After Euro 2008, Vicente del Bosque took the reins of the Spanish national team from Luis Aragonés, the man that led Spain to their first international tournament conquest since 1964 when they hosted and won the second UEFA European Championships, known then as the European Nations’ Cup.
Aragonés’ tactical style went completely away from former Spain bosses Javier Clemente and, to a lesser extent, José Antonio Camacho and Iñaki Sáez with a fluid, passing, possession game that would frustrate the opposition into defending for most of the match. Aragonés lifted the underachieving moniker off this Spanish national team and infused the confidence and the mental fortitude that the Spanish player did not command for the better part of fifty years.
Whereas Aragonés displayed a more demonstrative attitude both on the training pitch and the technical area, del Bosque showed an understated and tranquil demeanor that would also work with a dressing room full of world-class players and egos.
Vicente del Bosque’s breakthrough came in 1999 when he succeeded John Toshack at Real Madrid, and in his four years at the Santiago Bernabéu, he delivered two UEFA Champions League titles and two La Liga titles among his greatest accomplishments. If there were a melting pot of potential rifts in world football, Real Madrid would lead the way in this competition. Even as President Florentino Pérez and sporting director Jorge Valdano began to seize total control over player personnel, del Bosque soldiered on without creating ripples and keeping to the job at hand.
Del Bosque knew that he inherited a well-oiled machine from Luis Aragonés after Euro 2008, and to change that style could mean a precipitous fall from grace. For some managers, they have to put their stamp on their team, even if it is to the team’s detriment. With the players currently established on the national team, the way they currently play suits these players perfectly. Del Bosque’s humble nature ensured that he would not interfere negatively with this team. Why change what works, and del Bosque continues to follow this line of thinking.
What Vicente del Bosque has done that is different from Luis Aragonés has brought a sense of calm and serenity that was needed when Spain’s outstanding results could have left the team complacent and without urgency. Even if the United States did not upset Spain at the semifinal stage of the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup to end their thirty-five match unbeaten streak, del Bosque had the demeanor and the respect of the players to quell any sort of arrogance that could have easily built over this amazing run. Spain played with their Plan A, and they were going to live and die by that strategy.
For the Dutch, the Clockwork Orange of the 1970s with Rinus Michels as the mastermind and Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens as the total footballers created the mystique behind the Netherlands national football team. After this era of Dutch football, those who followed in their footsteps needed to live up to their example. As with all national teams, throwing twenty-three different personalities for a short amount of time could lead to a tumultuous cacophony of noise, and the in-fighting among the Dutch footballers has been well documented. If only a small part of this fighting, emulating their forefathers while achieving positive results took a toll on the Dutch national team.
Installing Bert van Marwijk as the national coach after Euro 2008 seemed to continue this tradition as they rolled through World Cup qualification, albeit in a consensus easy group. Their pre-World Cup friendlies saw no indication of a stylistic change as they breezed through Mexico, Ghana, and Hungary, the former two being World Cup teams that had decent chances to advance into the latter stages of the tournament.
Van Marwijk, however, made the brave decision to abandon this notion of total football somewhat and adopt a more pragmatic style. Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong became van Marwijk’s destroyers in the defensive midfield while allowing Wesley Sneijder, Robin van Persie, and Arjen Robben to play their football in the final third. Breezing through their World Cup group and the Round of 16 against Slovakia, they faced Brazil in the quarterfinals, who themselves had gone through a minor facelift under Dunga to a more physical style. Felipe Melo and Gilberto Silva vs. van Bommel and de Jong became the main battle throughout the match, even though the glamour players had their moments. The Netherlands survived the encounter, and after a captivating semifinal against Uruguay, the talk roused up from the Dutch about how they were going to attack the Spanish.
