The 2010 World Cup Final is exciting for fans of World Cup history. Spain and Holland are by far the best two nations to have never won the thing. Spain constantly disappoints, like the Cubs, whereas the Netherlands will look fantastic but not quite make it, losing two finals in the 1970's and twice to dominant Brazil in the quarters and semis in the 1990's. They're closer to the Indians or the Giants, or the Red Sox before 2004. They both deserve this chance, and the fans deserve the chance to watch - or join in - the inevitable massive cathartic celebrations.
But it's fairly easy to do a social preview of the match - I've read three or four already - but the tactical battle going on in this match is especially interesting. Spain and the Netherlands are almost perfect mirror images of one another, which should lead to a tense, mesmerizing, low-scoring match, like the fantastic Italy v. Germany semifinal from 2006.
Both sides play almost exactly the same formation, roughly a 4-2-3-1 with a lone striker, three attacking midfielders, two defensive midfielders, one attacking wingback, and three stay-at-home defenders. Both have also had a consistent starting lineup, although Spain altered theirs in the semi against Germany. So let's take a look at their similarities and differences, and where the game is likely to be won and lost.
The Midfield -
Both teams have overloaded their central midfield, and both tend to try to move their attacks into the center of the field instead of pouring down the wings. Part of their success in the tournament has been the use of two defensive holding midfielders, who tend to stifle attacks from any opponent. Spain's combination of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets metaphorically throttled the life from the previously rampant German midfield, while the Dutch duo of Marc van Bommel and Nigel de Jong have more literally hacked their way through their rivals. Van Bommel and Xabi Alonso are both two-way players, equally capable of brutal tackles and sublime skill, while Busquets and de Jong are more straightforward ballwinners.
Both have their playmakers pushed further forward as attacking central midfielders, although in this case, they're somewhat reversed. Spain's Xavi drifts back, next to Alonso and Busquets, and launches long, probing passes, while Holland's Wesley Sneijder pushes forward, almost as a second striker - which is part of why he's one of the top goalscorers of the tournament.
Their strategy is based around midfield dominance, as players these are several of the best at their position in the world. In the final, I expect the center to be a brutal draw, with the possession that indicates both sides at their best harder and harder to come by. If this game is won, it'll likely be won on the flanks.
Wide Play -
Intriguingly, the flanks aren't mirrors, but in fact exact opposites. Netherlands' attacks go largely through their right winger, Arjen Robben, while Spain goes through the left and David Villa. They each balance this by having an attacking wingback on the other side - Giovanni van Bronckhorst on the Dutch left, and Sergio Ramon on the Spanish right. This means that on both flanks, instead of canceling each other out, both sets of players are likely to encounter more space through the middle of the field, but less on each end.
The Dutch have been getting around this by switching their players. On the left, they've been playing the versatile workhorse Dirk Kuyt, who can easily move into any of the attacking four slots. If he switches with Robben, then Holland's unbalanced attack may force Sergio Ramos to stay back and defend more, which in previous games, has paralyzed the Spanish attack by forcing it to be too narrow. Expect the Dutch to try this more often than normal.
Spain's nominally right attacking midfielder, Andres Iniesta, tends to drift inside as a withdrawn striker, which lets Xavi drop back and Ramos push forward. He's been one of Spain's most effective creative players, but this match may force him to play more defense against Van Bronckhorst.
Either or both side may try moving one of their midfield destroyers further out to the flanks to help against Villa/Robben, but this may free up space through the center. That'll be a big thing to watch.
Holland's switches, as I mentioned, tend to be flank to plank, or even a total re-ordering of their front four. Spain's switches are more conventional, usually involving David Villa moving inside from his position on the left flank. The big question before this match, tactically, regards Spain's pure striker: Fernando Torres.
Torres has been working hard off the ball, but clearly rusty or hurt after his long injury when he has the ball. He hasn't scored, and came under enough criticism that the Spanish manager, Vicente del Bosque, didn't start him in the semi-final, preferring the speed of Barcelona's Pedro (yes, just Pedro. How cool is that?) I suspect we'll see Torres in the final, however.
The Dutch defense has rarely been tested, and they certainly didn't look good in the first half against Brazil when they were tested. Spain would appear to provide that test, but if de Jong and van Bommel do their job, they may not be.
The other side of the field, with Robin van Persie matched up with Carlos Puyal and Gerard Pique is more interesting. The Spanish defenders have looked amongst the best in the tournament, with both provide a solid back line as well as distribution and of course, Puyol's game-winning goal in the semifinal. Van Persie, on the other hand, has both frustrated and delighted in equal measure. As a striker whose worth is scoring goals, he's been ineffective, and more than anyone in the tournament has caused me to yell "shoot the damn ball!" at the television. However, he's also been one of the best, most creative players in the tournament. Statistically, in fact, he's by far the best, as he has the best ration of touches-on-the-ball to scoring opportunities. And it's true - he always seems to be doing something to open the defense whenever the Dutch score.
The biggest difference between these two teams is depth. Spain is quite deep, and could probably do well in the tournament by playing their second XI. The Netherlands don't have as much, but they do have just enough that it hasn't been a problem for them.
Spain's usual subs have been Pedro, who offers speed instead of Torres' size and skill, or Fernando Lorrente, who came on as a sub and was instantly effective, against Portugal. They also include Jesus Navas, a tricky, speedy winger, who could play if Spain needs more width (as I suspect they may - I wouldn't even be surprised if Navas started). The jewel in their crown is Cesc Fabregas, a central midfielder whose all-around attacking abilities can instantly make chances.
Holland's most likely subs start with Rafael van der Vaart, another attacking midfielder. Against Uruguay, he came on as van Bommel's parter as deep midfielder in the second half, and really opened up the Dutch attack. Alternately, he can replace any of the attacking midfielders for a more skilled, tactical approach. The Dutch also have their own tricky young winger, Eljero Elia, who starred for them early in the group stage. Another likely sub is Klaas Jan-Huntelaar, a pure striker who could give them a target man in a way that van Persie cannot.
Both sides are going to have holes in their defensive approach that skilled, fast, smart players can exploit. Since Arjen Robben and David Villa, amongst others, both fulfill that role, how each side counters those players will determine the outcome. If they try and totally negate those superstars, the middle will be open for other great players, like Sneijder and Iniesta. Much will depend on how the holding midfielders react, and I give the Dutch a slight edge thanks to Marc van Bommel's skill and tenacity. A great player will have to rise to the occasional to break through the possession and tackling of the other side, and Wesley Sneijder has been doing it throughout the year and into the World Cup.
The Netherlands also have a slight advantage in their ability to sow chaos and make goals. They're more willing to take long shots, or run at defenders, or force their opponent into corners and especially free kicks. Spain has played their patient possession game, which has worked against teams they're simply better than, like Paraguay, Portugal, and Honduras, and it's been tactically superior against Chile and Germany, but I don't think that's the case with the Netherlands. Holland will be able to go toe-to-toe against the Spanish while playing to their own strengths. Switzerland - a far weaker team - managed to do it and beat the Spanish.
2-0 Netherlands. A close match with a surprising number of fouls and a slowly rising tension. The Dutch will grab a goal and try to hang onto it, sneaking a second goal by counterattack late in the match.
What a great finale! So glad that it didn't come down to penalty kicks. From what I gather Spain had a number of players that had been together for years on their own team and their teamwork appeared to be the difference.