Spain’s quest to retain the most valuable trophy in football got off to the worst imaginable start on the weekend. In fact, calling it ‘imaginable’ at all might be a stretch. Not even in their wildest dreams would most Dutch fans have believed what was to happen. In a rematch of the 2010 final, Spain were played off the park by a razor sharp and expertly prepared Netherlands team that carved up their defence over and over in a ruthless second half onslaught.
For most of the first half it seemed like we were witnessing another consummate Spain victory. High possession, a decent tempo, the usual passing around the back and into the little areas of space between players and altogether suffocating the Dutch out of the game. But at the same time they failed (or neglected?) to create the volume of chances that you’d expect from even a fraction of that level of dominance. But that’s how they play. Spain scored just 8 goals in 7 games on their way to the trophy in 2010, while at the same time conceding only 2. All four of their knockout games were won by a score of 1-0. They starve the opposition of the ball and eventually just break them down. And once they score they settle back into the same old groove. You’re not gonna concede that equaliser if the other guys never get the ball.
Except the Dutch were ready for it. They knew how the Spaniards would shape up and Louis Van Gaal had a plan in place. Spain’s heavy pressing relies on the ball-playing ability of every man on that team. The defensive line plays high and gets involved in the midfield pass-arounds as Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Busquets and Iniesta all drop deep or float forward depending on where the little pockets of space are. That leaves a lot of room in behind between Pique/Ramos and Casillas.
So just before half time, the Dutch finally spot an opening. Daley Blind gets the ball out wide on the left and spots the Spanish centre backs, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, playing pretty far forward as they do. Robin Van Persie makes a run in behind which is barely tracked and Blind lobs a near incredible floated ball into his path. RVP does the rest.
An amazing equalising goal that any team would do well to repel, only it served to underline a frailty that few had exposed before in this dominating Spanish side. Their defence. It’s a chink in the armour that has been comfortably protected by their possession stats in most games but it has always been there. And now with Iker Casillas suddenly looking like a shell of the man that was not so long ago one of the absolute best keepers in the game, it only looks more vulnerable.
The Dutch confidence soared in the second period. They had their blueprint. The second goal was once again the product of a clever run in behind the defence, a gorgeous pass from Daley Blind and a piece of sublime individual skill, this time from Arjen Robben. The third a header at the far post that a younger Casillas probably would have dealt with (instead he was softly pushed off balance by RVP’s run), the fourth a shocking error by Casillas with the ball at his feet and the fifth a hopeful through ball that turned into an inspired one as Pique was embarrassingly outrun by Robben, who did his usual cut-onto-the-left-and-bury-it thing. Pique had a comfortable head start. Obviously Arjen Robben is outpacing most defenders but all Pique had to do was block him off. Show some physicality, obstruct the path. Maybe communicate with your partner a little more so the two of you don’t get so horribly exposed?
Netherlands have written the script. Teams know how to beat Spain now. You’re going to need some elements of individual genius, sure, but if you think you’re winning the World Cup without that then you’re pretty sorely mistaken. Every contending team has that potential. Having said that, Spain are too supremely talented to write off. They’re still capable of those pieces of virtuosity that we remember of them. The problem is that while last time they were a challenger, now they are the champs. They have a target on them. Other sides will come into games, just as Holland did, with a distinct plan as to how they can combat the Spanish tiki taka style and make things as uncomfortable as possible for La Roja. There’s a reason why so few teams ever defend the World Cup.
Spain Since 2010
15 players still remain from the squad that took it out last time (out of 23). Four years is a long time however - especially in football. While all of the key men remain, they’re all a little older and a few of them are showing it. Look at the strike force. Fernando Torres hadn’t yet begun his big, dramatic slump at the 2010 Cup – he would be transferred to Chelsea from Liverpool 6 months later. David Villa too was on top of the world. He’d tie for the top goal scorer award in South Africa - nowadays he’s been battling away off the bench for Atletico, and is about to make the pilgrimage to the MLS in America to take up a contract with the new New York team (Not before a spell in the A-League…). Both of those men remain in the squad, though Diego Costa is the new star striker. A naturalised Spanish citizen who has actually played for Brazil too. This is after a spell where Spain played without a recognised centre forward at all.
