Holland v Spain: two teams rooted in similar history

July 10, 2010

Johan Cruyff is the greatest player in Dutch history, but has he been more of an influence on the current players of Holland or Spain?

This is a tremendously intriguing final for a variety of reasons.

Firstly, because it is between the two non-World Cup-winning sides with the best historical record in the competition, using this table as the basis for that statement. One of them will finally break their duck.

Furthermore, this is clash between two sides historically appreciated for their style of football. Before the tournament started, if we had asked a large sample of fans what their ideal final would be to guarantee an exciting game, Holland v Spain would surely have been the most popular answer, considering Brazil’s apparent negativity and the highly-structured Argentina side Diego Maradona looked set to field. But then, by their standards, neither Holland nor Spain have played particularly attractive football so far.

Dutch pragmatism

Holland have reached their first World Cup final since the the 1970s, when they won the hearts of many football fans across the globe for their exciting, revolutionary ‘Total Football’ system. There has been much discussion about the nature of Bert van Marwijk’s current Dutch side – it certainly isn’t Total Football, but is it even typically Dutch? Raphael Honigstein wrote an interesting piece before their semi-final with Uruguay on this subject, concluding, “It’s high time the old stereotypes were ditched, regardless of the result. Dutch football itself already did it a while back. Maybe the rest of the world should follow suit.”

Even accepting Honigstein’s theory that Holland are “no more defensive than 30 years ago”, it is interesting that, for a country so rooted in the concept of individualism, they have reached the final with few top-class performances from their star players. Wesley Sneijder is the one man who is being talked about in ‘Team of the Tournament’ terms, but his goal tally, his main achievement in the tournament, has been inflated by three rather fortunate goals. He and Robben have provided a couple of good moments, but nothing like the dominant performances they showed when guiding their sides to domestic doubles and the Champions League final last season. Holland have been successful in 2010 because they’ve worked well as a unit.

Spain ‘using the Barcelona formula’

With this debate about the nature of the Holland team, it’s perfect that they come up against a Spain side who arguably display more of a classically ‘Dutch’ attitude towards football. Jonathan Wilson has this week commented that Spain are ‘essentially using the Barcelona formula’ in terms of tactics, and there is a clear crossover with Barcelona in terms of personnel too. When David Villa scored the winner against Paraguay last week, there were 7 Barcelona-owned players on the pitch at the time: Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Pedro Rodriguez and Villa. Another, Cesc Fabregas, has been strongly linked with a move back to the Nou Camp this summer.

But the more fascinating aspect is that seven of those eight (this time including Fabregas but excluding Villa) are players who were brought up as Barcelona players – all of them spent considerable time at La Masia, and the majority made their professional debut for the club.

The Dutch influence on Barcelona cannot be overstated – in its entire history, only four managers have been in charge of the club for more than 150 matches, and all four have been from Holland – Rinus Michels (1971-75 and 1976-78), Johan Cruyff (1988-96), Louis van Gaal (1997-2000) and Frank Rijkaard (2003-08). Nine of their 20 La Liga titles have been won under Dutch management.

Michels is possibly the most important factor to consider here. ‘He was the father of Total Football, and he carried it on at Barcelona’, as Wilson says in Inverting the Pyramid. From him, there is a clear Dutch link to the present day. Cruyff was a Barcelona player under Michels, then when he became manager, brought Rijkaard to the club. The present manager, Pep Guardiola, played under Cruyff, van Gaal, and then managed the Barcelona B team during Rijkaard’s final season, and Guardiola’s influence on Spain’s squad both as a player (Xavi, Iniesta) and as a manager (Pedro, Busquets) has been well-documented.

Cruyff, as manager, instructs Pep Guardiola, now the current Barcelona manager

Dutch influence

It is not just a coincidental chain, either. Cruyff described Michels as his “first and only football master”. Guardiola pinpoints Cruyff as the key factor in his successful career, saying, “Cruyff believed I could do it, and gave me the opportunity. I think there are lots of people with talent who simetimes miss out simply because they are not given the chance. I owe it to Cruyff’. When Cruyff managed Barcelona, he “turned the Catalan giants into Europe’s leading club, and, arguably, the Continent’s standard-bearer for beautiful, attacking football” as David Winner puts it, a position they have regained under Guardiola.

In Winner’s book about Dutch football, ‘Brilliant Orange’, his description of the main factors of Total Football (aside from the well-documented switching of positions) is telling, when considering the Dutch influence upon Barcelona.

‘Space is the unique defining element of Dutch football…Total Football was built on a new theory of flexible space…Michels and Cruyff exploited the capacities of a new breed of players to change the dimensions of the football field…they tried to make the pitch as large as possible, spreading play to the wings…when they lost the ball, they pressed deep into the other side’s half, hunting for the ball, defended a line ten yards inside their own half, and used the offside trap aggressively to squeeze further space.”

This could be a description of Barcelona – flexibility, making the pitch as wide as possible, heavy pressing, a high line and an aggressive offside trap. This is not a history lesson on Barcelona, but a recognition that Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro (60% of Spain’s likely outfield XI for the final) all grew up in surroundings inherently shaped by Dutch figures and Dutch theories, dating back to Total Football.

But then, there is a further twist, because the current Spain side are playing football which has disappointed some in terms of excitement and attacking flair. Few expected a Holland v Spain World Cup final where the major discussion about both sides was ‘Are they boring?’, a debate touched upon by Giancarlo Rinaldi, looking at Vicente del Bosque’s players.

Spain certainly haven’t created as many goalscoring opportunities as expected, but even though their three knockout games have finished 1-0, against Portugal, Paraguay and then Germany, all have been good games, despite (or maybe because of) the lack of goals. “We probably don’t appreciate just how hard it is to open teams that, scared of Spain’s talent, sit deep, close off space and give their opponents no time to breathe”, says says Sid Lowe, in a piece with some fascinating quotes from Xavi. But they have largely stuck to the Dutch/Barcelona formula in terms of ball retention, heavy pressing and a high defensive line. The one exception has been Spain’s clear lack of width.

The final is a simple clash between two great football nations and two historical underachievers, but is also perfect in terms of footballing ideology. The history of Dutch football is a history of underachievement and disappointment. Failure once again on Sunday night would be a failure extraordinary even for the Dutch, because they would be beaten to their first World Cup by a side who have borrowed so much from their way of playing football.

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