The argument explored in depth by Ray Power in a previous article was that this World Cup has seen 4-2-3-1 overtake 4-4-2 as the formation most linked with successful sides. That both Vicente Del Bosque and Bert Van Marwijk chose this strategy at the start of the tournament’s finale can only have added fuel to the argument of the ‘pro’ side in that particular debate. This was a game in which the counteracting formations of the two sides were always likely to produce a tight and close encounter. However, it will also be remembered not just as an intriguing tactical battle, but as a final contested by one side looking to play their way to victory and another who sought to boot, bulldoze and bully their opponents into submission.
Spain began the game with real purpose, keeping the ball well, moving it around the pitch, and controlling the tempo and territorial dynamics of the game without a goal looking imminent. Their lack of obvious width means that the lung-busting forays of Sergio Ramos become all the more important, and one of his overlaps produced the first situation of real danger. What this Dutch side have had in abundance is a resilience and togetherness that a more talented generation of orange-shirted players could have done with.
Unfortunately, this spills over into a physical approach which has invited criticism from past ‘Oranje’ master Johan Cruyff no less. People forget that the maestro’s ‘Total Football’ team of the 1970’s could deal with the harder aspects of the game better than most. However, the cynical fouling of Mark Van Bommel (he of a thousand lives), and Nigel De Jong’s Jackie Chan impersonation were enough to make the eyes water. There is something unjust in the fact that this appeared to knock Spanish confidence, with the Dutch ending the first half much more strongly. At half time, one got the impression that two variables were going to settle this game. Firstly, should Spain score first, then they win – so will they really open up and go for it? Secondly, how much will the result depend on the ability of both sides to keep eleven men on the pitch? For a man hovering on the brink of expulsion, Van Bommel was awfully keen to argue with the referee, while a wound up Spanish player taking revenge on over-physical opponents also remained a possibility.
By tournament final standards, the second half was probably amongst the best we have seen for a while. Maybe Van Marwijk realised that his side would have to play some football to keep a full compliment of players, let alone get a result. As one side opened up, the change produced an equal and opposite reaction for their opponents. Jesus Navas came on to give them some width, as they looked to get around the orange wall that had spread out somewhat. However, the first real chance came to the Dutch – great save Iker Casillas, but Arjen Robben could have lifted over a committed keeper. At the other end, Johnny Heitinga made a mess of dealing with a ball from the dangerous Navas, only to atone for it with a superb block. Then David Villa volleyed over as Navas caused havoc again, threatening to be a game-clinching change for Del Bosque. Spain dominated territorially, but the last key moment came from a Dutch break. Rolls-Royce Robben cruised past Punto Puyol, and should have had a free kick. Instead, he stayed on his feet, and played for a penalty a few yards on. The boy who cried wolf got nothing, but it demonstrated that this Spanish back line may offer more in an attacking sense than in a basic defensive one.
Extra time posed the question, who is the less tired side, and can they push on and make a real effort to win the game? Or will both sets of players settle for penalties? The introduction of Rafael van der Vaart appeared to be a positive step from his coach, but backfired when Heitinga became the eighth Dutch yellow card, and his second. Cesc Fabregas had added dynamism and directness to the Spanish midfield, and now a side that had already spent much of extra time in survival mode now had an unenviable task. However, there is an element to the killer goal that has been missed amid the question marks over the free-kick that never was. The Dutch, a man down and with a shoot-out almost booked, over-committed in an attempt to steal a late goal and were picked off on the break. Sometimes the thought of pinching something at the death leads a disciplined side astray, and this is what really happened when Andres Iniesta played matador to Dutch dreams. However easy it may be to visualise a last-gasp salvo, their odds in the shoot-out that looked likely were far higher than at that moment. From a tactical point of view, the players, though probably not their coach got greedy – and paid for it.
The upshot of all of this is that the best side at the tournament won, which can be no bad thing. Del Bosque made a brave decision for the final, cruelly vindicated at the death by Fernando Torres’ injury recurring. At least we now have conclusive proof that the Anfield marksman was not right. Del Bosque has found a system that gets the most out of his personnel, and is unafraid of using players like Fabregas as impact substitutes. Fabio Capello and England take note.