Summarising Holland in the Group Stage: Part 1 – Holland vs. Spain

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Part 1: Holland vs Spain: The importance of Holland’s zonal man marking scheme

Holland’s 5-3-2/3-5-2 system against Spain worked a treat and to everyone’s surprise, was so devastating it resulted in a 5-1 scoreline! The Dutch could have scored more as they continued to slice through the Spanish defence. But what were some key aspects in Holland’s victory over Spain? I’m going to look at one which, in my opinion, was the bedrock of where the game was won and lost for Spain: Holland’s zonal man marking.

For clarification, when I say “zonal man marking”, I mean the defenders initiate man marking on an attacker once they enter that defender’s defined zone/space. The tricky part is figuring out when to stop following your marker and/or pass him on to another teammate so you can retreat back into your default defensive position. If done well, your opponent is suffocated in attack and experiences much difficulty in building up a good passing rhythm/tempo which is crucial to develop against teams with stubborn defenses. If done poorly, you leave gaps for your opponent to exploit and can find your defensive structure to be comprised relatively quickly.

Hence, it sums up why LVG’s defensive tactics against Spain were risky but also quite calculated. As he noted in one of his press conferences, it was about waiting for the right opportunities to strike since Spain would continue to attack which is exactly what they did. And I believe what van Gaal meant by “attack” is that Spain would continue to attack his team in the same fashion no matter the scoreline or personnel on the pitch. So let’s look at van Gaal’s zonal man marking scheme.

Zonal man marking strengths:

In the first few minutes, it was clear Holland were implementing some type of man marking on Costa, Iniesta, Silva and sometimes Xavi. Del Bosque likes to have his attackers float into spaces (with Xavi anchoring the attack)) behind the opposition’s midfield and then check back into space to provide passing options to the backline or deeper-lying midfielder(s) to maintain the passing triangles in midfield and contribute to the build-up phase into the final third.

As a counteraction to these movements, if any Spanish attacker entered into either of the 3 CBs’ (De Vrij, Vlaar, Martins Indi) zones and then subsequently checked back towards midfield, that particular CB would continue to track whichever Spanish attacker moved into his zone. Sometimes this led to cases where the CBs would follow their markers all the way up to the halfway line or wide areas. Seems unbalanced right?

It’s important the CMs in van Gaal’s system can work tirelessly. So with De Vrij, Martins Indi, and Vlaar occasionally getting dragged out of position due to man marking, de Guzman and de Jong work with Janmaat and Blind to ensure any gaps vacated by the other 3 CBs are filled quickly. When Spain’s build up got closer to the final third, then if any of the 3 CBs were man marking, they would retreat back to more defensive positions to reduce possibility of being overloaded in the middle.

This meant that if Spain wanted to, they could use wide outlets in Azpilicueta and Alba to create 1 v 1 situations with Blind or Janmaat respectively. However, for whatever reason, the Spaniards didnt really seem to favor this option as they preferred to work the ball through the middle. By doing so, it made it easier for Holland to pick up and stay tight to markers so whenever the likes of Silva, Costa or Iniesta checked back to receive the ball from a teammate, they most likely had a Dutch defender nipping at their heels trying to make it uncomfortable for them and disrupt their passing rhythm.

For 20 minutes, Holland were able to keep Spain at bay but the cracks within the man marking scheme were beginning to show some cracks and Spain’s attackers were finally becoming privy to them. There is one instance where Vlaar is tightly marking Costa, Martins Indi on Silva (shown here). Then Silva decides to make a run across the Dutch backline and Martins Indi makes a hand gesture towards Vlaar to pick up on Silva’s run so that he (Martins Indi) doesn’t have to continue tracking Silva’s run. Whether or not Vlaar heard him, we don’t know, but the important part is Vlaar continued to stay tight to Costa, Martins Indi remained static in his position which allowed Silva to find an opening in Holland’s backline as De Vrij was also busy man marking Iniesta higher up the pitch.

Xavi, who in this play is positioned in front of De Guzman and De Jong, (as Del Bosque likes it) receives a pass from Alonso, spots Silva’s run and plays a nice lobbed, through pass for Silva to latch onto. Thankfully for Holland, Vlaar recovers in time to cut out the threat. The significance of this play is that this is the first time Spain significantly broke down Holland’s resistance and it began the beginning of Spain’s period of increased pressure.

