The 2010 World Cup final on Sunday will be a study in styles, a contrast in the fluid passing and sideways possession of Spain, and the more dynamic and physical style of the Dutch.
The Netherlands have been mostly undoing their reputation for an overly-aggressive style during this World Cup, with the only hold-outs being midfield reducers Mark Van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. Both players are somewhat infamous for allegedly conning the refs game after game, somehow repeatedly going in late and assaulting the opposition player and not getting punished. Van Bommel was one of the Dutch players sent off in the now-legendary Holland vs. Portugal match of 2006 that ended in a record 11 yellow cards and 4 red cards. It was ironic that Van Bommel was eventually sent off for a minor foul in stoppage time. The 2010 Dutch side have largely eschewed the blood-and-thunder and have played a dynamic style with diagonal runs from midfield and thrilling play in from the wings.
Spain has developed a style of play that can be amazing when you are counting up the number of passes in a row without giving up the ball in midfield, but it also induces a sort of anxiety in the viewer when the umpteenth pass goes crabwise instead of going forward. You will see Spain edge ever-closer to the penalty area and then run backwards with the ball, like a child at the beach running out to the waves and then screaming in gleeful horror as the waves push back. The midfield of Xavi Hernandez (Xavi), Andres Iniesta, and Xabi Alonso has been remarkably efficient at holding the ball. In his matches so far in this competition, Iniesta has completed over 80% of his attempted passes. The mobility of Xavi makes this easier, as two players converge on the ball any time it’s played.
Iniesta and Xavi passed Manchester United to death in the Champions League final of 2008-2009. The Red Devils were left looking like they’d never seen a soccer ball before because they almost never got ahold of it, and when they did, they were so tired from chasing the diminutive Spanish playmakers that they inevitably coughed up the ball too easily and too early. After the match, Wayne Rooney described Iniesta as the best player in the world, ranking him above the current darlings of Messi, Kaka, and Ronaldo. Both Xavi and Iniesta are the embodiment of skill over natural-born talents, with both of them measuring just a shade over 5′ 5″ tall. Having a low center of gravity and the ability to cut and change directions has made their (lack of) stature immaterial. Contrast this with any of the other big sports, where you need to be born into a certain physical type if you expect to have even the slightest of hopes of playing at the top levels.
Barney Ronay, writing in the Guardian, termed Spain’s style as “platinum-selling dinner party football, Coldplay football.” Elegant, rehearsed to perfection… and bloodless. Occasionally the fans want blood, they want the football equivalent of The Stooges, they want an ugly power chord and a crunching tackle and a battle of physicality, in addition to the exquisite pass that splits the defense open. This style is pejoratively known as a “ticky-tacky” or “tic-tac” style of one-touch play, with the team in possession in absolutely no hurry to go forward at all. It forces the opposition to press further and further up the pitch, hoping to create space in behind the lines. It creates moments of sublime touches and skill, and can be a joy to behold on TV. For all Spain’s success at forcing their opponents to chase shadows, it is again telling and ironic that their only goal over Germany came from a corner kick and was banged in off the mullet of defender. That’s hardly the fruits one would expect when watching what is essentially the Barcelona team without Lionel Messi. How can it be so technically luxurious and emotionally boring at the same time? When Spain scores first (as has happened in all of their matches except against Australia), they are able to sit back with the ball and wait.
Last year’s Champions League clashes between Barcelona and Internazionale Milan (Inter) demonstrated that a physically imposing team can interrupt the flood of Spanish passing, can starve their strikers of the ball, and can beat them. This Spanish national side is obviously without Barcelona’s Argentinian maestro Messi, but the rest of the players know each other so well they can probably play blindfolded and hit each other with the ball. The Inter team camped out as a unit and forced Barcelona out, and then hit them on a series of stunning counter-attacks. That was probably Germany’s plan in the last match too, and it all goes kablooey when Spain scores first. Holland’s task will be to avoid conceding first. If this happens, Spain will be forced out of their shell, and the millions watching will hopefully be treated to a dazzling display of football. Otherwise, as Wesley Sneijder has said, “it’s hard to play beautiful football when the opponent is determined to kill the game.”
It will be up to Holland’s engine room of Wesley Sneijder, Mark Van Bommel, and Nigel de Jong to not fall into Spain’s elaborate, hypnotic trap. The Oranje will need to cut down the supply lines and force the Spanish to go back to their keeper and play the ball long, and when in possession, it will be up to Arjen Robben to take it as far up the pitch as he can, exploiting the Spanish lack of height on crosses. The races between Robben and Puyol are going to be one-sided, as Robben will easily outpace the 70s-coiffed defender. For all the talk of Van Bommel’s militancy, not much has been said recently of Carles Puyol’s very similar pugilistic tackling. In last year’s Champions League matches against Arsenal, who, incidentally, are loved and hated for playing a similarly beautiful but goal-less tic-a-tac style, Puyol tried to maim Cesc Fabregas and got red carded. It might be worth a side-bet, to see which player, Puyol or Van Bommel, gets handed a caution first.
This match has all the promise of being a beautiful feast. Spain is the better team, at least on paper, meaning that they boast more stars and more celebrated players. The defense is first class: Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, and Joan Capdevila. Up front, David Villa has been reliably netting goals, and if his strike partner Fernando Torres should ever wake up in one of these matches, Spain could find themselves in a glut of goals.
The Netherlands know all of this, of course, and likely are enjoying their underdog status. Their defense has been more porous and has been severely tested, when Andre Ooijer was called in during the warm-up to take over for the injured Joris Mathijsen. Gio van Bronckhorst (who scored the incredible first goal last match) and John Heitinga will face the sternest test of their positional discipline, should Spain ever try and get into the final third of the pitch. If Holland start with Rafael van der Vaart alongside Sneijder, Spain is going to find themselves on the back foot, and often. Their so-far innocuous striker Robin van Persie likewise needs to wake up and show some dominance in a match. Why Huntelaar didn’t get in the last match is a mystery, but against Spain, the Dutch legs will surely be exhausted from all the ball-chasing they will have to do, and so we should see all of their firepower.
Spain’s patient elegance, or Netherlands’ tactical brilliance – who will win out? Will it be an evening of power ballads and Coldplay weeping into the microphone, or will someone bring the raw power of The Stooges and set the house on fire? It should come as no surprise that my money is on the Netherlands and The Stooges to save us.