If we had been told before the tournament that Netherlands versus Sweden would be one of the semifinals at the Women’s World Cup, we might not have been too surprised. But if we were told that they would have knocked out Japan, Germany and Canada between them on the way to the semi-final, we might have started to wonder what had happened in the competition.
Of course, the Netherlands are current European Champions and Sweden did make it through to the final of the World Cup in 2003, so these two teams are not without their pedigree. But neither side was entirely impressive in the run-up to this year’s tournament.
The Netherlands relied on playoff games against Denmark and Switzerland to cement their place and, although they qualified comfortably, Sweden also slumped to disappointing defeats to both Italy and Portugal – both teams they should have beaten comfortably – within the last year.
The comparisons do not end here. Both Sweden and the Netherlands play similar iterations of a 4-3-3, which can sometimes looks much closer to a 4-2-3-1. This ambiguity is determined by the way the number 10 functions within the system.
In the case of the Netherlands, that number 10 is Daniëlle van de Donk, who sits in front of a double pivot of Sherida Spitse and Jackie Groenen and behind an impressive front three of Lieke Martens, Vivianne Miedema and Shanice van de Sanden.
With two of the most exciting wide players in the competition, it should come as no surprise that the Netherlands attack down the wings, working both Martens and van de Sanden into one-on-one scenarios against opposition defenders. They can then use their speed and chicanery to work the ball into the centre where Miedema is waiting.
As a result, van de Donk shows up as a far more defensive 10 than you might expect. Rarely making it into the box, she relies on the remarkable production of Miedema in front of goal to allow herself license to be more conservative, flattening the midfield three so the double pivot can split to cover the wider areas.Her opposite number today will be Kosovare Asllani who, despite also playing in front of a double pivot, is much more attack-minded.
As a result, the two wide players in front of her in the three – Fridolina Rolfö and Sofia Jakobsson – play deeper than the wide players in the Netherlands system. Where the Dutch look to attack down the wings, then, the Swedes will look to attack through the middle through Asllani.
If they do utilise the wide areas, Sweden will do it in a much narrower configuration with Asllani pushing into the box alongside Stina Blackstenius as almost a second striker, with the effect that Sweden are almost playing in a 4-4-2 in the attacking phase.
These dramatically different roles are reflected in their respective shooting records in the World Cup. For van de Donk, she has taken eight shots, three of which were outside the box and none of which were on target. Asllani, on the other hand, has taken eleven shots, 10 of which were inside the box, five of which were on target and two of which went in.
Today, the game will be won and lost by the team that deals best with the system dictated by the two 10s. If the Swedish full backs can keep Martens and van de Sanden at bay, cutting off a route to Miedema in the central areas, then Sweden will have a good chance of stymying their opponent’s attack. If Spitse and Groenen can suffocate Asllani in the middle, then the Netherlands will hope to gain the upper hand.Whatever happens, Netherlands versus Sweden will be an intriguing tactical battle between two teams using two different flavours of a 4-3-3, a formation, which allows both teams the possibility to emphasise their most creative elements.
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