World Cup 2010 Final, Spain Vs. Netherlands Preview: Spain's Attack, And A Curious Dismissal Of German Success

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 29: Xavi Hernandez, captain of Spain, celebrates victory following the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Spain and Portugal at Green Point Stadium on June 29, 2010 in Cape Town, South Africa. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

Spain is coming off a 1-0 win over Germany in the semifinals where they failed to score an open-play goal. Lucky for them, their opponents in Sunday's World Cup final, the Netherlands, is looking at Wednesday's result as a German failure, intent on employing a more aggressive approach.

In the days leading up to Sunday’s Spain-Netherlands final, Dutch captain Giovanni van Bronckhorst has said his Netherlands team will not make the same mistakes made by the Germans. To the extent Germany made mistakes in their Wednesday semifinal against Spain, they were few, as the Germans had multiple chances to take a lead in that match.  The Dutch left back seems to be alluding to coach Joachim Löw’s willingness to sit-back and wait for counterattacking opportunities, an approach that allowed Spain to enter a comfort zone La Roja never found against Paraguay in the quarterfinals, where the Paraguayans exerted pressure high throughout the middle of the pitch against Spain, forcing the ball off of Xavi Hernandez’s feet soon after the Spanish central midfielder gained possession. In saying the Dutch will not play like Germany, van Bronckhorst may be hinting the Netherlands will have more Gerardo Martino than Löw.

While that more aggressive approach would also have the virtue of being more decisive again than lie-in-wait plan, there are a number of reasons why the Dutch can not be as cavalier as Paraguay in exerting that pressure. The first is shape, with the Dutch 4-2-3-1 not allowing for the Oranje to play the numbers in the middle that would be required to replicate Paraguay’s approach without compromising their ability to move forward by using the flanks. If the Dutch can't move forward, they're going little to avoid the issues they had with Germany's plan. Secondly, the Dutch don’t have a back line with the likes of Claudio Morel, Antolín Alcarez and Paulo da Silva that will allow defensive midfielders Nigel de Jong and Mark van Bommel to pressure higher-up in the formation. While Paraguay could rely on those defenders when left unprotected, Bert van Marwijk is not able to have such confidence in van Bronckhorst and center back John Heitenga. And finally, since the Paraguay quarterfinal, Spain has made the vital (long-awaited) lineup change that will provide them the width needed to better deal with similar pressure to that which they saw against Paraguay.

That lineup change - bringing Barcelona attacker Pedro in for the struggling striker Fernando Torres - gives Spain the formational flexibility needed to adjust to the pressure the Netherlands is threatening to bring in Sunday’s match, allowing them to better use the wide areas or have an extra body through the middle should try wish to build-up centrally. Against Paraguay, with Torres operating as a lone striker and David Villa deployed in a forward position wide-left, Spain only had Andres Iniesta available to go wide and build down the flanks, though Iniesta was still often playing centrally in support of Hernandez. This left Spain susceptible to the kind of crowding and pressure Paraguay used, forcing the ball onto the feet of less effective, deep-sitting midfielders Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. With Pedro in the lineup, Spain has David Villa back in the middle, allowing Iniesta to go wide to one flank and Pedro to the other. Whereas the formation featuring Torres was relatively inflexible because it locked Villa into a advanced, left-sided role, bringing Pedro in helps avoid the Paraguay pitfalls by giving Spain more avenues through which they can get around points of pressure

The most effective route for Spain, should the Dutch try to pressure the Spanish through the middle, would be to use Iniesta down the left, and bring Pedro over to support in the area between Hernandez’s central midfield position and the Dutch back line. This approach has the virtue of possibly forcing Arjen Robben to play a more active (and deeper) defensive role, inhibiting the Netherlands’ main means of attack while forcing a shift of play toward the left flank that can create advantages on the right. Switching the attack through Hernandez to the right after it’s been build up the left could find David Villa with more space (presumably then matched-up on Joris Mathijsen), Sergio Ramos open for chances running onto shots at the edge of the penalty area, or (should the Spanish force Robben to play deeper) one of the central midfielders moving into that area to create numerical advantages as the play is shifted away from the left.

Spain would have a number of options should they play to their potential against a Dutch team trying to replicate Paraguay’s relative success, which makes this idea that Germany made a strategic mistake in the semis Spain so confusing. Perhaps because Germany failed to create as many opportunities against Spain as they did against Argentina and England, it's been said the Germans made a more conscious effort to sit-back against Spain (not acknowledging the possible effect Spain's play had on Germany's behavior). Of primary concern, it may not be the best idea to use German play against Argentina and England as barometers to judge a performance against Spain, but secondly, few seem to note that Germany went ninety minutes against Spain without allowing an open-play goal, and although the twenty-plus minutes preceding Carles Puyol’s match-winning header saw Spain create a number of chances from 17-to-24 yards out, it’s worth noting that almost any strategy against Spain is going to have limited effect due to the raw soccer talent at Spain’s disposal. That Germany’s limited effect led to no open-play goals and relatively few strong scoring chances should be examined for its successes as well as its failures.The perceived negative approach may have been a function of Spain's possession game combined with Germany's counterattacking style rather than a conscious shift on the part of Löw.

For a Dutch side that plays a formation identical to the Germans, has similar strength in deep midfield and a similar need to shield a central defense pairing that carries questions, Germany’s approach would seem more model than mistake. What went wrong between halftime and Puyol’s goal should be van Marwijk’s implicit question as he looks at the Germany (not Paraguay) match to inform him on how the Dutch should set-up against Spain.

Regardless of how the Dutch deploy their team on Saturday, throughout this tournament Spain has shown an ability to adjust to their opponents’ tactics and eventually (aside from the first match) win, emerging victorious in a relatively controlled fashion. We could talk about the tweaks Joachim Löw and/or Bert van Marwijk could make to Germany’s plan, but we should spend just as much time considering how Spain would adjust to those changes since the Spaniards always seem to do so. For the Spaniards, it's a subtle and less-confounding chess match in which they always have better pieces.  With the talent of their core players, the variety of options at coach Vincente del Bosque’s disposal, and three years of results documenting their success, Spain’s resumé suggests the Dutch will need more than a plan to pull-off a mild upset on Sunday.

Fortunately for them, the Dutch have a right winger sporting the game’s most dangerous foot and central midfielder with a new, beguiling knack of winning every competition he’s entered into.  Soccer is less about big picture concepts - who has the better approach or players - and more about which team plays manages their match's 90 minutes best.  Like Spain, the Netherlands have the talent to do that on Sunday.

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