragging both of those centrebacks (numbered in the frame) to the byline earlier. What option does that leave Memphis? A clean cutback to Wijnaldum at the penalty spot. Offball movement isn’t always about scoring, even for strikers.
I’ll admit, this particular movement is a judgement call. There’s a world where Memphis takes a better touch and finds Malen. But this is a game of maximizing goal scoring chances — and dragging multiple markers to create space for a teammate has a good chance to reap better rewards than a heavily timing dependent run into a much smaller space.
I said I was going to stop when Oranje switched to a 433, but in the interest of fairness, let’s look at arguably Malen’s best moment of the game.
Take a look:
Here’s how things start:
And the end:
Basically all I’ve to say about this is that it’s brilliant football from Malen, but again an exploitation of calamitous North Macedonian defending. It’s not healthy to play the “What If” game, but it’s very unlikely a more positionally aware defensive midfielder would let Malen turn so freely to play this ball. This is brilliant football — but first and foremost it’s exploiting a far weaker opponent.
Anyway, all of this is a very long way of saying that Malen is both a) very good and b) very useful, but also very much benefitted from taking on the weakest opponent the Dutch will encounter in this tournament. While his strengths are very real, he doesn’t replace what Weghorst offers the side. In ways that don’t always immediately meet the eye, those missing bits could have a massive effect on Dutch fortunes going forward.