The Dutch suffered an unexpected defeat in the hand of Denmark in their Group B Euro 2012 opener at the Metalist stadium in Kharkiv.
A combination of ill-luck and lack of precision in the final third, coupled with the Danes' fortuitous goal, means the Netherlands have an uphill task ahead of them, with Germany and Portugal still big obstacles ahead.
The Dutch lined up according to the Bert van Marwijk preferred 4-2-3-1 formation; Morten Olsen, Denmark's manager, chose the same formation.
The lineup of the two teams
Jetro Willems was the surprised starter at left back for the Dutch, and in the absence of Joris Mathijsen in central defense, Ron Vlaar was preferred alongside John Heitinga.
Nigel de Jong started alongside Mark van Bommel at the base of the midfield, with Wesley Sneider spearheading it.
Arjen Robben started at his favorite position on the right flank, while Ibrahim Afellay was preferred to Dirk Kuyt on the left flank.
Robin van Persie got the green light as the central striker ahead of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who couldn't come on until the 71st minute.
For the Danes, the only significant change in their formation was Stephan Andersen in goal, selected as replacement for the injured Thomas Sørensen.
To say that the Dutch didn't play well isn't true. To say they were disjointed as some commentator resorted to saying after the Danes' surprised goal is also not true.
The Dutch created enough chances to have won the match: Van Persie's shot in the sixth minute, the Van Persie-Sneijder combination in the 10th minute, Van Persie's effort in the 22nd minute, Robben's shot in the 35th minute, Van Persie's chance in the 49th minute, Huntelaar's chance in the 73rd minute etc.
Michael Krohn-Dehli scores the Dane's decisive goal to cause the first major upset of Euro 2012. Julian Finney/Getty Images
There was though a major problem here with the Dutch formation on the pitch. I have identified the problem previously as follows:
A big problem the Dutch squad faces is its current inability to translate possession into goals.
The major weakness is with the attacking midfield position, currently manned by Wesley Sneijder. This position is responsible for quick transition between defense and attack. This isn't happening quickly enough. The problem, though, isn't with Sneijder alone.
In this match, Sneijder had an excellent game. The problem mentioned here manifested differently as I explain below.
Possession football works through incessant pressure on the opponent. If a team can maintain pressure in the opponent's half and especially in the final third, it's bound to cause major problems for the opponent.
Possession football is harmless when the area of major possession is in the team's own half and off the back four of the opponent.
What I've observed from the Dutch in their friendly matches and in this match is the presence of a huge transitional space.
Transitional space is the space between the area of player concentration. The Dutch concentrate their players at the back and at the front, leaving a big transitional space in the middle. See the diagram below. The box represents transitional space.
The arrows represent positional movement of Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie, with the former tracking back from time-to-time to receive possession in the deep areas, but by and large, he tended to press forward, becoming the fourth man in the Dutch attack.
This meant that Mark van Bommel remained the only viable body in the center during transitional moments, with De Jong constantly falling back to become the fifth man in defense.
Put differently, the lack of a true box-to-box type in the Dutch formation hampered their transition of possession between defense and attack. It also meant they ceded control of the vital area of the field.
The lack of quick transition between defense and attack due to the transition space—which the Danes took advantage of by concentrating their own three midfield men there—meant that when the ball eventually got switched, the Danes were properly positioned to stifled the Dutch's attacking move.
A lot of times, possession remained at the area of concentration identified above and in the diagram. This rarely rattled the Danes.
It's a problem the Dutch must eliminate in the next two games if they are to turn around the big problem of losing their first match.
They must change the area of concentration. The first step is to push the full-back high up on the pitch to force the opposition's flank players back. Next, the centre-backs and the anchor midfielder press higher up the pitch.
What this yields is a compressed area of skirmish.
It allows quick formation of intricate triangles, which the Dutch favor; it also allows the concentration of pressure in the opponent's danger area. Furthermore, transition between defense and attack is instant and keeps the opponent under constant pressure.
As to the disadvantage of playing high concentration as outlined in the above, it's mitigated by the compressed plain of skirmish, yielding a positional pyramid for the attacking team. As any one who reads the game knows, this positional pyramid is strangely difficult to breach.
Robin van Persie takes an air shot, an example of the Dutch's lack of precision in front of goal. Lars Baron/Getty Images
Why the Dutch Lost
The three reasons, then, that hampered the Dutch are:
1. Tactical: the said transitional space above, which they must eliminate.
2. Lack of precision in front of goal, which prevented them from converting their host of chances.
3. Ill-luck on the day. This last is ephemeral, but perhaps, true.