The Netherlands’ victory portends a shifting influence in European soccer
Tiki Taka might not be dead but it no longer strikes fear in opponents. This is the team that lulled opponents with its short, constant passing and finding success by removing the furia from its nickname La Furia Roja. Spain’s aura of invincibility was shattered after a 5–1 loss to the Netherlands. That doesn’t mean you should count the defending champs out of the World Cup—they lost their opening match in the 2010 tournament, too—but it does mean the Spaniards will be finished if they fail to defeat Chile in their next match.
As for the Dutch, we might not be seeing a remake of the Clockwork Orange Dutch teams, but whatever this modern version is, Louis van Gaal so far has it functioning in a high gear. The soon-to-be Manchester United manager appeared to be opting for caution with a 5–3–2 alignment, though he has said the formation would morph into a 3–5–2 when the Dutch attack.
Spain seemed to be in control for most of the first half. Then Daley Blind started launching himself down the left wing, lining up crosses for Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. The 3–5–2 did indeed begin to look like an attacking formation. Spain right back César Azpilicueta was nowhere to be found, and Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos started getting pulled out and turned around. Spain could not keep possession and the lack of recovery speed of its defenders and midfielders was revealed.
Coach Vicente del Bosque could have learned a lesson from Italy’s attempt to defend its World Cup title last time around: better to rejuvenate the team a little too early than wait until it is a little too late. Not that the Spain defenders are ancient. But Pique was never fleet, and Sergio Ramos has clearly lost a step, losing a footrace to Arjen Robben on the Netherlands’ fifth goal. Xavi is past his prime, only occasionally showing the inspiration of his old self. Xabi Alonso seems below par. Del Bosque is not one to make radical changes. But he might seriously consider getting Juanfran, Koke, or Javi Martinez on the field. And fast.
The Dutch lost their way under previous manager Marco van Basten, becoming thuggish in 2006, then famously losing it in the 2010 final. Van Gaal revamped the Dutch team. Only four starters from the team that lost the 2010 final played in Friday’s match. Though this was a young group, they remained composed after surrendering the opening goal. But they also retained a hard edge, winning physical battles with Spain. Nigel de Jong, having matured in a season with Milan, delivered a forearm shiver to Sergio Busquets, but later he also played peacemaker.
The Netherlands is now in position to avoid Brazil in the second round. They might not even need to pile up goals against Australia next Wednesday to finish first in Group B.
Spain may be following a trend that began when defending champion France went out in the first round in 2002, as did the Italians in 2010. Defending champion Brazil got out of group play in 2006 but then barely beat Ghana in the following round and fell to France in the quarterfinals.
The greatest concern for Vicente del Bosque, however, is to reestablish the team’s identity, and it isn’t too late. Spain has not lost in 10 meetings with Chile, and the South Americans did look vulnerable even as they beat Australia 3–1. Now La Roja will need to recall some of the furia of its past.