Spain went into their match against the Netherlands Friday with a bit of a reputation to defend. For years, their tiki-taka was seen as the very best football had to offer. At times almost mesmerising, this technical style of football looked unbeatable.
In the final of the 2010 World Cup, when the Netherlands last faced Spain, the Dutch gave it their all. But even outright aggression could not stop Spain’s all-conquering machine. While “Oranje” managed to take the game into extra time, their defeat eventually seemed inevitable.
Even stars like Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder must have felt chanceless. They came so close to winning the World Cup, the highest honour in football. But how could they be expected to top what Spain had brought to the world of football?
And what to think about Arjen Robben, who broke through Spain’s high defensive line halfway through the second half only to see his attempt stopped by Iker Casillas’ right toe. As if it wasn’t meant to be, he failed to convert his clear-cut chance.
Flash forward four years and it was the same Robben, along with the aforementioned Van Persie and Sneijder, who got to dismantle Spain’s seemingly invincible footballing machine—piece, by piece, by piece.
A lot had happened between 2010 and tonight’s match, where the Dutch avenged their 2010 defeat with a 5-1 victory to open their World Cup. Arjen Robben scored the winning goal in the Champions League, and Robin van Persie won the Premier League with Manchester United. Louis van Gaal had taken over from Bert van Marwijk—the Netherlands' manager back in 2010.
But as it turned out, the biggest transformation had probably happened within the Spanish camp. That’s what made it all the more amazing: As if the parts had gotten rusty, the tiki-taka machine stopped working against Oranje.
It must have been Robben’s, Van Persie’s and Sneijder’s pleasure to take the Spanish machine apart. What turned out to be impossible four years ago, happened tonight—and then some. Revenge can hardly taste sweeter.
Van Gaal, once the manager of Andres Iniesta and Xavi at Barcelona, played his part as well. Showing his dedication and never-say-die attitude, he had even crafted an unusual 5-3-2 system for the Dutch, all to stand a chance against the reigning world champions.
It turned out to be the masterstroke that allowed Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder to shine. Perfectly accommodating “The Golden Triangle,” Van Gaal’s newfound system got the best out of his best players.
As it turned out, it was never about “standing a chance.” It was about footballing history taking an unexpected turn. As we will undoubtedly find out later, it might have even been about the end of an era.
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