On the brink of the latest, most important match in the history of their soccer, the Netherlands are facing an inevitability that would have been unfathomable one month ago: The Dutch will be out Total Football’ed tomorrow. The style of game that made their nation an iconic presence on the international landscape has been abandoned by this year’s team, and in an irony of literary proportions, the only way Bert van Marwijk and his Oranje can justify that decision is to beat the team that’s inherited their discarded legacy. The Spanish national team, having adopted the Totaalvoetbal that first appeared on their landscape in Barcelona forty years ago, are the purveyors of a new Dutch style are primed to use it Sunday to claim the world title the Dutch have never won.
As it concerns the Dutch attack, the biggest implication of this stylistic shift is possession. In all likelihood, the Netherlands will lose the possession battle, forcing them to be more efficient with the time they get on the ball. For a team that was already having trouble generating chances, going from being ceded most of the possession to catching-up-to the game will make them more reliant on opportunism and counterattacking. It will also make the Dutch more dependent on the one part of their attack that works regardless of possession: Arjen Robben.
Robben has already scored one goal from nothing (against Slovakia) and created another (against Cameroon), both off his left foot, cutting-in from his right wing position. On Sunday, Spanish left back Joan Capdevila will carry the bulk of the responsibility for containing Robben, but with most of the winger’s damage being done inside the width of the penalty area, left-center back Carles Puyol and defensive midfielder Sergio Busquets will also play crucial roles. Particularly given Spain’s use of a second, deep-sitting midfielder against the Netherlands’ single forward formation, both Puyol and Busquets will be able to help without unduly opening the Spanish defense.
Whether Spain provides that help, it will be Wesley Sneijder’s task to create for himself, Robin van Persie and Dirk Kuyt as an alternative to Robben. Unfortunately for the Dutch, this is an alternative that has yet to work during this tournament. While Sneijder has helped set-up one of Robben’s goals, he has yet to aid toward the building of a goal for van Persie or Kuyt. Sneijder’s five goals scored has overshadowed the fact that the Netherlands’ conventional means of building goals seems to have failed, but against a Spain team that affords their opponents very few opportunities, Sneijder may not be able to rely on a goalkeeper misreads and swallowed whistles.
It’s a concern that extends beyond Wesley Sneijder to the whole Netherlands team. The Dutch have been supreme opportunists in this tournament, to the point where they’ve been able to get to the final averaging two goals per game without having to worry about why their default means of attacking - building through the central playmaker in their 4-2-3-1 - has yet to show it can consistently generate chances. A Spain team that gives you little time on the ball to work through your problems is not the opponent against whom you can afford to have such problems, not only because you rarely see the ball but when you do, you have the likes of Puyol, Gerard Pique and Iker Casillas to beat.
This is not to say the Dutch can not or will not score. They clearly can, and often in this game, opportunism is enough. However, if Spain plays the way they have during their preceding six matches of World Cup 2010, the Dutch are going to need to provide an attacking element they've yet to show during this tournament.