This article is a part of the 30 day Special Series from Football Bloody Hell devoted to the World Cup 2018.
After a heart breaking loss against Spain in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final, Netherlands took on La Roja after 4 years in a World Cup game when the two sides met in the first game of the Group B. It was an iconic game as it was the first time when the two finalists of the previous World Cup played against each other in a group stage game. Before the beginning of the game, it was expected that Spain would comfortably go home winning the game.
However, Netherlands under Louis van Gaal looked a really good side. They finished as the leaders of their qualifying group notching up 9 wins and one draw from 10 games which was quite astounding. The game was expected to be a tactical feast given the track record of both the managers especially with Spain winning the knock out games 1-0 all way from Round of 16 to the Final in the 2010 World Cup.
Graphic courtesy: www.tacticalpad.com
Spain (4-2-3-1/4-3-3) | Manager: Vincente Del Bosque
1.Casillas // 22.Azpilicueta – 3.Pique – 15.Ramos – 18.Alba // 8.Xavi – 16.Busquets – 14.Alonso // 21.Silva – 19.Costa – 6.Iniesta
Netherlands (3-4-1-2) | Manager: Luis van Gaal
1.Cillessen // 3.De Vrij – 2.Vlaar – 4.Martins Indi // 7.Janmaat – 8.Jonathan de Guzman – 6.Nigel de Jong – 5.Blind // 10.Sneijder // 9.van Persie – 11.Robben
Both the teams started their first game of the tournament with different tactics. Del Bosque sent his men in a 4-3-3 set up following the success at the Euros 2012. Casillas started in between the sticks and was supported by a back four which consisted of Azpilicueta, Pique, Ramos and Alba. In midfield, the trio of Xavi, Busquets and Xabi Alonso were deployed and ahead of them played Silva on the right and Iniesta on the left while Costa led the attack. The movements of Xavi were the defining point in the heart of the midfield as he was the focal point of the side’s transformation between a 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1. The defensively sound and tactically astute Busquets often was joined by versatile Xabi Alonso as Xavi joined the creative players to form an attacking trio behind the target man.
On the other hand, the Dutch gaffer sent his players to play in a 3-5-2 shape. The two wide players often joined the defence as the central two spread out wide to join the attacking Sneijder, Robben and RVP. This meant that the Dutch played with five defensive minded players and five offensive minded players. Attacking wingback Janmaat and more defensive minded Daley Blind started in wings as Vlaar, de Vrij and Martins Indi started in front of Cillessen’s goal. The duo of de Jong and de Guzman started in the centre of the field. The image below shows the shape with which the Oranje started the game.
Spain’s initial control and Oranje’s compactness
From the beginning of the game, Spain opted to play in the same way how they finished the previous tournament. Keeping possession in first and second third, La Roja looked to develop attacks by maintaining the ball at their feet. Through intricate build up and key passing between Silva, Iniesta and the central trio, Spain were able to expose the weakness in the back three. However there were only few instances in which Spain were able to get behind the weak defensive line. Costa was the only man available upfront and they lacked runners to reach out to the passes played from the back.
However, the Dutch were able to stop Spain’s possession from growing into telling chances as they stayed very compact in the centre maintaining a high line. Often the attacking trio were joined by the central two – de Jong and Guzman. This created a situational 5-0-5 as the team played with five attack minded players and five defensive players. The image below shows how compact Netherlands were defensively which restricted Spain to sideways passing. Also, in certain instances Netherlands defended in a 5-3 block which allowed zero opportunity for Spain to attack the goal.
The graphic below depicts how successful the Dutch were in stifling out Spain’s movements in the final third. Though Spain had more possession and control in the game, the Netherland defenders found themselves getting at the back of Spain’s attackers to stop them from creating chances. This graphic shows how interceptions were won in crucial positions especially in the Zone 14 area and the right wing. One of Spain’s most speedy customers Jordi Alba bombarded up and down in this channel causing problems for Dutch and was joined by Alonso in build ups. However we can identify how Janmaat and de Vrij successfully saw out the Barcelona left back.
