By: Kees van Hemmen
The Dutch national team has not struggled to create chances from open play to start this year’s European Championship. This is not only a departure from form under Frank de Boer, but it’s also wholly uncharacteristic of the side since their renaissance in 2018 under Ronald Koeman. Even at their best, Oranje have been a side focused on controlled, patient, almost defensive possession paired with an immense set piece threat.
To some extent this was by design, but it was also an Achilles heel caused by personnel dynamics in the final third. Overwhelmingly, Memphis Depay has been deployed as a lone centre-forward for Oranje since 2018. In this role, he’s been incredibly effective — an elite creator and orchestrator, the newly minted Barça man would often drop deep to receive, then turn a man and drive at the last line or look to switch play. On either flank, Memphis was typically joined by two of Quincy Promes, Ryan Babel, and Steven Bergwijn. Trailing behind in an advanced attacking midfield role was Georginio Wijnaldum. In this role, Wijnaldum became Oranje’s leading scorer — his runs to fill the space that Memphis vacated represented the majority of the Dutch side’s threat in behind.
This seemed to work just fine — the Dutch won many matches in this setup. However, there were issues with this design. While Babel, Promes, and Bergwijn had varying proficiency at running behind back lines to create goal threat, they rarely stayed high out of possession. What this ultimately meant was that Memphis would be found centrally with a progressive pass, but possession would often have to go wide or backwards before it could go forward from there. The fact that Memphis was dropping off from the back line also meant that there were no Dutch players occupying or running at said back line in most phases of possession. Oranje’s best moments came when Wijnaldum would attack the holes created by Memphis in the back line — however, these runs were often delayed and far from frequent. All in all, chances were few and far between.
When Virgil van Dijk went down injured last year, the side’s defensive solidity in many ways went out the window. Not only did this make the defence look bad (duh) but it focused attention on an attack that had otherwise previously gotten away with good-not-great production. An inability to maintain pressure due to Van Dijk’s loss also likely took away from the attack’s biggest advantage: the opposition exhaustion that comes with long spells of defending. Suddenly the Dutch stagnance against Italy, Mexico, and Turkey amongst others was under greater scrutiny. Nothing about the setup had changed — things on the other end had just gotten shakier.
Fast forward to June of 2021 and Frank de Boer has made changes. After 3 years of a striker-less 433 (which many abroad would regard as a 4231), the Dutch rather abruptly switched to a 352 in their pre-tournament friendlies. Against Scotland and Georgia the previously un-cappable Wolfsburg striker Wout Weghorst joined Memphis Depay in a front 2, with wingback Denzel Dumfries taking on a more aggressive attacking role on the right. Results were a mixed bag against Scotland, but slowly the chances started to come. Now, heading into their final group stage tie with North Macedonia, Oranje have scored 8 goals from open play in their last 3 matches.
Amongst other things, one of the biggest positive changes has been Weghorst’s introduction. This is for a few reasons, some of which don’t immediately meet the eye. For starters, where previously when Memphis would drop off the back line to receive the ball he would leave the last line unoccupied, now the centrebacks who might have otherwise followed him are occupied by a focal point.
Now take a look what’s happening at the start:
In the middle:
And at the end of the move:
Weghorst didn’t get a shot for himself here (though arguably he should have — there were moments where the pass was on). However, what he did do is create space for an uncontested shot that wouldn’t have otherwise been there. This is meaningful work.
Now, you probably have two followup questions here. First of all — wouldn’t that space have been there without him? And second — why can’t the young and exciting Donyell Malen, who played well as a substitute against Austria, do that?
Let’s address number 1 first and then we’ll get to number 2. Take a look at this passage of play against Turkey in March, a 4–2 loss that saw the Dutch struggle to create chances in a 433 with Memphis central.
Now take a look at what’s happening to start:
In the middle:
And at the end of the move:
At first glance these passages don’t seem so different: in both, a runner drags the centrebacks to create space for a shot. One might argue that the only differences in terms of execution are circumstantial — no two chances are created the same, and the situation Memphis found himself in against Turkey was less advantageous to begin with, causing him to procure a worse shot. That is not the case, however.
