It looked as if Spain would run away with the rematch of the 2010 World Cup final on Friday, at least for the first 25 minutes. The Netherlands had several lapses in the back, allowing Xavi to play passes in behind and create quality scoring opportunities for David Silva and Diego Costa.
Dutch manager Louis van Gaal said after the match that he nearly abandoned the 5-3-2 system that he so painstakingly established in the lead-up to the World Cup. He thought about running out a more traditional 4-3-3 after the Spaniards went up 1-0 and before Robin van Persie equalized with his super-early Goal of the Tournament candidate.
Instead, he waited, and van Persie’s equalizer and Arjen Robben’s winning goal were both direct results of that five-back system. It morphed into a three-back system when the Dutch were in possession, with wingbacks Daryl Janmaat and Daley Blind bombing up and down the flanks.
Van Persie, Robben and Wesley Sneijder formed a three-headed attack for the Dutch, with Nigel de Jong and Jonathan de Guzmán holding in front of center backs Bruno Martins Indi, Ron Vlaar and Stefan de Vrij.
For Spain, Vicente del Bosque went with the expected 4-3-3, putting Xavi at the point of the midfield triangle in front of a double pivot of Sergio Busquets and Sergio Ramos. Diego Costa played as the target man, with Andrés Iniesta and Silva as withdrawn wingers.
That crowded the central channel and ended up favoring the Netherlands, as Spain couldn’t make its early possession advantage count for more than one goal, and it was the wide areas Holland used to create its stunning 5-1 win.
Defending champions come out strong
Those first 25 minutes, Spain dominated the game. The Netherlands helped with multiple defensive lapses that allowed Diego Costa and Silva to find spaces in behind. However, Diego Costa never really looked settled, clearly uncomfortable as a traditional No. 9 on a team that usually plays with a false nine.
Often, he would try to run in behind for a direct penetrating pass, the likes of which come frequently with his club, Atlético Madrid. However, the distributors were often looking for somebody to run between the Dutch defensive and midfield lines to receive and lay off to maintain possession higher up the field.
As Roberto Martínez illustrated in his pre-game segment for ESPN, the weak-side switch was also an option to exploit the Netherlands. By overloading the near side, the opposite-side fullback usually had space and a one-on-one isolation (or, as above, a two-on-one isolation with the winger).
Three times in the first half, Spain didn’t need to create space because Holland left plenty of it behind the center backs. Poor ball pressure in the midfield and a flat back line gave Silva and Diego Costa space to run onto balls from Xavi.
That’s what happened when Diego Costa drew the penalty that led to Spain’s opening goal: he penetrated a flat line easily, receiving Xavi’s through-ball that was created with a tidy midfield combination through the crowded middle channel. However, those opportunities waned after the first half.
Wide play key to Dutch victory
Early in the match, the Netherlands’ attacking shape was too wide in its front three players. Sneijder at times looked like a center forward, with Robben on the left and van Persie on the right, when he was supposed to be playing as more of a playmaker. The resulting disconnect among those three made it difficult to combine up the field when in possession.
An inability to get the wingbacks involved in the attack was the larger detriment to the forwards’ width, especially on the Netherlands’ left. Robben plays as a winger in Bayern Munich’s system, so he is used to hugging the touchline and dribbling at players and also recovering on top of the fullback defensively.
Early on Friday, that killed any space for Blind to advance and receive the ball in the channel between Spain’s defensive and attacking lines. He only attempted four passes inside the attacking half in the first 25 minutes, all of which were backward passes. In the final 65 minutes, Blind attempted 18 passes in the top half, including two perfectly weighted assists to the forwards.
In the build-up to Holland’s first goal, as the center backs circulated the ball, Robben and van Persie held central positions and looked like partner strikers with Sneijder underneath. That allowed Blind and Janmaat to assume wide positions earlier, and Blind received the ball off the center backs in space and facing forward.
His first assist was a pinpoint, driven ball over the Spain back line and onto van Persie’s head. Ramos helped the cause by failing to track the Manchester United striker’s run behind, and van Persie made it 1-1 just before halftime.
Early in the second half, Blind did it again. As before, Robben held central, and Sneijder was deep enough that it was actually he who played the ball wide for Blind to serve over the top to Robben with one touch.
Silva closed Blind down too slowly, and Azpilicueta decided not to pressure, allowing the pass into Robben’s path. If Robben attempted to control it with his right foot instead of his left (obviously unlikely), he wouldn’t have had to break stride at all. Of course, Robben wanted to cut back to his left. Piqué dove into the tackle, allowing him to do so, and Robben scored.
Poor defending aside, Blind played two perfect diagonal balls over the Spanish defense after good ball circulation by the Dutch in midfield, creating two goals with the same tactic.
No space in attack for Spain
On the defensive end, the Netherlands knew how much Spain values getting numbers around the ball, so the Dutch crowded the area around the ball to prevent combination play. It left the opposite-side switch as an option, as mentioned above, but Spain was too slow to circulate the ball — unlike Holland in possession — and couldn’t exploit it.
After a certain point, having numbers around the ball just turns into a traffic jam, especially when it’s seven-on-six in a 30-by-20-yard space. Spain can train with as many rondos as it wants; that’s still a nearly impossible way to keep possession and build attacks at the highest level.
The Dutch pressure was at its highest early in the second half. Here, Iniesta received a pass from Xabi Alonso and had three Dutch players within closing distance immediately. It’s normally Spain that presses the ball this intensely and goes to goal quickly, but Holland did it to great effect on Friday.
‘The match has gone exactly as the coaching staff predicted’
Comments from the Dutch camp after the match were understandably jubilant after defeating Spain emphatically, 5-1. Van Gaal has received most of the accolades for his system which was an extremely practical implementation against Spain.
It’s not so much about keeping the ball as it is about moving the opponent out of its preferred structure and into something that can be attacked more easily. Using the wingbacks as the focal points of a wide attack did just that, exploiting the Spaniards’ soft spot in its 4-3-3 with withdrawn wingers: the space between lines created by fullbacks being stretched thin and wingers pinching centrally and failing to recover.
After the match, van Persie said, “We have trained all those weeks for this. The match has gone exactly as the coaching staff predicted.”
Of course, it was the master tactician van Gaal who saw the way to victory against Spain. Despite nearly losing faith in his own conclusions, he led the Netherlands to a historic win.
“It could well be that we'll use an entirely different system against Australia,” van Gaal told Dutch television. “If van Persie wouldn’t have scored the 1-1 before halftime, I would’ve switched back to the 4-3-3 formation. If I played with three attackers, my wingers would have chased down the Spain backs too much, (and) that would be a waste. I played this system because I believe that we are not good enough to beat Spain with our normal 4-3-3 formation.”
A four-goal margin of victory isn’t bad for being a team “not good enough.”