The battle of No.10’s: Maher and Holtby lighten up Day 2 at the Euros


Oliver Sorg (L) of Germany U21 and Adam Maher of Holland U21 during the UEFA EURO U21 match between Holland U21 and Germany U21

If the opening day of the U-21 Euros was disappointing to say the least after yet another generation of English football failed to impress, all the excitement and faith in youth was restored on the second day. Winners of the senior version of the tournament, Spain displayed how deep the art of passing has crept through in Espana. Though they needed a 81st minute strike by substitute Morata to get all the points, the performance by youngsters from all over Spain, rather than just 2 teams, was indeed refreshing.

We shall place more emphasis on the 2nd game here, the one that ended 3-2 between Netherlands and Germany; a matchup that has never failed to entertain. One look at the senior setup in both these countries would paint a contrasting image. Netherlands have just witnessed their golden generation bow out, and their last appearance in an international tournament was an embarrassment. The likes of Sneijder, van Bommel and Robben are past their peak, though somehow Robben manages to appear on the Player of the Year nominations. The sole torch bearer on paper is Van Persie, who too has not been among goals in every game. This has led Van Gaal to experiment with the youthfulness of the nation, and the ex-Bayern coach has received encouraging results. So unsurprisingly enough, 10 out of the 11 players to start this U-21 encounter were already capped for the senior squad.

Germany on the other hand is surely going through its purple patch. The youth project that was started by the Die Mannschaft a decade ago has now reaped its fruits and the senior squad is full of youthful talents. This, though, has led to the U-21 German squad receiving a generation even newer than that of Goetze, Reus and Kroos. This resulted in only 1 player out of the 11 to have received a senior cap, the inspirational captain Lewis Holtby.

The experience and chemistry in the Dutch setup and the lack of it in the German was visible right from the start. The exiting senior squad of Netherlands relied on the solidity of van Bommel and de Jong and the technical qualities of RVP, Sneijder and van der Vaart. But this Dutch U-21 team was a totally different picture. With pacy and quick footed wingers like Ola John on the left and Wijnaldum on the right, the ‘Oranje’ had their most potent weapon at No.10 in the form of Adam Maher. The PSV attacker has been in terrific form in the qualifiers, and this tournament is surely the stage for the skillful youngster to market his talents. So skillful were the Dutch that there was no place in the XI even for Leroy Fer.

The Dutch were spearheaded by Borussia Monchengladbach striker Luke de Jong, and the talented striker was a perfect target man for Maher to prosper with. De Jong was the recipient of most of the long balls from the defence. And he received most of them near the half way line. This allowed Maher to make a run from his left into the channel between the CB and RB.

Maher was playing as the most advanced midfielder of the 4-3-3, and mostly shifted into the No.10 role. The others in midfield for Netherlands were van Ginkel and Kevin Strootman. Van Ginkel had scored 3 crucial goals for the Dutch in the playoffs and was here played as the runner in midfield. His operating area was in between the defence and Maher, and this turned out to be quite a large area due to Maher’s advanced play and Strootman’s deeper role.

Kevin Strootman has been really unlucky to remain in the shadows of van Bommel until now, and his performance in this tourney is surely not to go unnoticed. Against the Germans, Strootman started in an extremely deep role and was often found in the gap between the 2 wide centre backs. The pass played from the CBs to Strootman was the most counted one, and it was Strootman’s job to then distribute to the forwards. In a role somewhat similar to what Verrati played against England on Day 1, Strootman’s most played pass was the one to de Jong, which the striker latched on to near the half way line.

True to his pre-match words, Cor Pot stuck to a 4-3-3, but the shape turned out to be mightily different due to the midfield trio’s positioning. The game eventually saw Strootman, van Winkel and Maher almost play in a single vertical line when on the ball, and this led to much lesser lateral play with the pass where the midfielders pick out the fullback rarely played.

Germany, on the other hand, attempted to play a style which turned out to be one of the reasons why Pep Guardiola chose Bayern Munich. Before the game, Adrion said that his starting XI was fixed and he would decide the shape based on Netherland’s attacking intent. The Germans eventually also set out as a 3 man midfield, the only difference being that Rode and Rudy formed a double pivot in the centre with Holtby playing in the No.10. With Rode and Rudy playing in a deep flat zone, the 3 forwards – Herrmann, Lasogga and Mlapa – along with captain Holtby were given all the freedom to press forward.

Lewis Holtby (L) and Kevin Strootman

By the end of the first half, the only intent that the German forwards showed was via their pressing upfront. All 3 German strikers kept exchanging positions and the central one was most of the time busy, tracking the deep lying Strootman. But it is the duo of Rode and Rudy who were touted as the sparks in this team , as Rode especially is expected to move to Bayern in the summer.

Rode and Rudy operated as any central pivot would and attacked and defended alternately. Rode remained in a deeper role mostly and allowed Rudy to press ahead. While Rode was the distributer from deep, Rudy was much more talented on the feet and wriggled through tough spots on all his ventures ahead. Here again, Strootman’s deep positioning helped the Dutch to keep the runs of Rudy and Holtby in check.

While Rudy might have turned a few heads and Rode might have shown a calm presence, the real game changer for the Germans was Holtby. The ex-Schalke man played perfectly as the No.10 man and was always present to latch onto the second ball from the main striker. On receiving the ball, he then ran directly at the CBs of Netherland. Holtby, while playing at Spurs, was initially asked to shift out to wider roles to adjust Bale, but the German’s touches and confidence on the ball, which are quite reminiscent of Rafa van der Vaart, could not keep him away from the centre.

It was Holtby’s runs that Strootman had to track here, and fortunately for the Dutch, Strootman is no Rafa when asked to defend. The Dutchman’s presence rarely allowed the German captain to get away when the ball was played to his feet. As usual, the Germans tried to build up from the back and did not utilize the height that was provided in the centre. So most of the balls falling to Holtby were cut out by Strootman before the German captain could dribble forward.

The game turned out to be a fascinating one after the one-sided first half. Both of Germany’s goals came as a result of Holtby pushing further up the pitch. In fact, this position of his turned out to be very similar to the one that Adam Maher was occupying at the other end.

On the whole, Netherland’s experience in the ranks is what that won them the game, as the Dutch again seemed to falter at the wrong time. This group indeed promises to be a battle of No.10’s , as Spain’s Sergio Canales offers a similar quality of football.

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