Cristiano Ronaldo and Wesley Sneijder were given licence to attack for Portugal and Holland during Euro 2012 but this comes at a cost to the team's defensive strength
Sometimes a strength can become a weakness. Wesley Sneijder was probably Holland's most impressive attacking player at Euro 2012, but he may also be the reason for the tactical incoherence of Bert van Marwijk's side. Similarly Cristiano Ronaldo, for all his obvious ability and for all that he was devastatingly effective against the Dutch on Sunday, represents a flaw in Portugal's tactical make-up that can be exploited.
The two cases are different. With Ronaldo it's a matter of balance.
Chris Waddle suggested after England's draw against France that they had held their shape almost too well and that they'd been restricted from an attacking point of view as a result. It was an issue that frustrated both him and John Barnes in their days playing for England under Bobby Robson – there's a fascinating interview with Barnes in Pete Davies's All Played Out in which he explains how at Liverpool he was able to drift essentially where he pleased, whereas with England he was expected always to hold the shape, penning in the opposing full-back.
Ronaldo very rarely tracks his full-back and the benefits he brings from an attacking point of view probably make that justifiable. But it is notable that every goal Portugal have conceded in this tournament has come from his flank: the cross for Mario Gomez's goal for Germany, the crosses for both Nicklas Bendtner's goals for Denmark and Arjen Robben's dart that led to Rafael van der Vaart's goal for Holland.
He hasn't yet played against a particularly attacking full-back, which makes his meeting with Theodor Gebre Selassie in Thursday's quarter-final against the Czech Republic potentially the most significant battle on the pitch. Gebre Selassie has caught the eye from an attacking point of view, particularly in his link-up with Petr Jiracek and, while the Czech pair will certainly have to defend against the Fabio Coentrão-Ronaldo pairing, they must also know that they have the chance to isolate Coentrão – as Philipp Lahm and Robben did for Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League semi-final.
Ronaldo clearly prefers playing on the left but it's hard to avoid the thought that, given Portugal's continuing dearth in the area, he might be better employed as a centre-forward, with a more utilitarian player protecting Coentrão. He could still drop deep and drift – both his goals against Holland came after moving into central areas – but without destroying the structure of the side. But that's a theory; essentially playing Ronaldo as he plays is a matter of balance: does his attacking threat outweigh the problems he causes defensively? The answer, more often than not, is yes.
With Sneijder, though, the issue is rather more fundamental. It became apparent at Inter last season: in the modern game, his sort of playmaker can be accommodated only in a 4-2-3-1. The odd thing is that he used to be a slightly different midfielder. When he first came through at Ajax he was a classic attacking Dutch midfielder, schooled at playing in a 4-3-3 but it's almost as though his World Cup, when he scored five times from a position just behind Robin van Persie, convinced him he was an old-school No10. He barely tracks any more, he made clear at Inter that he hates playing wide and the result is that he has become a luxury who can only operate with two holding players behind him. Add in the dilettantish nature of Robben and, to an extent, Ibrahim Afellay and the result, particularly when the two holders are such technically undistinguished players as Nigel De Jong and Mark van Bommel, is not merely a broken team but a dysfunctional one.
The 18-year-old left-back Jetro Willems perhaps excepted – and that is being harsh on a player of exceptional promise – it's not that any one Dutch player has been a weak link; it's just that this team does not fit together. The role Dirk Kuyt performed, shuttling back and forth to link midfield and attack, was perhaps overlooked at the World Cup, while Giovanni van Bronckhorst, even at 35, gave a level of attack thrust from full-back on the left. It's easy to blame Van Bommel and De Jong but had the creative trident dropped back to make the shape more compact, had the full-backs been more aggressive, there would have been far more fluency.
The problem for Van Marwijk, or whoever replaces him as Dutch coach, is how to fit Sneijder in. Van Bommel, presumably, will fade from the picture, but playing Van der Vaart at the back of the midfield against Portugal, while it enhanced the creative capacity of the midfield, left it horribly open defensively. Kevin Strootman perhaps offers more balance, a player with a range of passing and a willingness to work, but even then there is the issue of a front four reluctant to drop back. Really, if Robben is going to play it needs to be in a 4-3-3 – which, of course, is what Johan Cruyff and the canal-belt traditionalists have been demanding since Marco van Basten changed the system before Euro 2008, and it's hard to see how the modern incarnation of Sneijder fits into that system.
Sneijder has been the Holland's best creative player, but he may also be the player they need to sacrifice to move forward.