The world, it has been discovered, is round and revolves around a ball. Some are skeptical, but scientists are working out the details.
Spain are World Cup champions now, and rightly so. They played a more positive, attacking form of soccer throughout the month-long tournament and proved they are the most talented and deepest team in the world.
As for the World Cup final, much like Sigourney Weaver, it wasn’t pretty as much as it was compelling. Long gone are the days of unlimited dribbling and step-overs.
To compete at the highest level of international play in today’s game, teams must play defense like the Italians, work like the Germans and pass like the Dutch. This year’s Dutch team did everything reasonably well except play like the Dutch. Tactically, the strongest alternative is to play like Spain.
Spain dominated possession for the first 15 minutes or so, and played high up the field and deep in the Dutch half. The Dutch side kept up to nine players behind the ball in defense, inviting pressure and playing for the quick counter. Spain’s David Villa had three through balls that got behind the Dutch defense and looked threatening. Holland then moved higher up the pitch and worked to put pressure on Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso – the two who were distributing the ball to Villa and Spain’s front line.
This worked well, but Holland’s main striker – Arjen Robben – was running into traffic every time the left-footer tried to cut in. Spain’s Busquets, Alonso and Xavi worked well together to occupy the space Robben prefers to use.
It quickly became obvious that Holland was using muscle tactics and fouls to try and disrupt Spain’s game. In Spain’s La Liga, this strategy is occasionally employed by teams in the bottom of the league against Barcelona (who was represented by seven players on the Spanish national team in the final), the idea being to rotate fouls against opponents’ creative players in order to break up the rhythm of the game.
The Dutch went too far. Holland’s Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong could have been dismissed in the first half for reckless tackles.
It’s human nature to try to get an advantage without incurring punishment. This is where the referee comes in. In soccer, there’s the idea that a referee can ruin a game by sending a player off with a red card. And referee Howard Webb seemed to be thinking that during the game, as he tried to keep all of the players on the field for the entire game. The problem with that mindset is that it’s concerned with what the media will say and ignores the realities of human nature.
Instead of framing the sportsmanship of the game, Webb’s yellow card warnings set a lenient tone that the players then took as a sign to keep pushing the envelope. If Webb had given Nigel de Jong a straight red card for his cleats-first, flying karate kick into the sternum of Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso, the tone of the game might have changed.
In fact, that’s what usually happens in a soccer game: the team whose player has been shown a red usually adjusts. After all, the players do know what’s expected, as does the opposition who is concerned that they will be shown a red card to even out the game.
Spain reacted, and the result was a poor first half.
Both coaches made aggressive second half substitutions that changed the nature of the game. And as Holland wore down, especially after the substitution of Dirk Kuyt, the game became more open. The attack-minded Rafael van der Vaart came on for de Jong in a very positive move, but it was the substitution of Eljero Elia for Kuyt that opened things up for Holland.
In the first half, the winger Kuyt was pinned back by Spain’s attacking defenders. This left Holland playing its offense through the middle on Robben’s right wing. That made it easy for Spain to triple-team Robben and jam him up.
Elia is a more natural winger than Kuyt. He plays all the way out, close to the touchline and doesn’t mind his defensive duties as much as Kuyt. This gave Holland width on the field, which stretched out Spain’s defense and made space for Robben to turn into goal, which is why Holland looked to be the biggest goal threat in the second half.
On the other side, Spain brought on Cesc Fabregas for Alonso, which allowed Xavi to drop back into his preferred space, one that allows him to see the entire field and orchestrate the attacking area. Fabregas plays a more direct attacking style than Alonso and had a one-on-one early on.
Jesus Navas came on for Pedro Rodriguez, which gave Spain speed, and similar to Holland’s Elia sub, gave Spain width it needed, allowing more space for Andres Iniesta and Xavi to work. Deep into the second overtime half, Holland’s Heitinga was tracking Iniesta when he committed the foul that led to his second yellow card and dismissal from the game.
A short time later, Navas started off a long run and as Spain moved forward, Fabregas was in an advanced position to make an assist to Iniesta who found himself free to score the winning goal.
With this victory, Spain added another clean sheet to their world record for the most consecutive knockout games without conceding a single goal, a fact that shows the power of possession as a defensive strategy as much as an offensive one.
After Spain defeated Germany in the 2008 European Championship, the Spanish people wondered if it was a fluke. They now know it was not. Spain will go down as one of the greatest international teams in history. At times, they struggled to find the best balance in their system. But they remained committed to their positive, attacking style and defensive abilities, and were rewarded with a landmark win.