Netherlands – Spain Preview: How Oranje can win

Even Louis van Gaal said it. He called Spain a team who always want to attack. Xavi and co have a reputation for being a creative and carefree team. La Roja have constant possession and in the Netherlands that is then equated with attractive football. In fact, the opposite is true. Vicente Del Bosque’s Spain is mainly geared towards a more defensive approach, certainly in major tournaments. At the last World Cup back in 2010, Spain won all its knockout games 1-0. Hardly the stats of a devastating attacking force. Rather, it shows the Spanish version of catenaccio: tiki-taka.

Not one of Spain’s goals in the knockout stages came before the hour mark – a quite remarkable statistic. Their main priority is to keep goals out at the other end. Only later on in games when the opposition is beginning to tire and the spaces open up, do Spain strike.

Spain’s emphasis on defensive solidity is a perfectly sensible course of action. In a league game, you can occasionally slip up without it being too costly. At a major tournament, this usually means having to go home. Del Bosque’s team understand this better than anyone else and that can be seen in how they play.

Spain at their most conservative, with six midfielders and no out-and-out strikers. Photo:


From hundreds of short passes to astronomical possession stats, Barcelona’s influence on the Spanish team is instantly recognisable. Del Bosque has his own more conservative take on tiki-taka. Andres Iniesta, Xavi and Sergio Busquets in the same midfield? That is all well and good for Barcelona but it’s a bit too much of a risk for Spain at a major tournament. Iniesta is shifted to the left-hand side, Xavi becomes the most attacking midfielder and Xabi Alonso comes in to play alongside Busquets. With Cesc Fabregas as a false nine and David Silva on the right, Spain have no less than six midfielders but no strikers. Thus extra defensive stability is incorporated at the expense of attacking thrust. That doesn’t mean that Spanish won’t attack if they’re afforded the space to do so, as Italy did in the final of Euro 2012, but it is not their main gameplan. Possession is not a means of attacking for Spain but a defensive weapon. To quote Johan Cruijff: “If we have the ball, they cannot score.”

An interesting feature of the Spanish squad is that they have many attacking options at their disposal. In the final friendly against El Salvador, they started with Diego Costa, Pedro and Fabregas as the front three. Andres Iniesta and Koke patrolled the midfield. La Roja clearly have enough options on the bench to play more direct football. If the Dutch are trailing or become tired and the game opens up as a result, Spain have the means to take advantage.

Busquets occasionally operated as the sole holding midfielder in the World Cup qualifiers. In the two games against France, who were Spain’s only serious opponent in the group, del Bosque went back to playing with Xabi Alonso alongside Busquets. It’s obvious that it will be no different at the World Cup. Attacking is all well and good against Finland but against Chile and the Netherlands, the Spanish will attach more importance to defensive solidity.

Del Bosque

The great visionary behind the formidable Spanish team is coach Vicente del Bosque. In the Netherlands, he is portrayed as a friendly uncle, who only succeeds due to his ability to manage people but that would be to caricature one of the most successful coaches of the 21st century.

Del Bosque first displayed his special qualities when he was manager of Real Madrid from 1999-2003. He stood out in particular due to his tactical flexibility. He ensured that the defence was well organised and allowed his star players to express themselves. In 2000 he won the Champions League playing a 5-3-2 formation in the final against Valencia’s 4-4-2. He would go on to win Europe’s premier club competition again two years later, this time with a 4-4-2 system incorporating a midfield diamond.

At Real Madrid they thought that this success was not down to del Bosque but rather the quality of the players and despite a second league title in four seasons, he was shown the door in 2003. After his departure from Madrid, Real had to wait until 2007 to regain the league title despite considerable investment in the squad and they didn’t reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League again until 2011. It’s not entirely coincidental that it was Carlo Ancelotti who led Real Madrid to La Decima this season. Like Del Bosque, the Italian combines a great deal of tactical flexibility with an ability to manage his players.

Del Bosque’s pragmatic touch is also in evidence in international management. Despite the overload of creative midfielders, he reserves two spots at the heart of his team for holding players Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, much in the same way he did for Claude Makélélé at Real Madrid. He understood better than anyone else that Spain were not Barcelona and therefore the lack of a Lionel Messi in attack had to be compensated by greater defensive solidity. Del Bosque’s recipe for success once again proved to be just that.

Xavi is almost certainly playing his final major tournament.


That Spain are not Barcelona is also in evidence when they lose the ball. While it’s true to say that Spain also operate the five-second rule, whereby the ball must be won back five seconds after losing possession, the manner in which they do so is completely different. Whereas Pep Guardiola’s entire team would press aggressively, playing the offside trap with the goalkeeper well off his line, Spain do things rather differently.

