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The Dutch turn to their National Anthem for their World Cup final strategy

July 12, 2010

The Dutch subconsciously took note of the words they sang before kick-off, for their national anthem contains talk of murdering the Spaniards who ruined the Netherlands in the 1500’s. Never again I am ignoring the words of a national anthem, as sometimes it can provide a wonderful narrative to a game’s proceedings.

Despite the Dutch best efforts at kicking lumps of chest, thigh, and leg out of the Spanish, the European Champions were able to overcome a frankly unruly Dutch team. The Dutch had obviously learnt some tricks from their semi-final opponents Uruguay, learning how to bring aggression to the football pitch, but they forgot to gain knowledge of one thing – how to do subtlety.

With fifteen yellow cards to the game’s name, out of all the bookings produced in World Cup Finals, 25% of them were given in this one game. My written piece about whether ‘Tika-Taka’ could be the football idolised by generations is probably now garbage, for the game will be remembered in the same vein as Celtic’s trip to Racing of Argentina in the 1967 Intercontinental Cup Final – a game etched in memory (and legend) because of the brutality witnessed.

For all the tut-tutting and looks of disapproval aimed towards at the Dutch style of play on Sunday night, it was effective and definitely worked. Spain’s midfield lacked their metronomical passing which has allowed them to control games, this had a profound impact on the way the game was played and how the game panned out.

The game actually started off in a gentlemanly manner, very respectful and from twenty minutes onwards, was never to be seen again, however there were some interesting tactical instances.

Pedro and Sergio Ramos vs. van Bronckhorst and Dirk Kuyt
Pedro’s roaming from the right-flank, which was shown in the semi-final, allowed Sergio Ramos space to exploit the space opened up from Pedro’s movement. This tactic reinforced Bert van Marwijk’s decision on playing Dirk Kuyt on the left-hand side of the Dutch attacking trio.

Pedro and his heatmap, he was not just sticking to the right-hand side, often moving central and to the left.

This decision was justified within the first two minutes, the Dutch captain van Bronckhorst was caught chasing Pedro in-field, giving Sergio Ramos space to move into. But the industrious, work-horse (add every hardworking synonym under the sun) Kuyt followed his every move.

As Pedro moves infield, van Bronckhorst follows. Ramos and his movement is already tracked by Dirk Kuyt.

Ramos’ reaction to Pedro’s movement inside was dealt with by Kuyt

This was not the main tactical case however. As mentioned, Spain were stifled in midfield, which was down to the pressure the Dutch put on the ball that made the Spanish incapable of playing the way they truly wanted to.

Dutch Pressing
The Dutch did this through by taking the ‘Oldboy Hammer’ method to the Spanish midfield, as well as deploying a hard pressing-game, covering just over twelve-kilometres in the match, Mark van Bommel illustrated the hard work the Dutch put into the game without the ball.

The Dutch had a plan on who to press and when to press. Sergio Busquets was largely left alone which allowed him to reach a pass completion rate of 88%. By allowing the deep-lying midfielder time it gave the Dutch the opportunity to sit off and get into an organised position, to get compact and restrict the space Spain had to play in. The Dutch were unafraid to grant Busquets time on the ball. This was because he looks to just get rid of the ball quickly, not to play defence splitting balls. Other than that, as soon as anyone received the ball, the Dutch pressured, particularly Mark van Bommel, leaving Nigel de Jong to sit deeper and protect the back-line.

Van Bommel rushing forward to close down the Spanish midfield.

He chases Iniesta after the layoff from Alonso. It’s also worthy to note here that Iniesta is on the ball, notice how far Van der Wiel has tucked inside and pushed forward.

By allowing the non-threatening Busquets on the ball, it allowed the Dutch to match up with the Spanish in midfield, and out-number in them in the important positions in the middle of the pitch. So, for example, when Busquets had the ball, the Dutch midfield sat, making it hard for him to pass forward. These tactics worked, with Pique being his second highly passed to teammate.

When the ball was passed to play Xavi or Alonso however, van Bommel and Sneijder pressed. When accompanied with aggressive tackling, this restricted how well Spain could pass through midfield.

This pressing was accompanied with a high-line; this was countered by the Spanish looking for through-balls beyond the defence for Villa to run onto. This happened many times throughout the first-half when the Dutch energy levels were high and they really pressed high up the pitch, even van Bommel was chasing after Puyol deep in the Spanish half.

Within ten minutes, Spain had attempted three through balls for Villa to chase and if it was for better execution, this counter-strategy could have led to a goal.

This shot also shows how Pedro drifted in and Ramos moved forward. As well as how high up the pitch van Bommel is from his pressuring. De Jong sits deep as he does not have to pressure until players reach his area.

This pressing happened throughout the game, making it disjointed and pretty ugly in parts. The aggressive, sometimes malicious tackling broke up play as well as causing disgust from both players and viewers, with De Jong, van Bommel and Sneijder all lucky to stay on the pitch. This style of play, or as some would call it ‘anti-football’, received strong indignation from Dutch legend Johan Cruyff today . And rightly so, I was thoroughly disenchanted with the style of football shown. In between periods of mild entertainment, there were strong, thick hits of annoyance and infuriation felt on my behalf.

Jesús Navas and Arjen Robben
The introduction of Jesús Navas on the sixtieth minute added width for Spain, who was the preverbal Senokot, decongesting the middle of the pitch. This allowed Spain to play their free-flowing, constipation-free passing game with greater ease. However, it did restrict Sergio Ramos in his forward runs, which were causing Kuyt and van Bronckhorst trouble in the first-half but Navas’ introduction gave Spain a better out-ball, often sticking to the touchline where van Bronckhorst was afraid to mark tightly, to afraid of committing himself too far wide.

