The opening game in Group B between Spain and the Netherlands will be an historic event; never before have both teams from the previous World Cup Final faced off in group play. The Spanish will field a lineup that looks markedly similar to the starting XI in Johannesburg four years ago, returning at least seven starters from that squad. The Dutch, on the other hand, have experienced a lot of turnover, replacing their entire back line over the past four years. Besides the attacking trio of Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben and Wesley Sneijder, the only other returning starter from 2010 is Nigel de Jong. The result of this game could play a crucial role in determining which team will advance from Group B, with a talented Chile squad waiting to take advantage of any slip-up. Here are three key match-ups to keep an eye on.
Tiki-taka vs. the 5-3-2
Traditionally associated with the Dutch concept of “Total Football,” the 4-3-3 formation has been swapped out by manager Louis van Gaal in favor of a 5-3-2. After being exposed in a 2-0 loss to France in March, van Gaal has opted instead for a back line consisting of three center backs to go along with two wing backs capable of getting up the flanks quickly and serving treacherous balls into the middle.
Against a system like Spain’s famed tiki-taka, which focuses on dominating possession through short passes and off-ball movement, the Dutch know they will be defending for the majority of the game. The change to a 5-3-2 doesn’t just protect the Oranje’s obvious defensive liabilities; it also makes them significantly more dangerous on the counter-attack. If Spain get caught in possession deep in the Netherlands’ defensive end, the fullbacks can be used as outlets to spring a charge ending in a goal-scoring opportunity for the skilled Dutch attack.
Spain remain unfazed by van Gaal’s change in tactics. Manager Vicente del Bosque has expressed confidence in the tiki-taka and his side’s ability to break down the opponent, even if they have to vary tactics slightly. If their recent training sessions are any indication, it’s safe to say the Spanish are ready in spite of the defensive preparations of their opponent.
Arjen Robben’s Revenge
In the 2010 World Cup Final, Arjen Robben had the opportunity of a lifetime. In the 61st minute, a Wesley Schneider through ball left Robben one-on-one with Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas. Robben may have taken one too many dribbles, and somehow Casillas managed to make a kick-save and push the ball wide. Instead of carrying a 1-0 lead into the final half hour of regulation, the Dutch were taken to overtime, eventually losing the game on a goal by Andrés Iniesta late in extra time. Robben’s breakaway would be the best opportunity the Netherlands had all game.
Robben’s next chance to redeem himself took place at the 2011-12 Champions League Final, as Bayern Munich faced Chelsea. His streak of bad luck continued, as he missed a penalty kick in extra time, and his team eventually lost in the penalty shootout. His lack of success may have provided some motivation in Bayern’s 7-0 aggregate thrashing of FC Barcelona in the Champions League semifinal a year later.
Robben played a crucial role in Bayern’s victory, torturing the left side of Barcelona’s defense with a dizzying array of dribbles and cutbacks, finishing with two goals. The man who was marking him, Jordi Alba, also starts at left back for Spain, and has some history with Robben. Late in the first leg, Alba, frustrated after being famously picked by Thomas Müller during Robben’s goal, was arguing unsuccessfully for a Barcelona throw-in. Before running back, in an ode to street-ballers’ pasts, Alba hit Robben with an “off the heezy” move and threw the ball right off of his face.
One of the side-effects of the Dutch transformation to a 5-3-2 means soccer fans won’t be graced with the presence of this match-up all game. Robben will play striker with van Persie instead of his normal position as a winger; however, several one-on-one encounters with Alba likely await the talented 30-year-old, as he sets out to exact revenge years in the making.
Battle of Midfielders
The strength of this Spanish side lies in the central midfield, led by Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Del Bosque typically eschews traditional wingers, and instead employs four or five technically gifted midfielders both to keep possession and win the ball back quickly when it’s lost. In 2010, the Dutch countered with brute force, fouling their way through an embarrassing 120 minutes for a country that prides itself on playing a beautiful style of football. Nigel de Jong, one of the main culprits in the 2010 escapade, again finds himself in the starting lineup, and will make every Spaniard think twice before coming into the center of the field. Alonso still has nightmares about his last run-in with de Jong, which, despite being the worst foul in World Cup history, only resulted in a yellow card.
The Dutch will pair either Jonathan de Guzman or Jordy Clasie with de Jong in the holding center mid role, leaving Schneider free to roam in the space between them and the strikers. If the Dutch are able to disrupt the Spanish midfield through their physical presence, expect the rematch to be just as close as the final four years ago.