Dirk Kuyt became the Dutch representative of this bravado, taking a dig at Germany’s performance while touting his team’s own intentions for the final against Spain when speaking to The Guardian:
“We are not afraid at all. You could see the Germans were afraid of Spain. They didn’t try to attack. We are going to attack and then you will see weaknesses coming to the surface. If you play like the Germans, you are definitely going to lose. We don’t have players who are afraid and we don’t have players who feel small against the big opponents. There is respect but not fear.”
After the first fifteen minutes of the final, the Dutch did not live up to the big game they talked before the World Cup final. Spain definitely deserved credit for frustrating the Netherlands with their ability to play keep-ball, but the initial and nominal pressure they initiated in the Spanish half of the pitch dissipated by the tenth minute as they began to pack the midfield and the defense in their own half of the field. Physical became more cynical to near violent as Mark van Bommel chopped down Andrés Iniesta and Xavi Hernández on more than a few occasions, and Nigel de Jong infused the spirit of Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport when he sent his flying, extended leg straight into the chest of Xabi Alonso.
Bert van Marwijk must have concluded early on that if he tried to play football with Spain, La Furia Roja would run away with the final. As the Dutch became more physical, the Spaniard did not adjust well with this sudden change in tactics. For the final fifteen minutes of the first half, the Dutch created the more quality chances, while the Spanish began to give the ball more readily than they had for most of the World Cup.
As the second half wore on, the conscious effort of the Dutch to break up the Spanish with hard tackling and well-timed fouls meant that they had less possession to carve out meaningful attacks, so they needed to exploit whatever counter-attacking opportunity they could muster. Arjen Robben could have made himself a Dutch hero in the same sentence with Johan Cruyff and William of Orange with two one-on-one situations that were the only two threats on Iker Casillas’ goal. Casillas went the wrong way but left his legs extended to save one Robben attempt, and Casillas snagged the ball from Robben’s feet as Robben tried to dribble around him.
The Spanish kept with their gameplan and stayed patient throughout this adversity. Save for those Robben openings, Spain went out to win the match in the last half-hour, whereas the Netherlands looked more and more to extra time and penalties. Into extra time, the Dutch began to tire, and their discipline, which had already been reduced to near zero, finally caught up with them when John Heitinga received his second yellow card when he took down Iniesta as he was making his run into the box. If he had not been given a booking earlier in the match, many would have considered the foul on Iniesta a smart play, even if it would have carried a cynical tinge, but with Heitinga sent off with eleven minutes left in the second period of extra time, the chances that Spain had of netting the first goal multiplied exponentially.
The addition of Cesc Fàbregas for Xabi Alonso in the 87th minute reinvigorated the lagging Spanish attack, and he positioned himself in the middle of the eventual World Cup-winning move in the 116th minute when Rafael van der Vaart gifted his mishit clearance into to the path of Fàbregas. Fàbregas slotted in Iniesta to his right, and Iniesta blasted his half-volley through Maarten Stekelenburg’s hands for the cathartic moment that sent the Spanish players and the technical staff into absolute bliss.
The Netherlands felt as though they needed to add more steel into their team to negate the chance of being exposed, and even though they went away from what they said prior to the match, it nearly brought them to the penalty shootout, where they would have had an equal shot to walk away with their first ever World Cup trophy. They made a deal with the devil, and it swiped the rug from underneath them at the final instant.
All that matters is the trophy, and any way a team decides to play, it is usually the right way as long as they win. The Dutch played conservatively with a venomous bite, and if they had won, they would have been duly praised for their grit, determination, and willingness to dabble into the dark arts of football to win.
This way was how Spain used to play under Javier Clemente, but under this current regime, there is a 180° difference from Clemente’s reign. No upper echelon national team has been courageous enough to play football with Spain for the whole of the ninety minutes, so the Spanish should have no reason to change their style or tactics. Sometimes this extreme patience may frustrate fans who expect them to find that cutting ball a majority of the time, but to see a team that melds flair with a stubborn arrogance makes this version of the Spanish national team utterly watchable.