Holland avenged their World Cup finals defeat by thrashing the reigning champions in the second half.
Diego Costa was deemed fit to feature in Vicente del Bosque’s 4-2-3-1 ahead of Andres Iniesta, Xavi, and David Silva. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets played in the double-pivot.
Louis van Gaal started Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie upfront in his 3-4-1-2 with Wesley Sneijder playing behind the duo. Jonathan de Guzman and Nigel de Jong formed a midfield two, while Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat operated as wingbacks.
Despite starting the match well, Spain failed to cope with Holland’s direct approach that involved the midfield quickly facilitating the ball to their strikers behind the Spanish defence.
Holland with out the ball
The most intriguing talking point subsequent to kickoff was Holland’s approach without the ball. Usually teams would opt to defend in two deep banks of four and force the Spaniards to break them down, but here, van Gaal’s men held an extremely high-line and pressed in midfield.
Van Gaal aimed to pack central zones with hard-working players and limit as much space as possible for the Spaniards to work in. De Guzman and de Jong pressed Xavi and Xabi Alonso – who were both quiet – Sneijder worked hard to cut off Busquets’ passing lanes, and the surprising feat was the positioning of Stefan de Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi.
The two outside centre-backs man-marked Iniesta and Silva when they drifted infield to receive the ball; sometimes all the way into Spain’s half. Iniesta and Silva were often fouled and they struggled to turn due to the committed defending of de Vrij and Indi.
Likewise, neither Cesar Azpilicueta nor Jordi Alba got forward enough, as their was limited time in central areas to string passes out in these wide zones, while Janmaat and Blind closed the Spanish full-backs down.
Holland’s intent was to clog spaces in central zones to prevent the Spaniards from overloading the midfield and dictating the tempo of the match.
Spain, on the other hand, was more conservative out of possession, and didn’t rely on their high-pressing that has proved beneficial in recent years. Spain dropped into two banks of four with Xavi behind Costa attempting to close down the Dutch defenders.
The issue with Spain’s approach without the ball was that it lacked motivation and grit. At times, Holland easily shifted the ball from side to side, as the Spanish players failed to effectively close van Gaal’s men down. Silva and Iniesta also appeared disinterested in committing their defensive duties in wide areas, further allowing Holland’s wingbacks forward, while Robben and van Persie made runs into the channels.
Spain’s work ethic out of possession was the vast difference between Holland’s approach as del Bosque’s men were sluggish and lacklustre.
With both side’s opting to play with high-lines, the space to exploit was behind the defence. Spain, however, encountered two issues throughout the match.
First, Spain didn’t offer runners in midfield, and the only player aiming to get behind the defence was Diego Costa. Costa made several intelligent runs behind Holland’s back-line, and he appeared frustrated when passes weren’t played into his path. Jordi Alba was the other player that could have offered this threat but Janmaat kept the left-back quiet.
Silva’s movement into central areas left gaps of space available on the right, but Azpilicueta was quite cautious with his positioning. Pedro Rodriguez would serve as a useful option on the right flank, as would Juanfran who displayed his adventurous running when he exploited Eden Hazard in the Champions League this season; but it appeared that Azpilicueta was preferred based on his defensive qualities.
Spain, however, did receive their opportunities when they occasionally bypassed Holland’s press, or the outside centre-backs were caught out of position. Xavi played two balls into Costa – one from deep and the other between the lines – but on both occasions the recovering Ron Vlaar broke up the play. Xavi’s third pass was the charm, and it occurred when the Dutch centre-backs didn’t come out to press Iniesta and Silva. The duo exchanged quick passes ahead of de Guzman and de Jong before sliding the ball into Xavi between the lines, and the Spaniard delivered an inch-perfect pass to Costa who was taken down and awarded a penalty.
An identical situation occurred in the latter stages of the half with Iniesta dropping deep into midfield – away from de Vrij – and Silva drifted to the left channel to make an unmarked forward run to collect the Barcelona midfielder’s sumptuous no-look pass, but he failed to beat goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen with his delicate chip.
The Spanish attacking three exploited space between the lines frequently in the second half, but they weren’t on the same wave-length with Costa – who didn’t appear 100 per-cent fit – and their final ball was often underwhelming.
Spain struggled to play their preferred game due to Holland’s pressure, but with limited runners providing penetration, and the lack of conviction or a final ball in advanced areas, del Bosque’s men were bound to encounter issues.
Van Gaal’s aligned his side to exploit the space behind Spain’s high-defensive line, and the warning signs were evident in the opening minutes. Alba’s poor chest pass in Spain’s half saw Robben slide the ball into Sneijder, but the Dutch midfielder fired his shot directly at Casillas.
Robben and van Persie were both caught offside on a few occasions prior to the latter’s opening goal, yet del Bosque was unfazed by their threat. The other worry was the combination plays on the flanks subsequent to Alonso’s goal that led to de Guzman and Blind delivering quality crosses into the box that surprisingly evaded everyone. The work ethic from Iniesta and Silva in these defensive errors were poor and Holland’s forwards were keen on drifting wide to create overloads.
Coincidentally, the buildup in Holland’s opening goals were identical, as Blind’s terrific long diagonals from the half-way line saw van Persie lose Ramos, and Robben sneak behind Pique to provide quality finishes. The quality of the finishing and deliveries were world-class, but the defending from the Spanish centre-backs was putrid.
The two following goals were merely defensive errors – both by Casillas, while Azpilicueta deserves some blame for the third goal – but the final goal epitomized Holland’s attacking approach. Indi won the ball off Pedro and Sneijder quickly sprayed the loose ball into the path of Robben who outpaced Ramos before cutting back inside to grab his second goal of the night.
While Spain didn’t field enough options to exploit the space behind the defence, van Gaal possessed two forwards capable of punishing any side in the world under these circumstances.
There were evident flaws in Holland’s brave approach, but van Gaal’s decision to alter his preferred system reaped rewards.
“If I played with three attackers, my wingers would have chased down the Spain backs too much, that would be a waste,” van Gaal said.
“I played this system because I believe that we are not good enough to beat Spain with our normal 4-3-3 formation.”
Van Gaal’s approach maximized the pace of Robben, and prevented Spain from dictating the tempo of the match in a congested area. Certainly if del Bosque introduced runners, or Silva converted his chance prior to van Persie’s equalizer the match could’ve been different.
This serves as another crushing blow on Brazilian soil, yet the fact that it was preventable – del Bosque didn’t need to risk going 4-3-3, which created more gaps in midfield for Holland to penetrate on the counter – and could harm Spain’s chances of progressing out of the group.
Van Gaal pragmatically built his approach towards nullifying and exploiting Spain’s strengths, whereas del Bosque’s belief in his players and reluctance to stray away from their philosophy led to their downfall in a match that could’ve gone either way.