The Netherlands defeated Australia 3-2 in an enthralling second group match encounter. Australia’s first half pressing system was a key element to the match – nullifying their opponents, who took the lead against the run of play.
Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal made no changes to the side that shocked the world with their 5-1 dismantling of Spain. Despite rumours of a switch to a more traditional 4-3-3, the Netherlands kept faith in the 3-4-1-2 formation they had used in that match.
For Australia, Ange Postecoglou was forced into making two changes to the side that had performed admirably against Chile. Injuries ruled out right back Ivan Franjic and central midfielder Mark Milligan. Ryan McGowan slotted into the fullback role whilst Matt McKay came into a fluid midfield, something Postecoglou had spoken about prior to the tournament.
The key feature of the first half was Australia’s pressing system. Postecoglou and his staff had clearly done their homework in preparing to deal with a back three. When in possession in deep areas, Australia’s wingers – Mathew Leckie and Tommy Oar – prevented the outside backs from passing forward to the wingbacks. This made the wingbacks virtually anonymous as an attacking threat and, with the Dutch unable to play through Australia’s press, they frequently resorted to long balls from the back.
When the ball was played across the back line, Leckie and Oar would quickly move across and cut down the passing angle to the wingback. This slowed the play down and gave Tim Cahill time to race across to apply pressure on the ball. With Australia’s midfield trio tightly marking their respective opponent, there was no simple out ball for the Dutch and they resorted to long balls.
As the ball was played from right to left across the pitch, that was Leckie’s cue to close off the passing angle from the outside back into wing back Daley Blind.
Bruno Martins Indi was lulled into slowing the play down, with no passing options into midfield or to his wingback. When he was pressured by Cahill, he had no option but to play the ball long.
Mathew Leckie (bottom of the screen) moved across the pitch and arced his run, which prevented the forward pass up the line to the fullback. Mark Bresciano was touch tight to the nearest Dutch midfield option, Nigel de Jong, and when Cahill came across to help close Martins Indi down, the Netherlands went back to their goalkeeper, who it hit the ball long and lost possession.
This example further illustrates how diligent Australia’s midfielders were in marking their Dutch counterparts. Bresciano and McKay were tight to their opponents. When Stefan de Vrij could not go out to the right wingback, after Oar blocked the passing lane, he was forced inside and McKay pressured from behind, preventing Jonathon de Guzman from facing forward and forcing him backwards. This passage ended with the Dutch going long and losing possession.
This final example shows how each player knew their defensive role, even in a situation where the Dutch wingbacks were able to get on the ball and face forward. Here, left back Jason Davidson and Oar were able to prevent Daryl Janmaat from playing the ball to forward Robin van Persie, who was also being tightly tracked by Matthew Spiranovic (circled). If he was to then look inside, Janmaat’s midfield options were all being marked tightly by Australia’s midfield trio. When Oar recovered and arced his run, forcing Janmaat to play backwards, Australia was able to reset defensively, frustrate the Dutch and force them to go long and to lose possession.
Key to this style of pressing, as the initial graphic showed, was how Tim Cahill enthusiastically lead the press from the front. When the ball was distributed to one of the outside backs, with Leckie and Oar preventing a pass to the wingbacks, Cahill raced across to apply pressure. His enthusiasm would eventually cost him when he picked up a yellow card in the 43rd minute. This was the second time in the half where Cahill had, after applying intense pressure on the ball, left a trailing leg in, taking out Martins Indi after the ball had gone long.
This element of Australia’s play, especially in the first half when they faced a back three, demonstrated how far Australia has come, tactically, in a short space of time. In Postecoglou’s first game in charge as national team manager, the Costa Rican opponents also played with a back three. The newness of the regime was evident, with some players missing their cue, or incorrectly choosing when and where to press.
Leckie, in particular, was outstanding when defending in the first half. His defensive performance shows how much he has matured during his time in Europe and in the short time under Postecoglou. Not only is his pace and direct running a dangerous threat going forward, against the Netherlands he proved that he can perform a tactically aware and disciplined defensive performance too.
Dutch goal against the run of play
Australia had been dominant in the opening stages of the match. In truth, they had been dominant for almost the entire first half. Australia’s pressing structure had made it difficult for the Netherlands to work the ball into the final third and turnovers resulted. This meant the best Dutch chances came on the counter attack.
Arjen Robben’s 20th minute goal came via a counter attack, and again demonstrated how an errant square pass can be dangerous. This was something Leopold Method analysed prior to the World Cup, with Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal saying: “So, the vertical is the pass without risk, [but] the width pass is always risky.”
Helenio Herrera too believed in this philosophy, saying “if you lose the ball playing vertically it’s no problem. Lose it laterally and you lose a goal”
This played a factor in Australia conceding the first goal.
Mark Bresciano looked to keep the ball moving by playing a lofted lateral pass out to McGowan. Danny Blind, circled, anticipated this pass and was able to intercept, which caught Australia out.
With one forward pass and good awareness from Robben to let the ball run across his body, a line of Australian defenders were taken out of the match in an instant.
This left Matthew Spiranovic in a 3 vs 1 situation. Robben decided to go it alone and applied the finishing touches. This was an example of the potential consequences should a square pass be cut out.
Australia equalised through one of the all-time World Cup classic goals just a minute later. Tim Cahill’s incredible left footed volley was an exaggerated example of how Australia has looked to hit early crosses into their ‘No.9’ and it again highlighted Cahill’s movement – pulling away to the back post.
Second half changes
Cahill’s challenge late in the first half, which saw him receive a yellow card, resulted in an injury to Martins Indi. Van Gaal then made a change at half time, moving to a 4-3-3 – although this change would have been made even if the injury did not occur.
Memphis Depay came on for Martins Indi and moved to the left wing. This change impacted how Australia would press and made it easier for the Dutch to be more productive with possession in the second half.
Australia’s second half press
With the move to a 4-3-3, the Dutch were able to remove Australia’s numerical advantage in wide areas. In the 3-4-1-2, the Dutch wingbacks were taken out of the game by the Australian wingers – Oar and Leckie – who blocked passes into their feet and by the fullbacks who were also able to pressure from behind.
Now with two Dutch wingers and two fullbacks to deal with, Australia could not press as aggressively as they had done in the first half.
As the image above shows, whilst Australia’s midfield trio remained tight on their direct opponents, the Oar and Leckie (circled, red) were forced backwards to deal with the threat of the Dutch fullbacks.
This match had just about everything: attacking, proactive football, plenty of goals, a controversial penalty and, most importantly for the purpose of this analysis, a tactical battle and narrative. Ange Postecoglou set out his side intelligently. Australia’s pressing structure demonstrated the depth of preparation – as the analysis of Australia’s pressing showed, every angle was covered. It also showcased how much Australia has improved as a team in a short space of time. In the first half, the Socceroos pressed superbly and forced their opponents into making a change.
With those changes, the Netherlands were able to improve in the second half. Whilst Australia played admirably and showed how far they have progressed, it again showed that there is still room to improve. That is exciting for Australian football, and given how quickly Postecoglou has been able to implement change, it will be a fascinating six months in the build up to the 2015 Asian Cup.