Spain 1-0 Holland: Iniesta settles a tight game
Spain are the World Champions. They were the better side and played a more positive, cohesive brand of football throughout.
There were no surprises when the team line-ups were announced just over an hour before kick-off, they were as predicted in the preview. Vicente del Bosque kept with the side that beat Germany in the semi-final, meaning Pedro Rodriguez started ahead of Fernando Torres. Holland, meanwhile, welcomed back Gregory van der Wiel and Nigel de Jong from suspension, meaning they returned to their first choice XI – as evidenced by them lining up with the numbers 1-11.
There was also no surprise in the pattern of play in the first quarter of an hour, for Spain dominated possession and were camped in the Dutch half. Bert van Marwijk’s side seemed to be inviting pressure, and Spain’s pressing when they lost the ball meant Holland were unable to construct any meaningful attacks of their own.
There seemed to be a shift in tactics from Holland after around 10 or 15 minutes – they started pressing earlier and higher up the pitch, seeking to disrupt the passing of Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso – the latter in particular had too much time on the ball in the opening period, and his influence declined as soon as he was closed down.
The pressing also complimented the tactics of their back four, who were playing a surprisingly high line. On three separate occasions early on, through balls nearly found David Villa in behind the Dutch defence. The problem was not necessarily the high defensive line, but the fact that there was never any pressure on the man looking to play the pass. Playing that position, Villa needs service, so when the supply was cut off, he was less visible and Holland looked more comfortable.
Holland were creating little, however. Wesley Sneijder was quiet and Arjen Robben was cutting in and running into traffic – Busquets, Alonso and Xavi all understood the need for one of them to occupy the space next to Joan Capdevilla that Robben likes to work in.
It became apparent that Holland were essentially using pure spoiling tactics, trying to physically unsettle Spain’s creative players and break up the rhythm of the game. Maybe they were influenced by Chile’s positive start in the final group game, where Spain were second best until they took the lead, but the Dutch tactics went too far. Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong could both have been dismissed in the first half for shocking tackles, and of the Dutch outfield players who started the game, only Dirk Kuyt and Sneijder finished without a booking. Spain were not blameless in this respect either, and it was a poor first half.
This modern Holland side aren’t used to pressing intensively, and weren’t able to do it for the entire game. In the second half they were clearly less effective in this respect, especially after Dirk Kuyt departed. “It’s very difficult to play for 90 minutes at the rhythm they imposed”, said del Bosque. “They had a great physical effort and we dominated extra time.”
But the two managers should be praised for their substitutions, as almost every switch had a broadly attacking motive. Eljero Elia for Kuyt, Cesc Fabregas for Alonso, Rafael van der Vaart for de Jong were all positive moves, and contributed to the game becoming more open and attractive in the second period.
Another del Bosque substitution was crucial – Pedro was withdrawn after a quiet start to the second half, and replaced with Jesus Navas. And then, finally, Spain had natural width and someone to run at Giovanni van Bronckhorst, who eventually had to be replaced. Navas’ delivery was as inconsistent as ever, but he did a good job by stretching the play and providing dribbling rather than one-touch passing, which opened out the game and allowed Iniesta and Xavi more space to work in. It was Navas’ run and cross that presented Villa with a golden opportunity at the far post midway through the second half, and later his run and shot deflected inches wide, into the sidenetting.
But the biggest goal threat was coming from Holland, through direct counter-attacks. The introduction of Elia meant Holland had a natural winger on the left, allowing Robben to make more direct runs in behind the defence, and he twice came close to breaking the deadlock. Spain have often looked vulnerable against pacey forwards at this tournament, and Robben’s move inside exploited this weakness.
Robin van Persie was playing an intelligent role by dropping deep to the left to distract the centre-backs, allowing Robben the opportunity to make runs on their blind side – once a straight ball found him and he shot straight at Casillas, another time van Persie’s flick-on put him through, but he was eased out by Puyol.
Spain eventually find a way through
Whilst Pedro started brightly and faded, Iniesta was the opposite. He was barely visible in the first half, but grew in stature later on and became the game’s most important player. Twice he found himself in good goalscoring positions in the Dutch penalty area but delayed the shot and the move broke down, but the positive for del Bosque was that the game was being dictated by him, rather than Sneijder or van Bommel.
The other key factor was the introduction of Fabregas. This allowed Xavi to drop deeper, where he could see the whole of the attacking area ahead of him, whilst Fabregas provided direct, driving runs from midfield, both on and off the ball. He had the best chance in the opening period of extra time when he went through one-on-one with Maarten Stekelenburg, though his finish was weak. Spain’s midfield now had more variety – they now had both width and direct running, and after Holland were worn down by the Spain passing earlier, they were now struggling with the more blatant attacking threat.
Maybe Spain needed Holland to go down to ten men to make the breakthrough. It’s a shame when a game is essentially decided by a red card, but considering Holland played such a physical game, it was no real surprise when Howard Webb was forced to reach for his red card. Holland were only living with Spain through fouling, and they essentially paid the price for that. Having used all three substitutes, van Marwijk was forced into a three-man defence with van Bommel dropping back to help out, which then left them exposed in front of the defence, with de Jong having departed.
Heitinga’s dismissal was when he tracked Iniesta into the box, and therefore it was probably no coincidence that after that, Iniesta found himself free to smash home the winner. The goal was fitting in that it started with a long, mazy run from Navas, and was assisted by Fabregas from an advanced midfield position. Iniesta had previously turned down those two excellent opportunities to shoot, but made no mistake this time.
It was effectively a golden goal – Holland had no energy left and were a man light, and didn’t manage to construct anything meaningful in the final four minutes. They will obviously be devastated but can have few complaints – they were second best on the day, and they failed to take their chances. Spain weren’t much better in front of goal, but when Iniesta finally found the net, a 1-0 Spain win seemed the fairest outcome. “It is harsh, but the best team won tonight”, van Marwijk conceded.
A disappointing final, because it was based around fouls and cards rather than technical quality or even a real tactical battle. Spain dominated the game but failed to score when Holland had eleven men on the pitch.
They eventually found a way through when they offered more of a varied attacking threat, and the impact of substitutes was a key factor. Navas and Fabregas clearly influenced the game, whilst it’s difficult to remember what Elia or van der Vaart contributed. Pressing was also key – the less Holland could do it, the more Spain created.
Spain will now go down as one of the greatest international sides in history – European Championship and World Cup holders, and an incredible record leading up to both tournaments. In both competitions they have struggled to find a perfect system going forward, but the key in their success has not been their attacking play, but their defensive ability. Seven knockout games played over the two tournaments, and seven clean sheets.