The final game of 2015 for the Dutch national team started as follows: Arjen Robben kicks off as he rolls the ball to Bas Dost. Dost passes back to Wesley Sneijder. Sneijder passes to Jeffrey Bruma who passes to Daley Blind. Blind plays it back to Bruma who passes to Daryl Janmaat, who then passes back to Bruma. Bruma then plays a one-two with Blind. A quick pass to Terence Kongolo follows before the ball is returned back to Blind, who then passes to Sneijder who passes back to Blind. Virgil van Dijk receives the ball. He passes it to Blind. The ball then travels back to Van Dijk. He passes wide to Bruma. Back to Blind. Blind plays it wide to Kongolo, who passes back to Van Dijk. After one minute and three seconds Virgil van Dijk is the first player to pass it over the halfway line as he finds Arjen Robben with a deep cross.
The first 63 seconds of the Dutch versus Wales is symptomatic of the state of the Dutch national team and subsequently a reflection of its breeding ground, the Eredivisie - risk-averse passing, retaining possession so to starve the opponent of the ball.
Touches per 90
In the Euro 2016 qualifiers, only Germany and Spain had higher possession rates than the Netherlands. However, the three players with the most touches for these teams each tell a completely different story.
Central defenders being on the ball more than any other players in more advanced positions is not necessarily an isolated story in Dutch football at the moment. Vitesse centre back Guram Kashia records the most touches per 90 minutes this Eredivisie season, while the only non-central defender in the top five of this category is PSV midfielder Andrés Guardado. Looking at the equivalent data in the Barclays Premier League, the eight players with the most touches include Cesc Fàbregas, Santi Cazorla, Mesut Özil, Yaya Touré and Bastian Schweinsteiger. There is only one centre back in the top 20 (Daley Blind) and the next one on the list is Mamadou Sakho in 33rd.
In other top European leagues similar patterns occur. Ligue 1 is the only other competition with a central defender (Thiago Silva) in its top five of players with the most touches. For good measure, we can also include the top five of the Belgian Jupiler Pro League to see if ‘weaker’ leagues maybe show a different type of player but in Belgium, it is also central midfielders dominating the touch charts.
While top five lists of players might only show outliers, a pattern could become clearer when analysing teams and the way their touches are divided per line in formation. Due to grey areas between what consists of a wing forward or a wing midfielder (mainly caused by the Dutch insisting on playing 4-3-3 rather than 4-2-3-1), it is difficult to measure the differences in midfielders or attackers. However, with all competitions mentioned dominated by playing four defenders (only Serie A sees its teams play with three or five defenders more than 15% of the time), the percentage of time a team uses its defenders could well be a good measure to see where possession spreads out most.
Starting defensive formation
Data correct 7 January 2016
Defenders in possession
There are a total of 132 teams in these seven competitions. 17 of the 18 Eredivisie teams feature in the top quarter of teams with the highest proportion of possession for defenders, ranging from 43.9% of all possession (Roda JC) to FC Utrecht (49.7%), who have played a few games with five defenders. The only Eredivisie team to escape from this top 25% is FC Twente, who are 17th in the league at the time of writing*.
With Dutch teams so heavily represented, it is no surprise to see the Eredivisie being the league with the defence most involved in play.
Spread of touches
Looking at the table above, the odd one out in terms of having an above average number of touches for defenders is the Bundesliga. Eredivisie and Jupiler Pro League are widely accepted as leagues of lesser quality than the others with players perhaps needing more touches in a slower build-up, however that seems more unlikely with the Bundesliga. Is the high proportion of touches down to the football in the Eredivisie actually being more intense than thought and are the defenders actually doing a lot of defending too? Does it share some of the pressing elements that one expects a map of the Bundesliga to display?
Yes and no. The defensive actions mapped by OptaPro analyst Johannes Harkins show that defensive patterns of the Eredivisie and the Jupiler Pro League are completely different to the Bundesliga, or any other league in this graphic. Bundesliga teams appear to defend in a high line and in quite compact fashion, something that seems to be the case, albeit to a lesser degree, in Serie A. Ligue 1 and La Liga show heavy action on the wings, the Premier League shows intense defending centrally, especially surrounding and in the box.
How does all this translate going forward then? With the ‘battlefronts’ established, there is the expectation that a map based on non-defensive actions would to an extent mirror the defensive actions map. Apart from that, attacking touches could also show a riskier type of play from the defenders than expected.
Even though a primary objective of defenders is ‘limiting the opponent’s scoring opportunities’, there are examples of teams in Europe who use their defenders as attacking outlet. The prime example is Barcelona, whose full-backs Jordi Alba and Daniel Alves are the two players with the most touches per 90 minutes this league season.
The top 5 leagues meet expectations. Premier League teams are seemingly not interested in touches on their own half, Serie A teams build up through the middle, Ligue 1 & La Liga focuses on the flanks and the Bundesliga engaging in a grand midfield battle. The Eredivisie (and the Jupiler Pro League) see the midfield turn into one big, dark blue pool, highlighting the complete lack of touches in these areas compared to the other competitions. There is the comfort of having the ball in defence, the same lack of risk displayed in the example at the top of the article. The same is suggested by the lack of performing defensive actions high up the pitch, or better said, going forward without possession.
So how does this boil down as a profile of play for the Eredivisie? When combining the two maps, the sea of unused space continues to exist.
League defensive and non-defensive actions by area compared with European average
These maps may expose strengths and weaknesses on league and subsequently team level. In the Eredivisie, teams seem to be happy to cede possession centrally, without being particularly keen on using the midfield area in build-up play.
The lack of defensive actions in the opposition half compared to other leagues - the Eredivisie has at least 10% fewer defensive actions in the opposition half than the Bundesliga, La Liga, Ligue 1 and Serie A, only the high-paced Premier League comes close to Eredivisie – as well as defenders taking up most of the touches on the ball demonstrates that midfielders and attackers are simply less involved in play and goes further to showcases the varied playing styles within these leagues across Europe.
* The main reason for this is the ‘Ziyechdependencia’ the club is suffering from. The playmaker has contributed to almost 59% of all attempts this season and is the FC Twente player with the most touches (1246). No player has been involved in more goals (15 of Twente’s 17) than the Moroccan, while no other Twente-player scored or assisted more than three. With Ziyech expected to leave this transfer window, it will be interesting to see if the possession per position line changes in the second half of the season.