The Netherlands meet Spain today in the championship game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup tournament. It will be the seventh time the big football game features an all-European match-up.
This is Spain's first crack at the World Cup title and the third for Holland, having made it previously in 1974 and 1978 and losing the title game both times. Thus, with the likes of Brazil, England and Italy eliminated, the winner of the ultimate football prize this afternoon will be the first new champion since France won it on home soil in 1998.
Lack of World Cup titles isn't the only thing these two teams have in common, as they are also connected philosophically. "Total Football" is a system of fluid, attacking football where players change positions and by doing so change the formation of the team. The system has evolved over the years as opponents developed strategies to counter its strengths and exploit its weaknesses, such as the Italian Catenaccio (“the chain”), with its emphasis on defense.
No player is more associated with the term Total Football than Johan Cruyff, the Dutchman who played for the Dutch team Ajax and Spanish squad Barcelona in the '60s and '70s, then coached both during the '80s. Cruyff is the current manager of the national team belonging to the autonomous Spanish territory known as Catalonia.
Against Germany in the World Cup semifinals, Spain used a 4-2-3-1 system (goalie, 4 defenders, 2 defensive midfielders, 3 midfielders, 1 striker), which played out more closely to a 4-3-3. Given that seven of Spain’s starters play for Barcelona and 4-3-3 is what the latter most often uses, this makes sense. And as with Barcelona’s style, the Spanish national team's fullbacks attacked and pressed high up the field.
If you had asked TF-loving football “purists” – as opposed to “impurists” – who they would most like to see in the final, they would’vs said the Netherlands and Spain. Funny enough, the Dutch faithful have been very critical of their current team, protesting that the team has betrayed their Total Football heritage.
The Netherlands have been playing a 4-2-3-1 system as well lately, but it’s lacked the fluidity of the Dutch of old. There are those who attack (Robben and Van Persie, neither of whom have defensive duties), and there are those who defend. But the link to the forwards is missing (the two in front of the defenders, de Jong and van Bommel). They are play disrupters and will be deployed to snap at the heels of Iniesta and Xavi in an attempt to rush them.
This is not to say this is a shortcoming of the Dutch coaching staff or players. They have a limited amount of time to become a cohesive team and this is the most efficient method.
Spain on the other hand, with its Barcelona core, has played together for four years and they play their possession-style regardless of who they face. The challenge facing the Dutch is to make adjustments to disrupt Barcelona’s modern adaptation of Total Football.