Defying Paul and The Spaniards: How The Netherlands Will Beat Spain

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Defying Paul and The Spaniards: How The Netherlands Will Beat Spain
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Now that Paul (der Tintenfisch , of course) has spoken, with the omen favoring Spain, the question is: If there is such a thing as fate, can it be defied?

I will leave attending to this question for last to answer a more pressing one: How can the Netherlands beat Spain's seemingly impenetrable system of playing?

It appears that Spain have fashioned an almost perfect style of playing football, one that has given them a great deal of success over the past couple of years, with only two defeats in 52 matches, the first in the Confederation Cup to the USA, and the second to Switzerland in their first World Cup match.

To answer this question, it is prudent to understand the Spaniards' system first, and then to answer the "how" of beating the system, next.

Spain's Style

While Spain's formation at the beginning of a match may appear to be 4-3-3, the actual positioning of players during play has more flexibility.

It may be more accurate to say that Spain play a 3-3-3-1 or a 1-3-3-3 when in possession and a 5-5-0 when they lose the ball in the opponents halve, which then morphs into any of the two triangular formations of threes fore-mentioned, or a 4-4-2  or 5-4-1 when pressed deep in the last third of their own halve.

It is apparent immediately that the beauty of their style is in its flexibility.

I have been one of the few (or perhaps many) who have not found Spain's style of football attractive, mainly because of the incessant short passing involved which borders on drudgery.

But over the last few days, I must admit that Spain have won my respect and admiration if not allegiance. This has come about not because of their success in this tournament, but because of the remarkable intelligence involved in their style.

Being an advocate of attacking football, I have had reasons to ponder on the apparent weakness of attacking approach to football, that is, its susceptibility to counter-attacks, with the result that weaker, defensive teams (at least in appearance) often defeat attack-minded teams.

It hasn't helped that Steffen Borge ostensibly calls attacking playing "shiny but shallow."

He opines: "Shiny but shallow teams have a tendency to be beaten out of the knock-out tournaments whenever they run into the harsh reality of football in the form of a more balanced team, one with a stronger ability on the destructive side of the game and enough constructive quality to punish such teams' defensive weakness." ("May the Best Team Win!" in Soccer and Philosophy: Beautiful Thought on the Beautiful Game )

By "destructive," Borge means defensive. This harsh assertion got me thinking.

"How," I pondered, "can attack-minded sides overcome this weakness?"

Then like an epiphany, the answer became clear after the Germany-Spain match. It had been there all along, right in front of my nose: Spain!

Spain have found a way to play attacking football without leaving themselves vulnerable at the back. A less attractive attacking style admittedly, but an effective one nonetheless.

Using short passing as the main fulcrum of their system, Spain depend on tenacity and a patient chipping away at the opponent's defense for breakthrough rather than on direct, frontal attack that is a wont of attack-minded teams.

Spain use their superior possession to construct incessant attacks that take a "U" shape, meaning that they knock the ball around the 18-yard box of the opponent, often seeking to go around the 4-man wall of the opponent through the flanks, attempting a quick and slicing doppelpass in the process.

When this is broken up, they press triangularly, which is to say they use three players to zone in immediately on the possessing player of the opponent in an attempt to win back the ball. Hence the 3-3-3-1 or its reverse, mentioned above.

Having three players to reckon with, this usually forces the possessing player of the opposing team into error, resulting in their giving back possession to Spain, who then, often, back-pedal to regroup, tracing another attacking "U" in the process.

Measured, calculated, and steady rhythm is essential to the success of the Spaniards' style. And because of their respect for the possessing power of Spain, opponents often make the mistake of playing the game at the pace set by Spain. Some attempt to counter Spain by using zonal marking as Germany did in the second semifinal.

This, of course, does not work. But how then can a team neutralize Spain?

There are, at least, four ways to counter Spain.

Neutralizing Spain

One way to neutralize Spain is to pressure-mark them rather than using zone-marking. (see my article here. )

In the former, the defending team man-marks the opponent, putting the on and off the ball players under constant pressure, forcing them into making quicker decisions, with a high percentage of those decisions error-prone.

While the latter method of marking has its own advantages, I do not believe it is an effective strategy against Spain as it allows Spain to play at its own pace.

This last, pace, is a very important factor in playing Spain. Spain likes to play at a moderate, steady pace. The USA, who beat Spain 2-0 at the Confederation Cup, did so by breaking up the pace of the Spaniards. 

The two goals that the USA scored against them were a result of countering, fast rhythm that did not afford Spain time to collapse their 3-3-3-1 formation into a 5-5-0 or a 5-4-1 as they are won't to do.

If there is a silver lining in the clouds anywhere for the Netherlands, this should be it. Their capability to quickly build an attack is a factor that could work to their advantage in the upcoming final.

A major key to successfully play Spain is to refuse to allow them to establish their steady pace.

Although this might sound foolish to some, I believe half the battle against Spain is won if their opponent plays a high tempo game as a countermeasure to the former's measured rhythm.

It worked for the USA.

Quickness in addition to pressure (from man-marking) will hampered Spain's passing game. In other words, they would have no time to execute their slow attacking build-up. Again, Spain would have less time on and off the ball. But chiefly, it will neutralize their main strength, the midfield.

If the Netherlands successfully neutralize Spain's midfield on Sunday, they will win the highest prize of football .

On paper, Spain have a stronger midfield than the Netherlands do, who have depended on the intelligence of Wesley Sneijder as a marshaling force. And although Van Bommel works as a wrench in the wheel of the opponent, I do not think, even with these two, the Netherlands can win the midfield battle against Iniesta, Busquets, Alonso, or Fabregas if he plays on Sunday.

