Wesley Sneijder ‘s thunderous second half goal, along with goalkeeper Eiji Kawashima’s error, gave the Netherlands a 1-0 victory over Takeshi Okada’s plucky Japan at the Moses Mabhida Stadium.
It was a tightly fought encounter, with both sides having goal-scoring opportunities but none were ever clear-cut. The Netherlands lacked guile at times, but their superior quality ensured that they emerged victorious.
The Netherlands desperately missed Arjen Robben
As Japan’s positional awareness and man-marking in defence was excellent for most of the match, it made if difficult for the Netherlands to play the attacking football that they are famous for.
Due to Japan’s strong defensive display, it was hard for the Dutch attackers to find the space required for them to freely roam around the pitch.
Arsenal striker Robin van Persie and playmaker Wesley Sneijder (who has been playing in a central midfield position for the Netherlands) particularity struggled in the first half, as they found it hard to find the space to be in an onside position.
When the Netherlands were able to play the ball more centrally in the second half, it worked fantastically as the chemistry between van Persie and Sneijder in the middle of the park was apparent.
Japan’s defence was starting to tire at this point, which was seen by Nagoya Grampus centre-back Tulio Tanaka’s poor headed clearance that fell to the path of van Persie.
The Arsenal striker linked up beautifully with Sneijder, and the talented Inter Milan winger hit a powerful shot – in the 53rd minute – that slipped through the palm of the flapping Japanese ‘keeper Eiji Kawashima.
Sneijder and van Persie wouldn’t have had the chance to link-up if it wasn’t for Tulio’s mistake, because the build-up was from Rafael van der Vaart’s corner, and it is a shame that their talents and mutual understanding was not utilised more throughout the match.
It is even more of a shame, when you consider that the players picked were largely unsuited to the formation and style of football played. This was evident, particularity in the first half, as the Dutch strove to attack on the flanks due to the space offered from the attacking Japanese full backs.
This gave the wingers – van der Vaart and Liverpool’s Dirk Kuyt – far too much time and space to roam across the far edges of the flanks unchallenged.
The 4-2-3-1 formation (although, it could also be seen as a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-1-3 formation) that was used, left key players isolated from the game and they were left frustrated during key points.
Although de Jong and van Bommel delivered consistent, yet adventurous, displays in midfield, Sneijder was often anonymous and was not given the opportunity to get involved in the Dutch attacks.
This was disappointing, when you consider the flair and genuine danger when Sneijder and van Persie linked up.
This was all too rare and the Japanese’s defensive stubbornness stifled any chance of this promising partnership to become a regularity.
Kuyt did a good job in his role (in the right-side of midfield) and played some decent crosses in – primarily, because he is a disciplined enough player to stay in one specific role – but it often left van Persie isolated, during the match.
For a 4-2-3-1 formation to work – if you are using wingers in a traditional way – you need to have a striker that is comfortable with waiting for crosses to come, and one that strives on service from his midfielder.
Van Persie is not that kind of player, as he is one that is far more comfortable in playing deeper and being involved in the build-up attacks.
Therefore, van Persie is likely to be roaming around in a deeper position as he is wanting to get involved and will not be there to catch onto crosses from Kuyt or van der Vaart.
A telling example, of how utilising van Persie as lone striker for the Netherlands did not work, was in the end of the first half when Kuyt had the only option but to shoot straight at the goalkeeper from the right-side of midfield, in the hope of testing the goalkeeper.
This was because no-one was in the penalty area testing the goalkeeper, because there was no-one in the penalty area.
The only realistic option was to play deeper and risk losing possession. It just showed how few ideas the Netherlands had in attack, a surprise when you consider the attacking talents at their disposal.
Van der Vaart also looked distinctly uncomfortable throughout the match as well.
The Real Madrid winger was not interested in pressing forward on the left-wing, as he was more concerned with tucking into a central midfield position to support van Persie and Sneijder.
It says a lot about a side’s tactic when only one out of four of the attacking players look comfortable with the system, and try to enforce a different style of play.
It would have worked far better if Robben was fit enough to start, as he would have fitted in with van Persie, Sneijder and van der Vaart’s preferred style far better.
With Kuyt sticking to his role, the other attackers looked out-of-place for most of match. Arjen Robben’s ability to move into the penalty area when required and linking up seamlessly with his team-mates was sorely missed and they looked lost around him.
The execution of the tactics was muddled and the players did not seem like they understood their own role, never mind the role of their team-mates.
It was the short passing game that the Dutch excels at, and it was missing on Saturday.
Japan were tactically astute that picked the right players for their system
Japan, unlike the Netherlands, utilised a 4-1-4-1 formation (with one defensive midfielder rather than the Dutch’s two, in a formation that could also be seen as a 4-5-1) more successfully.
Although, they occasionally found space on the wing next to the penalty area from the likes of the excellent Grenoble Foot 38 winger Daisuke Matsui and the highly versatile Keisuke Honda, getting the ball to these players would require the most precise of passing.
Japan are an underrated side, but they lack the natural skill to squeeze the ball past the tight and well-organised Dutch defence to the flanks.
