The Play That Changed Holland vs. Spain

For most of the first half of the Spain-Holland match, the defending champions had been in complete control and were up 1–0 as halftime approached. Then Robin van Persie struck in the 44th minute and turned the game upside down.

So how did it go down? Spain’s lapse started with its center backs, Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué. Even before the play, they were holding a high line—meaning they had pushed high up the field, leaving lots of green behind them. This has been crucial to Spain’s success over the last six years, because it compresses the field of play—if an attacker drifts behind Spain’s defense, he is in an offside position—so that its midfielders and forwards can press the opposition and try to win the ball back in the smallest possible area. If Spain’s defense were to drop back, it would leave gaps between the lines.

Still, it seemed obvious that Ramos and Pique should have dropped back a few yards when Daley Blind looked up field. If they had, Van Persie would probably have taken two steps toward goal, then stopped his run, dropped back, and received the ball in the gap in front of the defenders. Many coaches consider this to be the most dangerous place on the field for the opposition to have the ball. Some teams leave an anchor in that spot to fill that space and shield the center backs. However, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque asks his defensive midfielders to step up and press with the rest of the team, which can leave Ramos and Pique with difficult decisions.

Ultimately, the first rule of defending is that you don’t let an attacker get behind you. But allowing a talented player like Van Persie to receive the ball 30 yards from goal in the middle of the field isn’t far behind.

More than a tactical error, it seems that Spain’s biggest problem was Ramos’s and Pique’s execution. Notice that Pique is slightly behind the defensive line, holding Van Persie onside. If he had been in line with the rest of the defenders, RVP would have been offside. Now, it’s usually the opposite-side outside back or weak side center back who has the best view of a developing play, and so he calls the line, commanding his defensive partners in front of him to hold, step, or drop. So it’s a little strange that Ramos gave an angry gesture to Pique after the goal. It’s a minor detail from both players caused from the slightest lack of focus—possibly because they didn’t expect Blind to actually make the pass—but it seems to have made a big impact.

And that brings us to the second point: Van Persie is just filthy good. He hadn’t been playing particularly well up to that point. You might have expected him to play it safe and bring the ball down, as most players would. He could have brought the Brazuca down with his chest and then slotted it past Casillas, but that wouldn’t have made the highlight reel sizzle quite as much. In the end, the deciding moment was a taste of what makes soccer so cool: the logic of the defense contending with an unexpected touch of genius in the attack.