On the equivalent Dutch flank, it was Arjen Robben who had the best two chances of the match. They may have played on the same flank, but their play totally contrasted. Robben, as predicted in my Spanish preview had his chances from runs made outside to in, running between the left full-back Capdevilla and the centre-backs.

The space was manufactured by van Persie’s deep-lying position, pushing Puyol forward to mark him, this made him unable to cover Pique if he is beaten for pace (and in this situation, he was). The defensive line was so high given the pressure the Spanish put on the ball. Just as the Dutch defence were thrown through-balls to deal with in the first-half, it was now for the Spanish to have a go at defending them.

Robben’s cutting inside was complemented by van Persie’s dropping deep and Sneijder’s ability on the ball. This produced the Dutch the opportunity to win the match in normal time.

They didn’t deal with them well; two times Robben broke the defensive line and was able to run at Casillas. A mixture of poor finishing and good goalkeeping kept the Dutch from scoring the first goal.

Van der Vaart and van Bommel gift Iniesta the World Cup winning goal
So after all of this analysis illustrating the importance of the Dutch midfield pressing Spain (and subsequently working), I should have really known that the winning goal would come because of a lack of a natural central midfielder in the Dutch midfield.

After Heitinga left the pitch on the 109th minute of the match (given the nature of the match, someone had to, honestly) van Bommel slipped into the centre-back position, leaving Rafael van der Vaart playing in central midfield. This was problematic. Firstly, he’s not a defensive midfielder, so he can’t slip in and just sit in the position de Jong was playing, protecting the back-four. Secondly, by only having one player in the middle, there was nobody putting pressure on the Spanish midfield, which therefore allowed Spain to dominate midfield again without worrying about studs penetrating their legs.

When the goal came, it was from Mark van Bommel attempting to pressure the midfield, moving out of position and leaving three at the back. This three at the back quickly turned to two at the back, as Braafheid pushed out of defence to close down Xavi. The defence was a mess, Orange shirts spread like honey on toast, and it was eventually easy pickings for Spain. Van der Vaart’s defensive frailties were shown as he attempted to clear a cross from Torres by doing a pirouette, handing the ball for Fàbregas to eventually slide the fantastic Andres Iniesta in to score the winning goal.

Watching the game again, I really cannot state how much I respectfully hate Mark van Bommel. The sight of him, with 101 minutes of the game gone, with his thundering thighs, picking up pace to go through the equally dislikeable Sergio Busquets after watching him do the same thing for the previous 100 minutes if something I would not want to wish on anyone.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. July 12, 2010 11:37 pm

    Great article, very interesting read. Proves that games as tight as this are won or lost on the smallest of things. I did think that Holland let themselves down quite a bit with their overly aggressive spoiling tactics. Spain deserved to win the game and the tournament, but Arjen Robben had the best chance Holland may ever get to win the World Cup. I imagine that will go through his head for quite a long time to come.

  2. Johan permalink
    July 13, 2010 10:49 am

    Hey, just wanted to respond to your first paragraph: the Dutch national anthem contains the line: De koning van Hispanje heb ik altijd geëerd. Literal translation: I have always honored the Hispanic king. Not murdered. Small difference.

    Now, back to reading the rest of the article 🙂

  3. July 13, 2010 11:47 am

    Very good article. A brief(ish) explanation on why I think Jesús Navas was the key substitution for Spain: In the semi-final, Germany identified the lack of width on Spain’s right flank and neglected to realise that Ramos would run up and down that flank all day, offering all the qualities of a full-back and a tornante. As a result, Spain dragged the German defence out to the left side, and Xabi Alonso was able to switch the play from deep to Ramos on a number of occasions. The Netherlands learned the lesson from this and, as you explained in the article, dealt with Ramos much more effectively than Germany had. When Navas was brought on, however, van Bronckhorst was much more pinned back in the left-back position rather than cutting inside to help restrict space in midfield. Kuyt helped out on that side, but was taken off for Eljero Elia only ten minutes after Navas’ introduction (van Maarwijk presumably trying to restrict Ramos in the same way) and that flank became much more stretched. Until that point, the Dutch had dealt with the Spanish midfield very well, and this might have been more telling were it not for Xavi’s ability to release the ball effectively in very tight spaces. Obviously Fábregas’ introduction had a great impact on the game, but without Navas’ contribution he would never have had the space in which to influence the match in the way he did. As such, Navas remains for me the substitution that turned the game.

    • July 13, 2010 12:10 pm

      I thought Del Bosque was clever. By starting Pedro who cuts inside and drops deep, he could bring van Bronckhorst out of position and Ramos could exploit this. If he didn’t follow him the whole way (afraid of getting turned or not wanting to go out of position due to lack of pace) then Pedro would not get picked up, giving him time and space in between the lines. van Bronckhorst was always chasing him around the defensive third which is obviously tiring. Bringing on Navas made van Bronckhorst worried about ran at with pace, which made him drop deeper and deeper. The repurcussions of this were that the middle of the pitch was less congested and the Spanish could spread play around, I thought they looked really good with both Navas and Fabregas on the pitch, as Fabregas continued to move into the ‘hole’ and use the space freed up by Navas sticking to the touchline.

      I can understand why that substitution changed the game, it changed the position of the Dutch defence as well as offering more space in the middle. The good thing was Navas also had an improved final product compared to earlier in the tournament and was more dangerous.

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