My friend Tom has two sports passions: Dutch soccer and Ohio State football. Needless to say, we see eye-to-eye on the former more than the latter. It occurred to me when I was talking to him on Friday afternoon that he should be familiar with the emotions that would be created by the Dutch winning the World Cup because this edition of the Oranje would become the 2002 Ohio State Buckeyes. The ’02 Bucks were by no means the best Ohio State team of recent years. They were not especially talented (by Ohio State standards, anyway, and I’m mainly thinking about the skill positions) or impressive, but because of their Ecksteinian grit/luck, they went 14-0 and won Ohio State their only national title in the past 42 seasons. Forget the Clockwork Orange team of ’74, this Netherlands side is not as talented as the Koeman-Gullit-Rijkaard-van Basten generation of the late 80s or the Bergkamp-Overmars-Stam-de Boer-de Boer-Davids-van der Sar teams of the 90s. This team has two great players - Sneijder and Robben - and a bunch of functional parts that defend well. In other words, this team would be the last team that a Dutch fan would expect would bring the country its first World Cup, and yet here they are in a semifinal against Uruguay.
Speaking of Dutch teams of the past, I highly recommend Rafael Honigstein’s description of the myth of Total Football:
Claims that the Netherlands has now changed beyond recognition into a negative, cynical side are made only by those who wrongly bought into the opposite extreme of the Dutch as some sort of European Brazilians and eternal purveyors of the beautiful game before. In truth, they're no more defensive than 30 years ago; they've just found it very hard to break down opponents who have so far resisted from attacking them, unlike France and Italy in 2008.
"Beautiful football is difficult against teams who don't give you an inch of space," Wesley Sneijder said this week.
The fact that the Dutch have mostly grinded out victories does not reflect a diminished ambition or change of direction at all. It's merely been a function of coming up against deep-lying teams, difficult conditions (the heavy pitch in Port Elizabeth made it impossible for Robben to accelerate against Brazil in the quarterfinals) and not quite clicking up front.
There's every chance that all the obituary writers will quickly turn around to celebrate the resurrection of Total Football if a few well-executed attacking moves come off against limited Uruguay on Tuesday. Then we'll read that van Marwijk has given the team it's "true identity" back, and other nonsense. It's high time the old stereotypes were ditched, regardless of the result. Dutch soccer itself already did it a while back. Maybe the rest of the world should follow suit.
Leave it to a German to nail the Dutch just so.
The Brazil-Netherlands match was especially interesting to me because Brazil played against their reputation. Dunga’s teams are supposed to be athletic, sound defensively, impregnable in the air, and imbued by a winning mentality transmitted by their coach. Against Holland, Brazil were undone by a pair of crosses into the box, after which they panicked and turned into a bitching, unlikeable team. Was Brazil never as stout as we thought? Should we not read too much into what happens in 45 minutes of football, no matter how big the stage? I lean towards the latter. I love the World Cup as a sporting event, but I have to admit that a lot is made of very small sample sizes.
The Condor Legion Flies Again
I’m probably engaged in a bit of wishful thinking here to support Spain (my analysis is often at its worst when my rooting interests and my predictions dovetail), but I feel pretty good about Spain’s chances. Germany cannot possibly have another gear. They have played as well as possible for the past two matches, save for a ten minute spell when they lost the plot against England. However, they’ve been up against two teams that suited their style. England are more name than merit and Argentina, while individually talented, played a disjointed style that Alexi Lalas correctly derided as “sandlot.” (Never have I agreed so vigorously with Mr. Lalas.) Argentina was a perfect mark for an organized German team, especially with Javier Mascherano cutting a lonely figure as the only central midfielder on the pitch. Yes, I wish that I would have figured this out before the match, but if I would have trusted my gut from before the tournament when I took every opportunity to mock Maradona, the warnings were present.
Spain, on the other hand, have not gotten out of third gear. Moreover, there is an obvious solution for them: remove the restrictor plate that is Fernando Torres. Vicente del Bosque has been doing his best Bobby Cox impression in this tournament, sticking with Torres despite the facts that: (1) Spain obviously play better with one striker because the players they put on in place of the second striker give them width; and (2) Torres is hurt, bereft of confidence, or both. Over a long season, sticking with Torres makes sense. In a short knock-out tournament, Spain can’t wait for Fernando to come good, especially when he doesn’t have the greatest scoring record as an international to begin with. Spain could afford to piss away an hour against Portugal and Paraguay because those teams were not very threatening; they cannot do the same against Germany. I know this. Everyone covering Spain knows this. Paul the Octopus knows this. Will Spain’s manager figure this out? I’m guessing that he will.
So, imagine that Spain deploy their 4-2-3-1 with Xavi, Iniesta, and one of Pedro/Navas/Silva behind Villa. Now, you have a fast striker running at Germany’s slow-ish centerbacks. You have a proper winger to stretch the Germans horizontally. (Look at how much better Spain played when Pedro came on against the bunkering Paraguayans.) And then you have the in-form Iniesta on the left, attacking a centerback playing left back. Del Bosque has taken a lot of criticism for playing two defensive midfielders, but his system is just what the doctor ordered for dealing with Oezil and Schweinsteiger. And in the middle of the pitch, you have Xavi.
So yes, I’m doubling down on Spain. A team that has never won the World Cup or even played in a final. Against three-time champions and six-time finalists Germany. I never said that I made sense.