The players who occupy the congested midfield apply immediate pressure but at the same time, the two central defenders retreat towards their own goal in order to counter the long ball over the defence. This is made possible because Iker Casillas stays much closer to his own goal than Victor Valdes. The centrebacks are often supported by a holding midfielder and a covering fullback. If they don’t succeed in winning the ball back right away, the central defenders retreat and the entire team regroups behind the ball.

This is where the Dutch have the best chance of hurting the Spanish, especially when Jordi Alba – Spain’s more attacking fullback – leaves acres of space in behind when he loses possession. In order to capitalise on this it is vital to get the ball into Arjen Robben as quickly as possible to allow him to take on Gerard Piqué or Sergio Ramos. If the Netherlands stick to their traditions of playing the ball around at the back before playing the cross-field ball, it will be as good as impossible to find holes in the Spanish defence.


Although Spain’s attacking fullbacks can be exploited by the Dutch, it’s fair to say they could also cause the biggest defensive headaches. In the friendly against Ghana, the Dutch couldn’t come up with a way to stop the opposition fullbacks. Van Gaal wants wingbacks Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat to push up and stop the opposition fullbacks but in practice Robben and van Persie make runs in behind the fullbacks wasting energy that could be put to better use when they attack.

Both things are in fact ill-advised. The wingbacks pushing up makes the team becomes extremely vulnerable defensively and the front two, who are the team’s best players, become worn out by running themselves into the ground. Oranje would be better served by not specifically targeting the opposing fullbacks and instead putting nine men behind the ball, leaving van Persie and Robben upfield. This invites Spain to commit more numbers in attack and in doing so, leaves more room for the counter attack.

What about the fullbacks then? Oranje need not worry too much about them as they long as they stay out on the flanks. Crosses are a particularly ineffective way of attacking and all the more so for Spain, who have mostly small players in attack with the exception of Diego Costa. Invite them therefore to blindly pump the ball into the box. This is where the three centrebacks come into play: they allow the defence the chance both to head most crosses clear and to pick up opposing runners into the box. Spain are dangerous through the middle, which is where most defenders are needed.

South Africa defending in a 6-3-1 formation, giving Spain little room in and around the box.


There are two ways of making things difficult for Spain. The first is to press them high and disrupt their build-up play in its early stages. This has rarely been achieved – in recent years it’s only really group opponents Chile who have succeeded several times – and so this isn’t how the Dutch can beat Spain.

Van Gaal has already spoken of his gameplan of “provocative pressing”. He wants the Spanish to come forward, lose the ball in midfield and then for his team to counter quickly. Brazil employed these tactics to good effect in their 3-0 defeat of Spain in the Confederations Cup final last year. A Seleção were a constant threat with Neymar and Hulk getting into the space behind Alvaro Arbeloa and Alba respectively. It should be noted that Spain played with just one holding player in the tournament as Xabi Alonso was injured. Since then, an injury to Arbeloa has seen him replaced in the Spanish squad by Cesar Azpilicueta, who is a better defender than the Real Madrid rightback.

The Netherlands can perhaps draw the most inspiration from how South Africa dismantled Spain in a shock 1-0 win last November. Bafana Bafana began with a 4-2-3-1 formation but allowed the wide players to dropped well back when not in possession, effectively forming a line of six defenders at the back. This meant that the spare men at the back could come out of defence to snuff out any danger to the South Afrian backline. In possession, they alternated between quick counter attacks and taking the heat out of the game. A rare mistake from the Spanish defence ultimately led to the winning goal, scored by former FC Twente player Bernard Parker. It should also be noted that Spain experimented with a sort of 4-4-2 formation, which didn’t succed in turning the tide in their favour.


The Netherlands have a chance of beating Spain, albeit a slim one. Louis van Gaal has rightly observed that Spain are a far superior side and that the Dutch are better served not by not pressing high up the pitch. In the friendlies against Ghana and Wales it was clear that this isn’t where the team’s strengths lie.

Van Gaal wants to entice Spain out of their comfort zone with his “provocative pressing” and exploit the spaces in behind with the individual brilliance of Robben and van Persie. Crucial to this is that the Netherlands approach this game as if Spain were Italy. Del Bosque’s team will lure Oranje into sensing that they may be able to get something out of the game only to then strike like an assassin in the final half-hour.

Only by concentrating on defending for 90 minutes and taking their chance on a few quick counter attacks do Oranje stand a small chance of winning but the most likely outcome is a narrow victory for Spanish catenaccio.

This article was originally written in Dutch by Nikos Overheul and Pieter Zwart and translated by Gary Niblock. They write for the outstanding website and can be followed on Twitter @noverheul and @PieterZwartNL

Featured image courtesy of Wikipedia.

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