Spain's Defensive Frailties Are Ruthlessly Exposed in Stunning Loss to Dutch

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Spain's Defensive Frailties Are Ruthlessly Exposed in Stunning Loss to Dutch
David Ramos/Getty Images

In the much-anticipated replay of the 2010 World Cup final, Spain were ruthlessly ripped apart by Louis van Gaal's Netherlands outfit, slumping to a dramatic 5-1 thrashing in Salvador on Friday.

Despite taking the lead through Xabi Alonso's first-half penalty, the defensive frailties of Vicente del Bosque's side were remarkably exposed by the sublime Dutch forward pairing of Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie.

It was the Manchester United striker's stunning equaliser just before the interval that wrestled the initiative away from the Spaniards. After the break, it was one-way traffic of the most unfathomable kind. 

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Robben put Van Gaal's men ahead after being put through on goal by a brilliant long ball from Daley Blind. A messy set piece in which Iker Casillas was taken down then resulted in the third for Stefan de Vrij. 

But on a tropical evening at Arena Fonte Nova, it got worse for La Roja. It was diabolically even. 

Van Persie grabbed his second goal and his team's fourth when Casillas' alarmingly poor touch allowed the striker a straightforward opportunity, before Robben made it five by completing a blistering counter-attack.

And it could have been six...or seven...or eight. 

Paul Gilham/Getty Images

Prior to the tournament in Brazil, much of the talk regarding the defending champions had centred on the possible influence of Diego Costa.

Against the Dutch, his involvement—actually one of the few positives on the night for the Spanish—was rendered irrelevant. 

Instead, the Oranje uncovered issues in Spain's defence that had become evident during the 2013 Confederations Cup on the same continent. 

During that campaign, Del Bosque's outfit had displayed a vulnerability to swift counter-attacks against both Italy and Brazil in the semi-finals and final, respectively. That had been particularly noticeable when Sergio Busquets was deployed as the only holding midfielder, as the manager tinkered with a Barcelona-like 4-3-3 rather than the more characteristic 4-2-3-1. 

By doing so, the team's removed its typical double pivot that featured Alonso alongside Busquets. Despite the added creativity, La Roja lost a degree of stability and grunt in midfield.

A 3-0 loss to Brazil ensued. 

David Ramos/Getty Images

On Friday in Salvador, the theme was similar, but the mechanics were different.

Opting for conservatism in his team's opener, Del Bosque used the safety of his double pivot. Initially, it appeared that the predicted script would follow its course; the Spaniards seemingly in control in midfield, with Costa and David Silva creating headaches for the trio of Dutch centre-backs. 

Yet even throughout La Roja's early dominance, it was clear that Spain's XI weren't in perfect cohesion in the press that has become their defensive trademark.

While the back four, led by Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique, pushed high as is customary, the athletically declining Spanish midfield wasn't able to exert any pressure on the ball. Consequently, as possession found its way to Wesley Sneijder centrally and Blind on the left flank, the pair owned the time to hit Robben and Van Persie attacking the space behind the high line. 

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Also notable was the spacing between the central defensive pairing. 

As Spain launched a predominantly one-sided attack down the left, with Jordi Alba pushing forward to provide width, Ramos was regularly drawn wide of Pique.

Typically, La Roja's smothering press prevents that space from becoming exposed. But against the Dutch, the Spaniards found themselves scrambling, as a lack of midfield pressure allowed Van Gaal's men to quickly release their rampant forward pairing into the vast expanses surrounding Ramos and Pique. 

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Undoubtedly, the most concerning aspect of Spain's annihilation for Del Bosque will centre on how little influence he can exert on the primary causes of the defensive frailties.

Tactically, the manager will avoid drastic alterations. That's simply not his style.  

However, in order to maximise his team's attacking capacity, Del Bosque can't avoid their athletic shortcomings in the middle. To score, La Roja need the unmatched passing skills of Xavi, Alonso, Silva and Andres Iniesta. To avoid becoming narrow and predictable, Alba must fly forward on the left. 

But as the Dutch showed us, Spain's press can be dismantled if the team lacks the capacity to apply pressure on the ball in midfield. 

Added grunt and legs are needed. Yet Del Bosque can't wind back Xavi's years...nor Alonso's...nor Iniesta's. To maintain the supremacy of their defensive system, Spain need a quick boost of the one quality their manager can't supply: the vitality of youth. 

Now on their heels, the most decorated footballing outfit on the planet faces the sternest test of their glittering, inspiring era.

Thanks to Van Gaal's irrepressible Dutch, the rest of the nations in the tournament know it too.

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