Graphic courtesy: www.fourfourtwo/statszone
Given the Oranje’s high line and compactness in the middle, Spain often were involved in playing long balls from the back to find Costa and even the wide players in Iniesta and Silva. Pique, Ramos and Busquets were the players who were assigned with playing long balls and this didn’t look like the Spain who played in the previous competitions. Playing more direct in order to find players in final third, Spain failed to provide the runners to follow the balls. Only Costa at certain instances was able to control the ball to his feet and get it past the Dutch back five. Credit to the Dutch, they forced Spain to resort to long balls in order to evade the press which they so perfectly coordinated. This worked in Holland’s favour as they were able to win the aerial duels at the back and also win the second balls if the situation arose.
The video below shows how Spain were involved with playing long balls from the back to find players in the final third.
However these counter measures taken by Spain didn’t bring much success as most of the balls were seen out by Dutch. The graphic below adds to the case as it can be seen that almost half of the long balls played by Spain ended unsuccessful.
Graphic courtesy: www.fourfourtwo/statszone
Spain’s shape however as said earlier depended on the role of Xavi. Xavi’s advanced positioning meant that Xabi Alonso and Busquets formed the double pivot at the centre. The image below depicts Spain’s positioning when Xavi played higher up the pitch.
On the other hand, Netherlands were able to counter these movements and control the play by playing a situational 5-0-5. As mentioned earlier, the Dutch were compact and tight in the centre however their defence were breached on certain instances thanks to intricate play from Iniesta and Silva who were able to position themselves in between the lines along the half spaces. Unfortunately Spain couldn’t make the chances count. The image below shows the shape used to Van Gaal to counter Del Bosque.
Del Bosque’s late changes
Wingbacks were seen as an alternative route by Louis and he was right when he sent Daley Blind and Janmaat bombing up and down the flanks. The first two goals were the results of moments of brilliance from the wings by Blind and equally by the players who scored the goals. Wing backs often positioned themselves very higher up the pitch and this caused problems for Spain. La Roja defended in two banks for four however positional 5v4 gave Netherlands the advantage.
The below graphic shows the positional and numerical superiority the Dutch were able to gain in final third.
The image below shows the same when Netherlands attacked in numbers by positioning themselves very high up the pitch. This was a poor defensive scheme as the Spaniards aimed to negate the threat posed by defending in two banks of four.
After the hour mark, Del Bosque brought in Pedro and Torres for Alonso and Costa. The change meant that Iniesta and Xavi dropped deeper to give Spain the advantage in the centre. However Van Gaal countered this by deploying the more physical Wijnaldum in place of de Guzmann. After all the changes made, this is how the teams looked on an average in the field.
Impact of Robben
Undoubtedly the best player on the pitch on that day was Arjen Robben. Often playing as the second striker, Robben’s link up play between the lone creative player Sneijder and the striker Robin van Persie was excellent. His goal scoring abilities as well as this potent to create chances for others stood up on the night.
The video above shows how brilliantly Robben outclassed the Spain defence making inroads with his quick runs and astute passing. His finishing was also top notch on the night as he bagged two sensational goals to take his side 5-1 home. The graphic below depicts Robben’s overall contribution for his side.
After winning three consecutive major trophies, many would’ve expected that Spain were on the bid to defend their World Cup title. But the first game of the Group B fixtures made everyone drop their jaws as the defending champions were humbled by a tactically astute Louis van Gaal and team. It should be stated that Spain were destroyed on the night due to the tactics employed by their manager which seemed quite outdated in 2014. At 3-1, Spain became more vulnerable and started playing direct in search of goals and the Dutch were quite happy to defend in a 5-2-3 as shown below and attack them on the counter.
The result sent shock waves around the football world as Spain who were good enough for the first 40 minutes of the game were taught a lesson for not taking their chances when it fell their way. They were not only outmuscled physically but were humbled tactically. The result paved way for Chile to beat La Roja and send them out of the world cups as Spain became the first Defending Champion to exit in group stages since the 1950s.