It was an extremely entertaining 1-1 draw which saw both teams lose ground to Poland in the UEFA Nations League Group A1. It looked like it would be one-way traffic after Lorenzo Pellegrini polished off a lovely move to put Italy in front at home on Wednesday in the 16th minute. But in the 25th minute, Donny van de Beek provided the sucker punch for the Netherlands by scoring the equaliser within the first half of the match. The Oranje started growing into their unusual 5-3-2 system as both teams matched each other blow for blow. In the second half, neither team was able to find the winner. Italy extended their unbeaten run under Roberto Mancini to 19 matches while denying Frank de Boer’s first victory as the head coach of the Netherlands.
Mancini sent out Italy in their preferred 4-3-3 formation and made four changes to his side which drew 0-0 to Poland. Three changes were made in the defensive line. Leonardo Bonucci stayed with Giorgio Chiellini, taking over the captain’s armband and slotted in as a left centre-back. Leonardo Spinazzola and Danilo D’Ambrosio came in at the left and right full-back positions, respectively. The midfield trio remained the same after a convincing performance in their previous fixture. The fourth change was made in the front three. Ciro Immobile was given a chance to lead the line and impress as he replaced the suspended Andrea Belotti.
De Boer surprised everyone by deploying a 5-3-2 formation and made four changes to his starting lineup. Jasper Cillessen started in goal. Stefan de Vrij, Virgil van Dijk, and Nathan Ake started as the three central defenders. The right and left wing-backs were Hans Hateboer and Daley Blind. The Manchester United midfielder Van de Beek won his 14th international cap as he joined Frenkie de Jong and Georginio Wijnaldum in midfield. Memphis Depay led the line with Luuk de Jong for the Oranje as he made a return into the starting XI.
De Boer’s 3-5-2 system
In possession of the ball, the Oranje would position in an asymmetrical 3-5-2 formation which is the 3-1-4-2. We will now have a look at how they controlled possession and made it difficult for the opponents to mark them.
In this system, the five defenders spread themselves out across the pitch, which creates a lot of passing angles with the three midfielders deployed in front of them. Premier League winner Van Dijk, De Vrij and Ake made up the back three. Meanwhile, Frenkie would remain as a single pivot in the centre in front of them. Hateboer and Blind converted into wing-backs on the right and left flank, respectively.
They push high and wide and stay near the touchline most of the times. Thus, they were 1v1 with the opposition full-backs. Luuk de Jong played as a target man with his back in front of goal and Depay was allowed to move freely in-between the lines. This system allowed De Boer’s team to keep possession, as it allows a lot of creativity and fluidity.
This was a common build-up tactic of De Boer’s team. You can see in the above picture the midfield looks very congested. So, during transition, Wijnaldum and Van de Beek would move into the half-spaces which created space in the middle. Hence, Depay would drop to the centre and help in creating a passing option for Frenkie de Jong.
Meanwhile, the wing-backs Hateboer and Blind would move higher and hug the sideline. Whenever Depay got the ball, he would play it first-time to either Van de Beek or Wijnaldum, who would then play the ball into the empty space in front of the wing-backs to progress the play further.
In the above picture, you can see Frenkie de Jong in possession of the ball and Wijnaldum and Van de Beek operating in half-spaces. Both had the freedom to contribute in the final third and help the attackers by joining the attack. Frenkie de Jong plays a simple pass to Luuk de Jong, who then plays a first-time pass to Wijnaldum.
Then, Wijnaldum plays into the path of Blind. These players are operating in such tight spaces but in specific zones in-between the lines, which made it very difficult for the opposition to mark them. Thus, Italy kept their defensive structure very narrow and the Netherlands used their wing-backs by releasing them into acres of space to get into the final third.
The Oranje’s defensive structure – how it nullified the threat posed by Italy
When out of possession, the Oranje set up in a defensively solid 5-3-2 formation. With five defenders at the back, three combative midfielders in front of them and two strikers leading the first line of defence, it was very hard for Italy to break them down. We will now assess the tactics deployed by De Boer to stop Italy from playing their natural game.
As you can see in the above picture, in the 5-3-2 formation, Luuk de Jong and Depay acted as the first line of defence. It is their energy and pressing intensity which set the tone for the team’s defensive performance. The three midfielders behind them were Van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong and Wijnaldum as the second line of defence. The Oranje’s priority was to stop the opposition midfielders from getting on the ball.
The midfield trio of Jorginho, Barella and Verratti make up a very strong midfield together and Mancini has always depended on these three to propel his team. Thus, the Oranje’s basic approach will look as above. They allowed the Italian central defenders time on the ball. Hence had shut down their passing options in the middle third to not allow them to build from the back smoothly and force them to go long.
In the build-up phase, Italy would switch to 3-2-4-1 formation in which D’Ambrosio would tuck in as a right centre-back. The Oranje never pressed Bonucci as they allowed him to play the ball to only Chiellini and D’Ambrosio. As you can see here, D’Ambrosio has received the ball. Wijnaldum immediately steps out to initiate the press and uses his shadow to cover the passing lane to Barella.
Meanwhile, the other players shuffle to overload the left side. Frenkie de Jong follows Jorginho and Depay stays near Bonucci to cut down another passing lane for D’Ambrosio. This forced him to turn and go back to the Donnarumma. Thus Mancini had to find other ways to get his midfield more involved in the build-up play.