Take a look at where the runs begin for Berghuis and Weghorst respectively:
What is significant about these differences? Well, for starters, you’d think that Berghuis having already been at a full sprint is a good thing — but in this case what it actually means is that it’s easier to play him offside, and Turkey’s centrebacks have to track him for less time. The reason he’s sprinting? He was in front of them, and within their line of sight when Memphis began his run. This puts him at an immediate disadvantage — the centrebacks quite literally have a head start. Finally, his run is not splitting the centrebacks — instead it’s across them, allowing one centreback to ultimately cover on his own, rather than dragging both of them as Weghorst does with Alaba and Memphis’ marker. Each of these small factors contributes to the creation of less space for Memphis in the former situation, where he doesn’t have a centre-forward physically occupying the last line to begin with. This is an important reminder that ‘inverted wingers’ are all well and nice — but having bodies physically occupying bodies on the last line is worth its weight in gold. Weghorst, the true centre forward, offers that.
Let’s look at some more examples of Weghorst’s offball gravity. Here, Daley Blind has the ball on the left to start.
Here’s the clip:
Here’s how things stood in the beginning of the move:
In the middle:
And at the end:
Weghorst functionally takes three players out of the equation with his run here. At first glance, it seems like he’s made a non-impactful run — he was never really accessible for the pass, and of course the ball never comes. But by staying on the last line, and again occupying the bodies and minds of the central defenders, Weghorst turns this passage of play from a hopeless bit of combination play to what was almost a point blank shot on goal.
Wanna see me really drive this point home? Take a look at wingback Denzel Dumfries’ winner against Ukraine:
Is Ukraine poorly organized here? Yes. Is there luck involved in where the ball winds up, and is Dumfries’ work exceptional? Also yes and also yes. But that doesn’t change the fact that having a large man lurking on the last line caused panic with a ball coming into the box — for good reason. Is Weghorst trying to be unselfish here? No, I don’t think so. He’s going for gold, in a goalscoring position. But that has visible knockon effects on the rest of the runs and spacing in the penalty area. Having a true centre forward on the pitch does that.
So — now we’ve established one of Weghorst’s most important utilities to this side. The subsequent question that I’ve not addressed here is: why can’t Malen do the same?
The obvious answer: Donyell Malen is 5’10” (178 cm) and 168 pounds (76 kg). Wout is 6’6” (197 cm), 185 (84 kg). Wout’s size allows him to sit between defenders and, as I’ve said earlier, occupy them. Could Malen more easily get away from defenders running in behind? Certainly — he’s far quicker than Weghorst. But Wout’s tendency and willingness to sit between centre backs, fighting them for positioning, does things that just ‘getting behind them’ doesn’t.
This isn’t even the entirety of the equation, though — Malen’s role at club level really is more akin to that of Memphis at national team level. In a front 2 at PSV, Malen’s partner Eran Zahavi would typically ‘occupy’ the last line — whereas Malen would drop off wide left, receiving the ball to feet to run at defenders, or making blindside runs from inside to out behind the defence. This latter tendency is what saw Malen assist against Austria. The central European side saw their defensive line dragged high when chasing the match late on, and Malen’s fresh legs and proactive positioning on the counterattack allowed him to strike quick from unoccupied space high and left.
Pairing Memphis with Donyell Malen would see two players who prefer similar spaces (albeit playing within them and exploiting them differently) used in the same front 2. This would cause spacing issues going forward for the Dutch — and in many ways may stunt the attacking threat Denzel Dumfries has provided on the right, with central defensive attention no longer diverted towards Weghorst in the middle.
All of this is without considering that Weghorst also provides a long exit ball from goal kicks for goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg, an offensive set piece threat, and just generally higher level experience as a true goal threat. Lost in this discussion of his offball effect is that the Wolfsburg man has 2 goals in his last three matches! While his onball abilities and pace may be limited in comparison to Malen, there is no doubt his large-scale effect on team structure is more valuable.