SALVADOR, BRAZIL — While people all around the world are scratching their heads in disbelief following Netherlands’ 5-1 demolition of Spain, the reality perhaps is that this was far less surprising a result than some might think.
Love him or loathe him, the fact is that few people can plan a game, and then think better on their feet during it, than Dutch coach Louis van Gaal.
"We made five goals and conceded one and of course, that is not what you expect,” Van Gaal said. “The way they were scored, well! That was what I expected, but not so many.”
After the match, I spoke to some of the Dutch players who told me just what the plan of attack was beforehand and how it worked out in practise.
Fundamentally, what Netherlands did was to play the dangerous game of surrendering possession to their opponents while playing an aggressive, unsettling style, which suckered Spain into the false perception that they were in control of the game.
With more space being left behind Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and the full-backs as they pushed forward, the Dutch plan was to bide their time before picking the moment to regain possession and inflict maximum damage. Robin van Persie’s superb equalising header (that came from a Daley Blind long pass with no opposition around) was proof positive that it couldn’t have worked better.
Van Gaal initially asked his side to keep their lines as close together as possible without defending too deeply and also be aware that they needed to avoid leaving too much space behind their defensive line that could be exploited by Spain’s attacking full-backs or by Diego Costa and David Silva.
It wasn’t long, however, before Van Gaal realised that although Jordi Alba was making the occasional foray forward, Cesar Azpilicueta wasn’t. And despite the fact that he could have given Spain a 2-0 advantage shortly after they took the lead from the penalty spot, nor was Silva. Or not often enough. And little by little, Silva, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, unable to make a big enough physical display to link and pressure without the ball, were getting disconnected.
As a result, too many long balls were used, and Costa became far easier to deal with, with one centre-back man to man on him and another one watching out for one of his runs.
How far will Netherlands go?
From an attacking point of view, Van Gaal’s plan was always to play the ball quickly up front, taking full advantage of the lightning pace of Arjen Robben and Van Persie, who are much older than the centre-backs, by the way. I firmly believe that when the Dutch went in at half-time, they knew in their hearts that this was a Spanish side that was, physically, totally out of sorts. In fact, that was mentioned by the Dutch players in the changing rooms.
And the reason that Van Gaal spotted this was as soon as Spain took the lead, they dropped back very deep to keep possession. This could only be for one of two reasons. Firstly, to try to control the game. But secondly, and more importantly, because the Spanish team didn't believe they trusted themselves to recover the ball high up the pitch. Dropping deep was manifest proof that they lacked the legs to keep up the pressure in that area. If they had had the legs, Spain would have defended differently.
At 1-1, the Dutch coach told his players at half-time that Spain were there for the taking. In the second half, despite trying to keep the ball, and play to their usual style, Spain had been rumbled. The Dutch quickly realised that they were now facing a side that, for whatever reasons be they physical or mental, had lost their shape and were a spent force. Players commented on it on the pitch and encouraged each other to have a go at Spain.
And they did go for the kill, and aided and abetted by Iker Casillas, who chose this match to put on his worst-ever performance for his country, administered the coup de grace. A coup de grace that was described as a humiliation by Mark Ogden of the Telegraph.
Netherlands’ aggressive, uncompromising approach was in direct contrast to the Spanish tactics that smacked of a lack of physical presence, intensity and hunger. The difference in the approach of the two sides was ultimately crucial. Spain committed a total of five fouls in a game where they had 57 percent possession. Had they enjoyed—as they often have in the past—something like 75 percent possession, that figure would be understandable, but not when they have only had the ball for 57 percent of the time.
Unfortunately for Spain, that says it all.