As we know, Italy like to attack through the middle and in their build-up play they usually had only one player on each flank which were Spinazzola on the left and Chiesa on the right. De Boer applied a pressing scheme for both players present on the flank that would force the opposition defenders to play the ball to them. After the ball was played, one of the Oranje’s wing-backs and one central midfielder would step out and press on him, which left him with the only option of passing it back.
The Netherlands created overloads on the flanks, which singled out Spinazzola and Chiesa, and forced them to go back. Like in the above instance on the left flank, Spinazzola has the ball, Hateboer and Van de Beek step out of their zones to close him down and force him to pass the ball back.
Italy — attacking the spaces in and around the defenders
Tactically De Boer outclassed Mancini. But now we shall have a look at the change in tactics that the former Manchester City manager made to exploit the back three formation set up by De Boer.
The biggest worry of fielding three central defenders is when one defender is dragged infield or stretched wide. The success of a back three lies in its rigidity. In the above picture, you can see Immobile making a run infield from behind of Ake. He drags Van Dijk out with him. Barella releases the ball and Immobile through on goal on the right side, but the ball just evades forward straight into the hands of Cillessen.
As you can see here, Verratti works a clever pass through to Immobile in the left channel from the blindside of Van Dijk. Immobile gets on the ball and shoots across Cillessen to the bottom right corner, but the keeper produces a solid save to deny the goal.
In the above picture, you can see De Vrij follow Pellegrini. Pellegrini then makes a half turn and meanwhile Spinazzola makes a run from behind of Hateboer. Pellegrini plays a pass in the massive hole behind Hateboer into the path of Spinazzola and gets inside the opposition box. Spinazzola makes room for himself and shoots with this right foot, trying to beat Cillessen from a tight angle.
As there are no full-backs in a back five while defending for the Oranje, De Vrij left an enormous gap behind him which allowed Spinazzola to unleash his attacking potential.
After the 77th minute, Italy switched to a 3-5-2 formation in which Alessandro Florenzi played as a right wing-back. Florenzi and Barella work the ball into the final third with some beautiful one-two passes. Barella plays a ball into space for Florenzi and the right wing-back lifts a cross to the back post.
Immobile makes a run from between Joel Veltman and Hateboer and is unmarked. He tries to connect the cross, but the ball soars over his outstretched boot and goes out for a throw-in. The opposition defenders could not feel Immobile’s lurking presence, and he almost got there to score the winner for Italy.
How Italy exploited the Oranje’s high defensive line
The Netherlands played with a high line throughout the match to compress the pitch and make it difficult for their opponents to move the ball with as much space and time. Playing with a high defensive line always leaves an enormous amount of space behind the defence, and there was plenty of room for any player to run into when making movements in behind.
We will now see a few instances when Mancini could exploit the high defensive line and got the goal Italy required to open the scoring.
As you can see here, the Oranje are playing with a high defensive line. Bonucci plays a long diagonal ball over the top of the opposition defensive line into the path of Pellegrini, who sneaks from behind of De Vrij. Pellegrini got there a split second late as Cillessen came out and had already cleared the danger.
The above picture is of the instance when Italy scored their goal. Barella sends a pinpoint pass through to Pellegrini, who takes a neat first touch before burying the ball from close range with his left foot.
The architect of this goal, Barella, cuts open the opposition defence with a precise through ball from close range for Pellegrini.
As you can see here, Moise Kean is chasing a ball sent to him over the top from D’Ambrosio. Once again, Cillessen senses the danger and races off his line to clear ahead of Kean. Cillessen saved the day for the Oranje by making a crucial intervention in the dying seconds of the match to keep them in the game.
Daley Blind’s technical prowess
De Boer deployed Blind as a left wing-back with Ake behind him to offer defensive protection. In this way, De Boer gave Blind the license to go forward. In the first half, he got a lot of space on the left flank to exploit and he made good use of it. He was quieter in the second half before being substituted in the 77th minute.
Overall, Blind was brilliant as he made four key passes and completed four crosses into the opposition box. We’ll now have a look at how influential he was and how De Boer used his excellent technical ability to great effect.
As you can see here, Frenkie de Jong plays the ball to Blind into the space down the left. Blind puts in a low cross towards the centre of the opposition box and Depay finds it. Depay turns with the ball and shoots on goal.
The shot on the turn gets blocked and rebounds into the path of Van de Beek, who puts the ball into the top right corner on a half-volley.
After a series of some amazing passes and positional play, Depay plays the ball into the path of Blind who is in acres of space on the left. Blind crosses the ball into the middle for Luuk de Jong to attack. He should have had another assist as Luuk de Jong fails to put an easy header into the back of the net. It was a free header which went wide of the target.
In the above picture, you can see Blind crossing the ball from deep this time. He loops the ball into the opposition box for Luuk de Jong to attack it. Luuk de Jong connects his head to the ball, but because of pressure from Chiellini and Spinazzola, he heads it wide once again.
The match could have gone either way in the second half. It was an end-to-end battle but neither of them could break the deadlock. Luckily, the 5-3-2 system deployed by De Boer suited them and made sure they were not overrun in midfield. We saw a much-improved performance from the Netherlands as compared to their previous fixture against Italy in September.
The Oranje had 11 attempts on goal, which was four more than Italy, thus they could have got a better result. Clearly, Mancini was caught out by De Boer’s tactical shift. Poland took full advantage of this draw as they moved to the top of the group by beating Bosnia 3-0. Now, Poland sits in pole position to advance to the next round, piling the pressure on Italy and the Netherlands.