This piece originally appeared on the Carvalho Peninsula.
Not a match for fans of highlight reels, this was characterised by tactical discipline and defensive diligence. Louis van Gaal, conscious of the threat posed by Germany’s fluid front four, set up with a deep 4-1-4-1 formation aimed at closing off space and kept this shape throughout. Van Gaal also elected to have his full-backs and central midfielders man-mark their direct opponents – an interesting policy, given that the latter positions were filled by Ibrahim Afellay and Rafael van der Vaart, men hardly renowned for their ability to put in a defensive shift. The plan, however, was a success, with the two remaining organised and tight to their men as well as displaying their obvious quality on the ball.
The key tactical point for Germany was the selection of a front four containing no number nine. Mario Götze and Marco Reus spent most of the match interchanging as the notional number nine, making darting runs between the full-backs and centre-backs and creating space for the ever astute Thomas Müller to exploit. Lewis Holtby played a slightly more conservative role, taking possession in advanced positions and recycling. The system of interchange worked well in periods and could have created a goal for Reus after twenty-seven minutes, but van Gaal’s plan was more than its equal. Germany could perhaps have done with involving Lahm more in attacking play, but given the threat posed on the counter his conservative display was understandable.
Both teams were keen to attack at set pieces, moving more men forward on those occasions than at any time in open play, but there was still no clear chance created from them either directly or on the counterattack. The most notable set-piece in the match was the corner which Marco Reus comically shanked almost directly upwards.
Van Gaal’s reactive setup resulted in the lion’s share of early possession being taken by Germany’s centre-backs, Per Mertesacker and Mats Hummels. This largely played into Dutch hands: twice during the first eleven minutes Hummels was sufficiently tempted to try long killer passes and lost possession on both occasions. Between the tenth and thirtieth minutes Bruno Martins struggled somewhat due to a lack of cover from Arjen Robben, but eventually he settled into the game and Robben began to help the Feyenoord youngster.
Germany were comfortable being the proactive side and despite the lack of clear chances fashioned, one sensed in their young attackers a belief that their system would win out against the obstinate Dutch defence. Thomas Müller and Lewis Holtby, in particular, never shied from receiving the ball and trying to make something happen. İlkay Gündoğan caught the eye, his replication of Bastian Schweinsteiger’s national team performances more than passable. Indeed, on thirty minutes it was a little too good: he, along with his midfield partner Lars Bender, were too high up the pitch and were slow to close down the advancing Rafa van der Vaart. The Hamburg man skipped between them and his pass sent Arjen Robben through on goal. The Bayern winger rounded Manuel Neuer but found Benedikt Höwedes on hand to block his goal-bound shot.
This was an atypical moment in terms of first-half tactics: the Dutch approach then was to sit deep and wide and get narrow once the ball was inside their own half, the thinking presumably being that their best chance of success lay on the counter with the pace of Robben and Ruben Schaken.
Löw’s men were happy to keep the ball at the back, relying on the movement of their front four tying knots in the Dutch man-marking before working the ball forward, mostly down the right, in fast transitions. This produced a couple of half-chances, but like their opponents’, their best scoring opportunity came from a moment out of keeping with the general tactical trend. At the end of the first half, Gündoğan made a skilful foray into the Dutch area and, despite losing the ball, remained forward to slam the ball goalward when it broke in the ensuing scramble. Unfortunately for the Dortmund man, Johnny Heitinga had read the danger and blocked the shot on the line.
The second half began with several substitutions from van Gaal and a change in tact from Jogi Löw. His side sat much deeper and invited the Dutch onto them. Given the trouble the Germans had finding space to attack in the first half, this made sense. At the beginning and end of the half, it also allowed the Dutch to take possession closer to Manuel Neuer’s goal, but there was little significant danger. For the most part, Germany enjoyed the majority of the ball. Despite looking potent in periods, their domination was mostly sterile.
As is typical of the twenty-first century international friendly, the myriad of substitutions in the second half prevented any flow developing. Most of the clearest shooting chances fell to the Netherlands. On seventy-six minutes Gündoğan and Bender were again caught too high up the field, causing Hummels to charge out of the defensive line. This in turn allowed the Netherlands to break down the right, and Schaken’s cutback was met by the substitute Daryl Janmaat, whose twenty-yard drive was saved by Neuer. Germany looked vulnerable again a minute later, but Eljero Elia’s shot from the left channel was wildly inaccurate. In the last minute, Marco Reus had the chance to win it following a poor headed clearance, but like Elia minutes before, he ballooned the ball high and wide. The final whistle followed shortly thereafter.
Whether van Gaal or Löw won the tactical battle is open to dispute and arguably irrelevant. The information that both camps gleaned from the ninety minutes will be largely positive. Van Gaal’s side looked organised and tough but in a different manner to the sides of his predecessor. Löw gave valuable game time to youngsters like Gündoğan, Holtby and Götze and will be pleased at their respective performances which, despite the occasional youthful error, were mature and encouraging. This was a match of little spectacle but it contained more than enough evidence of progress being made by both sides.