To achieve the neutralization of the midfield, the Netherlands should use pressure marking when not in possession (as I have said above) and long balls from the defense into the danger zone of Spain when in possession.

This will, in the former instance, disturb the rhythm of Spain, and in the latter instance, effectively cut off the midfield (the strength of Spain), exerting the burden of pressure on the latter's defense.

And Spain's defense has shown a propensity to lose its nerves and resort to frantic clearances when pressured.

Examples are the USA match and the matches against Switzerland and Paraguay. The goal Spain conceded against Switzerland resulted from a defense that lost its nerves at the slightest of pressures.

Meanwhile, when Paraguay used long balls to pressure Spain's defense, even when utilizing a single attacker, they constantly rattled the latter's defense. Needless to say, Paraguay could have won that match. Note as well that in this match, Paraguay did not allow Spain to play at its own pace for extended periods.

Dropped long balls over the midfield and into the danger zone of Spain will cause Spain to make mistakes and concede corners or free-kicks at  dangerous positions, which the Netherlands could then exploit to score .

One other tactic the Netherlands could use against Spain is to cede the flanks to Spain in order to congest the midfield . The reason why the midfield should be congested should be obvious. It relates to most of what I have said in the foregoing.

But why the flanks may be ceded might not be as apparent. In fact, it might sounds counter-intuitive, more so, since one of the strengths of the Netherlands is the flanks, where Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt are imposing.

Here is why the Netherlands should cede the flanks.

By ceding the flanks they'd gain more bodies in the midfield, congesting it and troubling Spain. This will disorganize Spain's passing game and will not allow them to enjoy possession, a thing in which they delight.

On the other hand, the Netherlands would force Spain to attack through the flanks. When they do this, they'd predictably fall into the deliberate plan of the former. The Netherlands could then counter these attacks by using a 4-5-1 formation.

The key is to have strong center half positioning, operating just ahead of the full backs. If executed well, this should act as a brick-wall, forcing Spain to retrace their step in an attempt to reform their beloved "U" attacking format.

This back-pedalling, of course, would allow the Netherlands' midfield to reorganize and their defense to reposition.

If the the Netherlands employ pressure marking as I have suggested, this will force Spain to hold the ball longer in their own halve, possibly loosing it and conceding a corner, or worse, a goal.

And if Spain are forced to hold the ball longer in their own halve, the danger of their causing havoc to the Netherlands would be greatly reduced.

In fact, if you watch the USA's Confederation match against Spain, you'd notice that the USA did exactly what I have proposed in these last few paragraphs.

One Thing to Avoid

Finally, to be successful on Sunday, there is one thing the Netherlands must not do. When attacking, they must never use the "V" formation to do so . The "V" formation is a 3-3-4, or more accurately, a 1-2-3-4 formation or any of its variations that a team assumes when attacking.

The counter-attacking susceptibility that Borge so devastatingly indicted in the first half of this article, results from this formation.

Usually the defending team would have a lone striker positioned just under the nook or crook of the "V," and it requires just one well-placed pass to elude the last man of the attacking team and BANG, the team that just moments ago was under siege scores!

Rather, the Netherlands must make sure to always maintain a straight four-man wall at the back even when attacking.

Sure, Spain may always have a man or two lurking just beyond this four-man wall, but then the Netherlands would have four intercepting options to snuff out any danger resulting from a break-away pass.

Another counter-intuitive advise: It might be better for the Netherlands to defend higher rather than deeper in their own halve . Though defending higher involves the possibility of falling victim to counter-attacks, a solid four-man wall at the back is a viable and a strong enough counter measure.

One advantage from this manner of defending lies in the fact that it removes pressure from the 18-yard and from the goalkeeper of the defending team, at the same time it forces the attacking team to stay deeper in its own halve.

Now to our first question: Can fate be defied?

For those readers who do not care for metaphysics or theology, they may want to stop reading at this point.

My answer is yes, fate can be altered.

From a theological or biblical perspective, when God gave prophecies or omens they were not so much fixed phenomenon as they were warning given, whereby the given omen could be altered through proper measures.

You would recall (from Sunday School or wherever) the story of Jonah and Nineveh, where God declared that the City of Nineveh would be destroyed in 40 days' time. The omen, of course, did not come to pass because it contained a clause, a counteracting factor.

Again in the case of Ahab, the wicked king of Judah, who God had declared would perished ingloriously in no distant a time, the omen did not come to pass, at least not in his life time, because the king altered his wicked ways, a fact that pleased God, who suspended the sentence.

Of course, I'm aware that this is only sports not religion and many of you may consider it mumbo-jumbo, but since metaphysics or superstition is just that: the extra-physical or extra-natural, and since Paul Octopus, the soothsayer has entered into the equation, perhaps it is legitimate to ponder the question.

And my answer is that while Paul Octopus' omen might be right, his omen is nevertheless alterable. In the very least, it acts as a warning to the Netherlands not to be complacent going into this match.

For another, it may prompt them to summon (in the abstract sense of the word) the spirit of their fatherland and everything that is Dutch to go with them into the match to conquer the giant that stands between them and the ultimate prize, not with might or a weaver's-beam-like spear but by a simple sling and a single stone.

A single long ball into the penalty area to cause confusion in the Spanish defense might be the stone that topples the giant.

Again, yes, omens can be broken and fate can be defied.

In case you haven't noticed, my allegiance is with the Netherlands, Paul or no Paul!

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