The success of this Spanish side has mirrored that of Barcelona. Tellingly the Catalans went trophy-less this past season. In 2010 there were 12 Spanish squad players from the traditional strongholds of Barcelona and Real Madrid. This time there are 10. Not a huge difference there, though the 2010 winners only had three players based outside of Spain (Torres, Reina and Fabregas) whereas the current squad have nine. These are meaningless statistics whether Spain defend their title or not, but they illustrate a growing trend in European football: The rest of the pack is catching up.
Just twice in the long, storied history of the FIFA World Cup has the defending champion retained their prize. Italy did it in 1938 and Brazil in 1962. The 1938 Italians rode a wave in what was just the third World Cup (and still in its experimental youth). It was a straight knockout tournament, and the Italians won all four games, beating Hungary 4-2 in the final. In 1962, Brazil overcame an early injury to Pele to advance undefeated from their group and outscore England, Chile and Yugoslavia to win the title on the back of the creativity of Garrincha and co. Still, just 2 successful defences in 19 tournaments? There’s clearly something to this.
No defending champion has ever lost as bad as 5-1 though Spain aren’t the first to get off to a losing start. In fact it’s happened four previous times:
- 2014: Spain 1-5 Netherlands
- 2002: France 0-1 Senegal
- 1990: Argentina 0-1 Cameroon
- 1982: Argentina 0-1 Belgium
- 1950: Italy 2-3 Sweden
That 2002 French side and the 1950 Italians would both be knocked out at the first stage. The 1990 Argies made the final, so all you kneejerk-reaction fans just remember that there’s a long way to go yet. Teams can make the knockouts after losing their first game – it happens. Spain actually did it last time, losing 1-0 to the Swiss and then beating everyone else in their way.
Then there’s the Italian’s disastrous performance at the last Cup. They were held by Paraguay, held by New Zealand (YES!) and then lost to Slovakia needing the win to advance. Bundled out in the group stage, just like France in 2002 (who didn’t even score a goal!), Brazil in 1966 (who suffered against the Hack-a-Pele strategy of their opponents) and that 1950 Italy team. The 2002 French were so disastrous that FIFA removed the automatic qualification rights of the defenders for 2006 and onwards. Only the hosts get a free pass now.
Along with the two repeat successes, there have been two other occasions when the holders have made the final: The aforementioned Argentina team of 1990 and the Brazilians of 1998. Argentina had to edge through their group after that Cameroon loss (one of the great upsets in FWC history), and after overcoming Brazil 1-0 in the Round of 16, they won both their quarter- and semi- finals by penalties. Then in the final, West Germany came out triumphant thanks to a controversial 85th minute penalty. Those Argentines were the first team ever not to score in the World Cup final, yet despite how close every one of their knockout games were, in the end they were still in it to win it. Spain are definitely a side who know the value of a tight victory, though winning ugly is something they should learn to settle for.
The 1998 Brazilians meanwhile played with pace and flair. They lit up the tournament with a series of exciting games, smashing Chile 4-1 in the Round of 16 and coming from behind to defeat Denmark 3-2. They then beat Holland on penalties in the semi, only to suffer a 3-0 loss in the final to hosts France (the last host nation to win the World Cup). Zinedine Zidane dominated the game, in which Ronaldo was controversially ill.
Once things are all said and done, nobody will care about any historical precedents. Whether or not Spain are the third team to defend the World Cup or the 17th team not to won’t make any difference to how the Spanish fans either celebrate or grieve. The results on the field will be the culmination of any number of factors on the day, and how the Italians played in 1938 is hardly gonna change anything. Losing 5-1 to Holland will though. There’s a long way to go in this tournament yet but Spain now have a steep hill to climb.