Pitfalls of zonal man marking:

The issue with using the zonal man marking scheme is deciding when to disengage from your marker and retreat back into a more defensive position. The other complication, as I highlighted above, is correctly switching between man markers when they decide to move into spaces which are less comfortable for the Dutch CBs to move into. It was the type of confusion which led to Costa finding space in between Holland’s backline, eventually leading to the penalty (which was controversial itself). Here’s how it happened!

Silva checks back into midfield, receiving the ball with space to turn. Martins Indi who is usually tracking Silva in these situations is late in closing him down which gives Silva time to spot Xavi who is positioned behind de Guzman and the oncoming Martins Indi. Costa is positioned between Janmaat and De Vrij where De Vrij is caught ball watching and Janmaat’s position is a bit high relative to the rest of the defensive line. So if a ball is played over the top to Costa, since De Vrij is ball watching and Janmaat is not goalside of Costa, the defensive line is compromised and Costa will have an easier chance of fashioning a shot on goal.

The other issue is when Xavi receives the ball. Vlaar has to make a decision of whether to remain with the defensive line, initiate a defensive action on Xavi or cover for the space Martins Indi vacated by engaging Silva. By choosing to cover for the space, Vlaar allows Xavi to find a pocket of space to play a through ball to Costa who then uses De Vrij’s outstretched leg to initiate the contact in the penalty box, gifting Spain a penalty which Alonso slots home to give Spain the lead.

For the Silva chance, which so many thought was a pivotal turning point in the game, similar type of errors occurred. However, this time Martins Indi retreats back to the defensive line after following Silva into midfield. After he disengages, no one picks up Silva’s run from deep looking to exploit the gap opened up by De Vrij stepping up to impede Iniesta’s progress. De Guzman also plays a factor in this breakdown as he only followed Silva’s run partially, thinking Janmaat would pick him up. With one swift movement, Iniesta dribbles inside opening up a passing lane to slot Silva through (shown here). As we all know, Silva couldn’t finish off the 1 v 1 with Cillessen and Holland scored shortly after.

van Gaal’s tactical adjustments:

The tweaks LVG made after halftime in this match showed LVG’s tactical prowess and an adherence to the original game plan with just a few tweaks. The main adjustments were instructing De Vrij and Martins Indi to front Spain’s attackers, force them to make a decision due to their defensive positioning rather than getting too tight, leaving too much space in behind. In this way, they wouldn’t be deviating too far from the defensive line and it would be easier to use the wide defensive overload facet of what van Gaal calls “Provocative Pressing” to recover possession in wide areas by pressing the ball carrier when he’s in an uncomfortable position on the flank with little support to bail him out.

These type of defensive movements led to Holland’s goals in the second half. More specifically, if you watch the goal highlights for Holland’s second and fifth goal, you will see exactly that. The ball is won in a wide area through a defensive overload on the flank. The ball is quickly played to the link player in midfield (in both cases Sneijder), where for the second goal, Sneijder plays the ball to Blind who executes a sublime first-time pass for Robben and for the fifth, Sneijder plays an excellent through ball for Robben to latch onto, beating Ramos with pace and pouring further humiliation on Spain.

With each goal, the Dutch grew with confidence and were more tenacious in cutting out passes in Spain’s attacks which opened up more scoring opportunities on the counter. It’s really amazing how those slight adjustments in the man marking scheme affected the rest of the team shape and allowed Holland to play more on the front foot and hurt Spain’s lax defending.


Manchester United fans can take heart in knowing van Gaal’s preparations are well-thought out, adaptable and tailored towards getting the best out of his players. He’s a man who’s hell-bent on winning. To have such an attitude, you need to be willing to adapt and learn from your mistakes. He’s showing with this Dutch squad he can do exactly that. We at TrulyReds are excited for what van Gaal has in store for Manchester United. We hope you are too!

Thanks for reading and look out for the upcoming pieces in this summary of Holland’s performances in the group stage!

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  • […] the central areas and pressed aggressively in midfield. A key feature in Van Gaal’s Zonal pressing was the movement of the centerbacks when Spain’s interiors drifting into the midfield […]

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