Updated: Jan 1, 2020
On paper, Sweden and the Netherlands is a less enticing matchup than the showdown between the US and England that we saw last night. There certainly isn’t as much pedigree. This is only the second appearance for the Dutch, and while Sweden do have some strong showings in their history (including a finals appearance in 2003), they were knocked out in the Round of 16 or earlier in two of the last three competitions.
At the same time, the Dutch are the reigning European champions after cruising to victory in 2017. And Sweden were finalists at the Olympics, the last major global tournament. So it isn’t that surprising to see them both come this far.
They have taken slightly different paths over the intervening years since their recent success. For Sweden, it’s been a period of transition. For the Dutch, it’s been an almost aggressive commitment to staying the course.
Sweden: No longer Pia’s team
The 2016 version of the team were defensively solid—boring if you want to put it nicely, or ‘cowards’ if you’re Hope Solo. This certainly reflected the style of their coach Pia Sundhage, who prioritized efficiency and execution, and got a lot of results in the process.
But after her departure following the 2017 Euros, they brought in a new coach, Peter Gerhardsson, who has tried to instill a more attack-minded and expansive style. The spine of the team remains the same, with veterans like Caroline Seger in midfield, Nilla Fischer in defense, and Hedvig Lindahl in goal combining for over 500 caps. But there have also been some infusions of new blood, and some re-applications of old talent.
With Kosovare Asllani now installed as the number 10, Sweden have a more flamboyant style—one that sacrifices some solidity but creates more exciting chances as a consequence. They’re still not a team that will possess the ball a huge amount against top competition, but their three-player midfield gives them a little bit more control over the center of the pitch. And with wide attackers like Sofia Jakobsson, with the pace to drop back or push forward, they aren’t reduced to merely playing a counter-attacking game.
They certainly will still look to beat their opponents by executing simple tactics well—witness their extremely old fashioned ‘hit balls over the center backs and then run past them and score’ approach against Germany. But this is a team with options, who will be able to adapt their plan for the opposition. Especially if that opponent is extremely predictable. Which, fortunately for the Swedes, describes the Dutch very well.
Netherlands: A free-flowing attack that’s virtually unstoppable…when it’s working
Unlike Sweden, the Dutch squad has worked very hard to undertake as few changes as possible over the past two years. They found a formula that worked in the Euros and are sticking to it like a kid following a paint-by-numbers set. At the tip of the attack is Vivianne Miedema—one of the world’s best strikers, and as capable as anyone of burying chances when they come her way. Out wide, their two creative forwards: Lieke Martens and Shanice van de Sanden. Their job is to spread the defense and then play the ball into space for Miedema to convert. And occasionally to cut in themselves and have a shot.
Behind them: Daniëlle van de Donk, a tireless box-to-box midfielder who deputizes a bit as a ‘#10’ but is really there to bring endless movement to the midfield. She shares the forward midfield role with Jackie Groenen, who provides stability and vision. Groenen is an excellent passer, and one of those players who seems to play three or four moves ahead of everyone else. The final piece of the midfield puzzle is Sherida Spitse—not a true holding midfielder, but someone capable of filling the job in a Dutch side that otherwise lacks a bit for options. Spitse is probably less famous than the other five names in the Dutch front lines, but is potentially their most important player. If she plays well, she’s the gyroscope that keeps everything in balance. If she struggles, it all begins to wobble. Overall, the Netherlands haven’t necessarily looked great through their first five games. But they also haven’t fallen apart. A lot of the credit there probably should go to Spitse.
Those front six are about as locked into place as anything in this tournament. Despite significant struggles (and/or health concerns) for their wide forwards, there have been no changes yet. That stability has its advantages, but might also read as stubbornness. And in such a short and intense tournament, the lack of rotation could be a significant problem.
So rotation (or lack thereof) is one clear danger zone for the Dutch. The other is the backline, which has looked porous and ill-fitting all tournament. They’ve gotten away with it, but their match against Japan to advance from the Round of 16 showed just how fragile this defensive unit really is, especially when faced with teams that can move the ball quickly and generate new angles for attack. They’ve also struggled in possession, withering in the face of an aggressive press.
What to watch for
These strengths and weaknesses suggest the potential for a tactically intriguing match. The Dutch are susceptible to being picked apart. And Sweden has the potential to build that sort of attack. But they’re not Japan, so if they really try to play that way, the Swedes could find themselves a bit more open than they’re comfortable with. That’s particularly dangerous when facing a Dutch attack that loves to see space in wide areas for them to run into.
Conversely, the Dutch have had a lot of trouble creating chances on the ground. Their wide forwards have rained in a million crosses, but generally not very good ones. A solid backline could potentially afford to pack it in and simply knock all those crosses out of the way. Miedema is always a danger, but if she only really has one vector for attack, she’s probably more manageable.
So how will Sweden try to play? Will they push forward in possession and try to break the game open? Or will they simply drop back and defend? If the latter, will Netherlands’ head coach Sarina Wiegman have come up with a plan for her team that helps them pick that lock? So far, they’ve done precious little through the middle. But players like Martens, Groenen, and van de Donk (not to mention some options that have mostly been sitting on the bench) have the skill to take on that challenge.
It’s all delicately poised. You probably wouldn’t go wrong to bet on this to look somewhat similar to the famous USA v. Sweden game from the Olympics in 2016, with the Netherlands generally controlling the game but not finding much luck actually getting the ball to Miedema in a position to score. It’s an obvious approach for Sweden, and one with much to recommend it. But they have more tricks up their sleeves than a simple bunker.
The Dutch are pretty heavily favored to win by the bookmakers. That is probably right. They are the stronger team on paper, and even without firing on all cylinders yet, they’ve probably performed better in this tournament. But Sweden are no pushovers. If I were betting, I’d probably put money on Sweden. They’re underdogs, but maybe not quite as heavy underdogs as the odds makers think.