David Villa became the talisman for the Spanish national football team, scoring five of Spain’s six goals in the tournament. Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta controlled the midfield with their incisive passing and ball possession. Fernando Torres could not get into stride as he struggled for form from his April knee surgery and was eventually benched in favor of Pedro Rodríguez against Germany. The Cesc Fàbregas saga between Arsenal and Barcelona continued to rage as Fàbregas insisted on returning to the club of his youth while committing to Arsenal as their captain at the same time. Telecinco sports journalist Sara Carbonero somehow “distracted” boyfriend Iker Casillas before the Switzerland game and directly led to Spain’s only loss of this World Cup.
All these stories followed La Furia Roja throughout this World Cup, but the under-reported story with this team is the effectiveness of the back four, in particular the leader of the defense, Carles Puyol.
Spain has conceded only one goal in their six games, and in that goal, they allowed against Switzerland, it took a disorganized scramble and a fortuitous bounce for Gelson Fernandes to tap the ball into the open net.
For those who put any stock into the Castrol Index rankings, the top four ranked players in this World Cup are the four Spanish defenders, with Sergio Ramos slightly edging Carles Puyol for the top spot.
Save for Ramos, who tends to relish the limelight, especially off the pitch with his party boy reputation, these Spanish defenders love that the vast majority of the attention falls upon their other teammates. With championship teams that are known for their offensive flair, they can only operate to their fullest extent if their defenders are solid enough for them to throw men forward.
Although the Three R’s (Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Rivaldo) headlined Brazil as they won their fifth World Cup title in 2002, the work rate of Lúcio, Roque Júnior, and Edmílson gave Cafu and Roberto Carlos the freedom to become de facto wingers and the three R’s to dazzle the world with their Samba flair.
The legendary 1989-90 Real Madrid team netted a staggering La Liga record 107 goals, with Hugo Sánchez scoring a record 38 goals in one season. Real Madrid ran away with the league, winning by nine points (Note: in those years, wins accounted for two points instead of the current three points, so using the current point system, Real were fifteen points better than second-place Valencia) not only due to the brilliance of Sánchez up front and Emilio Butragueño and Míchel creating behind him but with the three central defenders that commanded the back line: first-year defender and eventual Real legend Fernando Hierro, elegant sweeper Manuel Sanchís, and gritty Oscar Ruggeri.
The 2008-09 FC Barcelona team that won all six tournaments they entered included a trio of forwards that propelled their team into the most feared club in Europe: Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, and Samuel Eto’o. With Xavi and Andrés Iniesta providing perfection for the front three to finish those patented Barça moves, they forced teams to defend with nine and ten men for the full ninety minutes.
While this team kept possession of the ball as well as any team that ever graced the pitch, there were times when they would turn the ball over in midfield, and the opposing counter-attack would sail into full-flight. Dani Alves, Gerard Piqué, and Éric Abidal closed the ball down as quickly as schoolchildren running to beat the class bell, but Carles Puyol was their leader. In the 2009 Champions League final against Manchester United, when the Red Devils scrambled and threw more men into attack to pull themselves back into the match, Puyol appeared everywhere, as he cut down potential attacks from Wayne Rooney, Paul Scholes, Dimitar Berbatov, etc. as well as flying forward on more than one occasion to augment the attack.
Although Iker Casillas has been the captain of the Spanish national team since Euro 2008, Carles Puyol continues to lead the back line with his tenacity and braveheart defending. Vital blocks on potential shots on target from Miroslav Klose, Bastian Schweinsteiger, and Mario Gómez, organizing the defensive four, and his ever-running engine proved significant in keeping the Germans out, but the goal he scored will be the moment that most will remember from this semifinal that sent Spain into further uncharted territory: a FIFA World Cup Final.
Earlier in the match, Andrés Iniesta whipped in a high-velocity cross into the six-yard box for Puyol, and he could not keep his diving header underneath the crossbar as it flew over it for a goal kick. That opportunity was arguably Spain’s best scoring chance before Puyol redeemed himself in the 73rd minute, and the manner in which he scored Spain’s lone goal is reminiscent of a central defender’s dream goal: a flying header from a corner kick.
With Spain’s lack of height, Xavi usually decides to execute a short corner routine, and Germany caught on to this tactic and sent an extra man around the corner flag. Xavi, however, sent a bending ball from the corner into a dangerous area, where Puyol had a running head start to the penalty spot, and with his flowing curly locks, he powered his jumping header past a helpless Manuel Neuer as Spain’s patience paid off in an unusual fashion. The extra man sent to mark Iniesta for the short corner combined with Germany’s zonal marking gave Puyol the opportunity to have an unmolested attempt at the header.
While many expected this Spanish team to dazzle with their midfield maestros and their creativity, David Villa has been the only player to finish consistently. Because of this, Spain has scored more than one goal only twice in six matches, and the team had to be vigilant in defense in case of a well-timed counter-attack from the opposition. With the sputtering in front of goal, Spain had to find different ways to score as well as maintain focus in the back when their teammates played keep-ball for minutes at a time.
This Spanish team, although constituted mainly from the Euro 2008 winning side, will not reach those same scoring heights as that team because national teams have had two more years to prepare for these unique set of characters, and Spain manager Vicente del Bosque is intent on playing this possession game set forth by previous manager Luis Aragonés.
The Dutch will likely provide a different test not encountered by Spain this World Cup because of their hardened midfielders Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong. If Germany could be blamed for having too much respect for Spain, the Netherlands will not fall into that same trap because van Bommel and de Jong will have no problem flying into tackles and pressuring high up the pitch to prevent Spain’s hypnotic ball possession.
Sunday’s final will be highly tactical, especially if the match remains goalless for the first hour. Regardless of how the Dutch and Spanish attack each other, the job remains the same for the Spanish defense: quickly retrieve the ball when Spain loses possession. Spain will find it difficult to score on the Netherlands, and if Spain concedes the opening goal, the Netherlands will surely defend for their lives with all ten outfield players. While David Villa and Xavi have been the two best players for Spain in this World Cup, Vicente del Bosque will rely on his star defenders to stave away the potent Dutch attack, and it will be they who decide the winner on Sunday.