Holland v Spain: tactical preview

July 11, 2010

Probable starting line-ups

So here we are, the biggest game in football. A clash of the two most successful sides in World Cup history to have never won the trophy itself, it is tactically fascinating in a historical sense.

Taking into account both the qualifiers and the six World Cup games itself, Holland are P14 W14, Spain are P16 W15 L1.

Amazingly, Holland and Spain have never met at a World Cup (or European Championships) before. This is the second time in three finals where this is the case – the 2002 finalists, Brazil and Germany, had also never met at a World Cup, which was even more remarkable because of the fact they were (at the time) the two most successful countries in the history of the competition.

The two most-celebrated players in recent footballing story have dominated the last three World Cup finals. The main story in 2006 was Zinedine Zidane, the main story in 2002 was Ronaldo, he main story in 1998 was a combination of Ronaldo and Zidane. One of the 46 players from the two squads will find themselves famous – or infamous – for the rest of their lives.

But this match probably won’t be about individual players, or even direct confrontations between opposing players, for these two sides have got this far by working as a unit, rather than relying on individuals. The most important contest will be between the two playing styles, the general strategies and more specifically, the way both sides perform when they don’t have the ball.

The Dutch approach

It would be a surprise if Spain did not dominate possession, and Bert van Marwijk must be concerned that his sidewill simply get outpassed in the centre of midfield. Xavi will drop deeper and pick the ball up from Sergio Busquets, whilst Andres Iniesta will move in from the flank and create a skewed diamond in the centre of midfield. The Dutch players in the corresponding positions – Wesley Sneijder and Arjen Robben – are more dynamic players but neither reliable in terms of ball retention, nor hard-working defensively. They may have to compromise their natural game to make sure Holland have a chance.

Of particular interest will be the attitude of Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. Will they sit deep in front of their own defence to prevent Spain playing between the lines, or push up and try and disrupt Spain’s passing game? Certainly, van Bommel will play slightly higher up the pitch than de Jong, so his positioning will be key.

Another key factor will be how they treat Andres Iniesta when he is in a right-wing position. Giovanni van Bronckhorst has tended to deal with opponents by sticking tight to them, but this probably won’t be possible when Iniesta moves inside. Dirk Kuyt is a good defensive player and will have to be incredibly disciplined in this game – he’ll be the attacker with the most responsibility to get behind the ball, but his primary job will be tracking the runs of Sergio Ramos, who bombed on forward to good effect against Germany.

Arjen Robben will focus on pinning back Joan Capdevilla rather than tracking his runs, whilst Wesley Sneijder’s job will be to take up positions that worry Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, even when Spain have the ball.

The Spanish approach

Vicente del Bosque’s first decision is whether to keep Pedro Rodriguez in the side. On the basis of his semi-final performance against Germany, he is a surefire starter, but the other options – Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Fernando Llorente – all offer something different if del Bosque wants to spring a tactical surprise.

But that is exactly what it would be if Pedro was omitted – a surprise. He and Iniesta will switch flanks throughout the game, and Pedro will relish the opportunity to use his pace against van Bronckhorst.

Elsewhere, it’s difficult to see Spain changing their general approach. So far, a constant criticism of Spain has been their lack of width, with their five midfielders tending to congregate in the centre of midfield. Today, however, this could suit the occasion quite well, for they will try and overrun de Jong and van Bommel in midfield, with the knowledge that Robben will stay wide, Sneijder will perform half a defensive job, whilst Kuyt coming inside will create an easy out-ball to Sergio Ramos.

The key, of course, is whether they can turn their expected dominance into goals, having scored just six goals in six games so far. Xavi has acknowledged Spain need to be more clinical, and whilst David Villa is the obvious threat, Pedro and Iniesta need to take up serious attacking positions more frequently to trouble Holland. The Dutch have looked slightly suspect against through balls towards wingers moving into central positions, as the centre-backs move too high up the pitch – think Robinho’s goal in the quarter-final against Brazil. That’s more Pedro’s natural game than Iniesta’s.

Defensively, Spain will press relentlessly in midfield, which should be interesting as Holland have generally faced teams who sit back deep inside their own half. There is no specific plan for dealing with Sneijder, and their priority might be doubling up against Arjen Robben.

A tight game that will be decided by the defensive jobs of the two midfields, and which side take the few chances that come their way.

Holland v Spain: tactical preview

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