After getting rid of most of my emotional baggage in the previous post, and having managed to arrive safely and timely in Joburg early this morning, here I am, back in top form. Nice to be in what amounts to my ninth South African hotel in just over 15 days…
With no further ado and for the last time during this tournament, let’s go through what Spain need to do to beat their final opponent, in this case the Dutch. A sizeable part of this ‘insight’ – that was the modest me writing – comes from having watched every single match the Dutch have played during this World Cup, with specially significant data taken from their win against Brazil. I can’t deny that some other part of the article comes, with no small quantity of pain, from being a Real Madrid supporter, and therefore very familiar with the likes of Robben, Sneijder and, of course, Van der Vaart's girlfriend.
Four key success factors for Spain to become World Champions (hold on, I am going to read that sentence out loud again… Ok, we’re good) tomorrow:
1) Take care of the ball. Spain did this wonderfully against the Germans. Achieving the same level of ball possession figures – I am referring to Spain’s percentage until 'Puyi' scored, obviously – would be even more damaging to the Dutch than it was to Löw’s team. The Germans knew how to play without having possession, and even though they didn’t resort to fouling, they didn’t open up when Spain moved the ball around either.
That is not the case with the Dutch. During their quarterfinals match, and before the verde-amarelos self-combusted, Brazil proved that you can find plenty of space behind the back of the Netherlands’ back four if you can put together a quick string of passes in the final third. Given that Xavi and Iniesta appear to be finding their form, it’s up to them to keep possession and create some openings.
I would focus Spain’s offensive on the great Gio vB, who wasn’t the greatest of defenders back in his time with Barça, and now has three more years in his odometer. This could well be the best opportunity for Sergio ‘Crazy Horse’ Ramos to score. It’s already overdue.
2) Keep the lines very close, in offence and especially in defence. Another key factor in the German win, it is equally important against the Dutch. If the Spaniards play together, the counter-attack becomes much more difficult for their opponents, and the ball recovery happens faster. With the likes of Robben (more on him in a second) and Van Persie on the pitch, avoiding open spaces at the back is as instrumental as it was against the Germans. Tactical discipline will be a must (yes, that one was aimed at Crazy Horse).
3) Force Robben to go right. If I asked ten of you to describe the archetypical Robben goal, all ten would depict exactly the same play (unless you’ve been living in Mars for the last five years, of course): he gets the ball ten metres past midfield wide on the right hand side. He goes forward and starts dribbling to his left. Takes on one, two, three players, always going left. At this point, just outside the area and in front of the goalie, he takes a shot, usually to the right side of the keeper (his goal against Slovakia shooting to the left of the keeper even managed to surprise me after several seasons watching him play… and get injured…)
For the first hour of their match, Brazil frustrated Robben by forcing him to go right, which amazingly enough most teams don’t seem to be able to do. I can’t believe how many times he does the same play, just because defenders allow him to go left. Sheed Capdevila and Puyol better be coordinated to get this balding baby under control.
4) Be alert in set pieces and long range shots. The Dutch have a decent repertoire for dead ball situations, always using a leftie (Robben) to take them from the right, and a right-footed master (Sneijder), to take them from the left. This means that the Jabulani always spins towards the opposition’s goal, therefore any touch can get you in trouble. Puyol and Piqué were almost perfect in their defensive aerial obligations against Germany, but I do believe that the Dutch takers are a tad bit better than his Deutsch counterparts. The less Spain foul close to the area, the better. In a related topic, the Dutch have been the most prolific team of the tournament scoring from long range. Busquets and Alonso will have extra work to prevent the Netherlands’ midfielders from having a go from 20 metres or more.
I do believe that the Dutch will have learnt from the German experience. You can’t leave Spain enjoy possession and get their passing game going, because if you do that, you’ll spend the whole match chasing shadows and praying for the Spaniards to make an uncharacteristic mistake. The Germans didn’t bother to commit constant fouls in order to break Spain’s rhythm, which was surprising because that has been the best way to defend Del Bosque’s team so far – ask the Paraguayans. I expect the Dutch, namely van Bommel and Jong, to be much more physical and risk some hard tackles on Iniesta and Xavi to intimidate them and let them know that they won’t have an easy 90 minutes.
Once more, the Spaniards will need patience to find an opening. But even though I believe that this will be a tougher match when compared to Germany’s, I also think that the Dutch will give Spain more opportunities to hurt them at the back. It will be a tense encounter, it won’t be pretty and it will make me suffer more than I thought a football match ever could. But call me a masochist: I am terribly glad to have the chance to go through all this.
Let the best team win.
PS. I will leave you with five random predictions:
1) Xabi Alonso will score off a long-range shot.
2) Casillas will have at least three awkward moments with the Jabulani.
3) Del Bosque will not replace more than one player during the first 85 minutes of the match.
4) Howard Webb won’t show more than two yellow cards and won’t award a penalty kick to either team, regardless of what happens inside both areas.
5) Remember those US$ 200 that I saved? I’ll have spent them in food and drinks within 18 hours of my arrival in Joburg.