Not only will the 2010 World Cup be contested between two countries that have never before won football’s most prestigious title, it is also a match involving two footballing cultures that have historically heavily influenced the sport and impressed with quick passing, intelligent movement and a willful adherence to an aesthetic, possession-based form of the game.
From the ‘Total Football’ of the 1970s through to the intricate ‘Tiki-Taka’ of the current Spanish side, Sunday’s showdown in Soccer City truly is a clash of two of football’s most tactically important nations.
Oranje – The class of 2010
Away from the history and back into the present, Bert van Marwijk’s relatively pragmatic Dutch team cannot be defined in terms of their illustrious predecessors but have impressed in South Africa with sound defensive organisation and a cohesive team ethic.
This ethos around which the current Oranje are built integrates the individual excellence of players such as Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder into an effective team framework, resulting in a well-balanced team comprising of players whose abilities complement each other to good effect.
Having been set up in a 4-2-3-1 by van Marwijk throughout the tournament, the Dutch system is, as Jonathan Wilson has pointed out, a “broken” one in the sense that there is a clear divide between those players designated to attack and those to defend.
In the Dutch team there is a clear 6/4 division amongst the outfield players, a system that, although perhaps not conducive to the most flowing football, is relatively simple to implement and gives players clear and compartmentalised roles to perform without having to spend too much time ingraining them on the training ground in the fast-moving environment of tournament football.
The Netherlands’ coaching staff should have a full complement of players to choose from ahead of tomorrow’s showpiece, with Nigel de Jong and Gregory van der Wiel back from the suspensions that kept them out of the semi-final.
The only doubt is over the fitness of Demy de Zeeuw who reportedly damaged his teeth after being accidentally kicked in the face against Uruguay, although the Ajax midfielder is unlikely to start in any case.
Del Bosque, Spain and ‘Tiki-Taka’
To move on to the Spanish, Vicente Del Bosque’s side also deployed a 4-2-3-1 for the majority of their games, with Fernando Torres as the lone striker and David Villa on the left flank up until the semi-final when Torres was dropped and replaced by Barcelona’s Pedro, Villa being shifted to the centre-forward role.
In the advanced areas of the pitch this 4-2-3-1 essentially becomes a 4-2-1-3, the wide players advancing beyond Xavi – the team’s creative hub – to quickly construct a more numerous and potent attacking unit.
As Spain have shown on countless occasions over the last four years, ‘Tiki-Taka’ is not rigidly bound by nominal formations, instead the forward players drift into the most threatening areas, positioning themselves where they can pick the opposition apart with the least resistance.
They may not score huge amounts of goals, but Del Bosque’s team wear their opponents down through sheer weight of possession, defending as much by keeping the ball as through more “traditional” methods.
This dominance of the ball is something which strongly echoes the practice and philosophy of Dutch “Total Football” (as well as Pep Guardiola’s current Barcelona side), an outclassing of opponents through the sheer technical superiority of a team that only comes along once a generation and something which gives tomorrow’s final an added level of intrigue.
Del Bosque has few injury problems to deal with ahead of tomorrow’s final – Cesc Fabregas seemingly having overcome the leg injury that forced him out of the tie with Germany – but must decide whether to continue to play Pedro ahead of Torres or draft the Liverpool striker back into the starting eleven, something which could well prove to be a pivotal decision.
A chance to make history
Whichever combinations of personnel are selected by van Marwijk and Del Bosque tomorrow night, the big game in Soccer City looks set to be an engaging encounter.
Two teams that have consistently impressed and yet serially underachieved in World Cups over the years, one of Spain or the Netherlands will finally overcome their misfortune at this level to permanently write their names into footballing history. This will be a battle of two different interpretations of 4-2-3-1, the system that has defined this World Cup, as well as a direct confrontation between the new Dutch pragmatism and the Spanish possession game, with a victory for the latter having the potential to put their style of play on the same much-vaunted pedestal as Total Football.
Del Bosque’s team rightly go into the game as favourites but, as Jose Mourinho showed with Inter last season, organisation and discipline is more than capable of overcoming systems reliant of territory and possession. This promises to be a fascinating final.