The rematch of the 2010 World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands didn’t disappoint. It ended in a 5-1 win for the Dutch, quite the opposite result of that night in Johannesburg four years ago, and this one was also full of talking points.
Xabi Alonso scored on another questionable penalty call in the first half, before Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben put away chances on either side of the halftime whistle to give the Netherlands the lead. Despite Spain needing a goal, the Oranje continued to press, maintaining the majority of possession against the tiki-taka kings and scoring a third on a set piece, with 22-year-old center back Stefan de Vrij putting home his first international goal.
Van Persie tucked away another, pouncing on Iker Casillas’ shocking first touch on an innocent back pass in the 73rd minute. Not to be outdone, Robben also scored a second on a late counterattack.
Here are three thoughts on the match and its stunning outcome:
• Diego Costa looked uncomfortable in Spain’s system, limiting his danger to one referee-aided moment
Spain doesn’t usually play with a traditional target, No. 9-type of forward, and it showed. Costa looked a little lost making runs into wide areas and not being on the same page as the distributors underneath him. His marauding in behind earned the first-half penalty for Spain, but it was generally a frustrating game for the Brazilian-born striker.
Coming off a hamstring injury that has plagued him for a couple months, Costa was booed every time the ball came near him. It culminated in one ill-advised action in the second half, when he head-butted Bruno Martins Indi in an off-the-ball incident that, had referee Nicola Rizzoli seen it, would have likely gotten him sent off. That was the final straw, and Vicente del Bosque pulled him in favor of Fernando Torres to finish the match.
• Both Spain and the Netherlands value the midfield, which made things very crowded in there
“Wingers” Andrés Iniesta and David Silva were free to roam, looking for the ball in midfield, and Robben was the only true wide man in attacking spaces for either team, although even he tucked inside most of the time. That left the outside backs to provide width in attack, personified by Daley Blind’s pinpoint assist on van Persie’s first-half equalizer, and again on his early second-half assist to Robben. The first was a perfectly driven, 60-yard pass right into the path of van Persie’s dolphin-esque diving header, and the second was a more arched ball into Robben’s running path.
The amount of ground the Dutch wingbacks covered was impressive, as they were also responsible for supporting the three man-marking center backs on the other end of the field. Blind usually plays in the midfield for Ajax, in the distribution-dependent holding role no less, and that ability on the ball showed throughout the match. Wingback might not even be his best position, but the 24-year-old was the best player on the field.
• If anybody can get the Netherlands out of this tough group, it’s Louis van Gaal
The incoming Manchester United manager raised a lot of eyebrows when he implemented a five-back system for the Dutch, but it’s looking like a brilliant piece of pragmatism now. Van Gaal’s confidence is rubbing off on his players, as he named his starting lineup against Spain in his press conference the day before, saying that preparation is done in training and not in making a list of names. Call it arrogance if you want, but van Gaal has his team believing it can beat anybody. The tactical discipline and unity of this Dutch team, even with the supposed egos of van Persie and Robben, is impressive.
The system van Gaal has implemented balances familiarity among a Feyenoord-heavy back line and the experience and incisiveness of Robben, van Persie and Wesley Sneijder as the attacking triumvirate. Sometimes, it looks like a 5-3-2. Other times, it looks like a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3.
All that matters is what it created on Friday: a dominant 5-1 win.