Instead, most of Japan’s attacks played up to the strengths of their attacking players.
A lot of Japan’s chances throughout the game were from Japan playing on the counter-attack, when the Dutch lost possession and Japan capitalised when the Dutch lost possession and Japanese able to capitalise on the fullback’s (Giovanni van Bronckhorst and Gregory van der Wiel ) forward runs that left the Dutch midfield exposed.
However, instead of exploiting the gaps in the Dutch flanks, the likes of Honda, Matsui and Yoshito Okubo (who usually plays as a striker but has played as a winger for Japan) used their versatility to make a diagonal move into the centre of the Dutch penalty area to really test the Dutch defence.
Hondo and Matsui, especially, were potent danger-men in the first half, where Japan looked like the side most likely to score.
In contrast to the Dutch side, Japan’s game was built on some fine link-up play and short, past passes.
Although, Japan never made the breakthrough they deserve, they made some decent chances at various points during the match.
It was not just from their midfielders and strikers where Japan were versatile. Although Komano and Nagatomo were positionally inflexible in defence, their attacking play was excellent.
Like the rest of the side, the two full-backs nipped in from the flanks and into the centre of midfield to unnerve a steady Dutch defence.
Both players created goalscoring opportunities for themselves and others, and Nagatomo’s late penalty claim was a testament to how well did up-front.
What the Japanese did and the Netherlands did wrong, was that Japan played a system and formation that the entire side was comfortable with.
They knew their positions, and how they should link-up with each other.
No player was isolated in attack as well; the built-up play was not centred around one individual as it was built around the whole team.
Although Japan were tactically sound and played well for most of the match, they never had the required quality to win the match.
They lack pace and the killer pass that was needed to break down an effective Dutch defensive.
They are very strong in aerial defensive positions (which frustrated the Netherlands greatly), but they lack imagination offensively at times.
He made an impact when he came on, as Japan’s passing improved and they started to make more dangerous with him.
Although the Netherlands had started to take control of the match when he came on – meaning that he could not make a significant impact when he came on as a second-half substitute – Nakamura could be the key to unlocking defences should Japan progress to the next round.
Despite this result, Japan should still be confident in progressing further in the competition as they were unlucky not to get a point on Saturday.
Their next match against Denmark should not prove to be too much of a problem as, despite some entertaining football, the Danes looked unconvincing at times in their 2-1 victory over Cameroon.
The Netherlands, however, have some serious thinking to do.
They lacked direction and understanding on Saturday, with few players looking comfortable in attacking positions.
It seems like that manager Bert van Marwijk is choosing the 11 best players he has, rather than choosing the players and formation to suit his style of play.
If van Marwijk wants to carry on attacking from the flanks, then the formation needs to change.
For such a traditional style of play, a more disciplined and basic 4-4-2 system may be the best option. This would involve dropping a midfielder (possibly Manchester City’s de Jong) for a striker.
AC Milan striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar would be the best striking option to partner van Persie, as he has the natural predatory instinct to stay in the penalty area and to collect crosses from van der Vaart and Kuyt.
However, it may also be worth dropping van der Vaart, as he is clearly uncomfortable with the system and doesn’t want to play an advanced role.
It could see an improved performance from Sneijder – if he was moved onto the wing – as he would be playing in his natural position and would be more involved.
Replacing van der Vaart with the promising Hamburg prospect Eljero Elia is another option, as well.
The best option, however, is to bring Robben back to the starting line-up (if he has full recovered from his hamstring injury) and to change the style of play.
With Robben in the fold, Sneijder, van der Vaart and van Persie would all be able to play freer roles where they are less restricted.
It would play to the strengths of each players and it is potentially devastating competition.
Kuyt would be the most likely candidate to be dropped for Robben, as his style of play is a little too conservative for a formation that is destined to see a more dynamic and creative style of play.
It is hoped that this system would come into place for the next match against Cameroon, as it would be a shame if such a talented side did not reach their potential during this summer’s World Cup.
Match score and scorers:
Netherlands 1 – 0 Japan
Wesley Sneijder ’53 (Netherlands)
Netherlands (4-2-3-1): Stekelenburg; Van Bronckhorst, Heitinga, Mathijsen, Van Der Wiel; Van der Vaart (Elia ’72), Van Bommel, De Jong, Sneijder (Afellay ’82), Kuyt; Van Persie (Huntelaar ’87)
Substitutes that were not used: Vorm, Boschker, Boulahrouz, Ooijer, Braafheid, De Zeeuw, Schaars, Robben, Babel
Japan (4-1-4-1): Kawashima; Komano, Tanaka, Nakazawa, Nagatomo; Okubo (Tamada ’77), Abe, Hasebe (Okazaki ’77), Endo, Matsui (Shunsuke Nakamura ’64); Honda
Substitutes that were not used: Narazaki, Kawaguchi, Uchida, Iwamasa, Konno, Kengo Nakamura, Inamoto, Yano, Morimoto
Referee: Hector Baldassi
Attendance at the Moses Mabhida Stadium: 62,010