The shock result of the World Cup so far was the rematch of the 2010 final. The Netherlands, coming into the tournament with major injury questions and much less buzz than four years ago, dismantled the defending champions. Again and again they found weaknesses in Spain’s defense and produced opportunities in the danger zone. It was the worst Spanish defensive performance I have in my database. In dozens of international fixtures since 2009, including friendlies, Spain’s worst defensive performance was allowing about 2.8 expected goals to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final in 2013. In Brazil again, the Dutch created about 3.5 expected goals.
The map does not include the early penalty for Spain, which did come on a good chance set up by a through-ball to Diego Costa. So perhaps Spain deserves credit for another 0.3 or so expected goals chance. In either case, the story here is the Dutch attack. For years everyone has said that Spain’s tiki-taka style is foremost a defensive system, a way of denying dangerous possession to the other side. But it was beaten.
The secret of Dutch Manager Louis van Gaal’s tactics, in a word: directness. Every man in the Dutch 3-4-1-2, it seemed, had a simple job to either move the ball forward as swiftly as possible or to pass quickly to a man who would do that. The Netherlands attempted a higher percentage of long passes than any other team in the tournament so far.
As you can see from the other names on this list, simply hoofing long balls has not been in itself an effective strategy. But this does give a good picture of which sides in the tournament have attempted the most direct style of play. The key for van Gaal’s side in making this direct style work was its focus on attacking through central channels.
Ecuador for example paired long passes with a high rate of crosses (15 percent of final third passes), reflecting their attacking strategy of quickly pushing the ball wide and looking to sail it into the box. For the Netherlands by contrast, under nine percent of their final third passes were classified as crosses. Instead, the Dutch played throughballs.
The central attacking focus of van Gaal’s tactics might have come as a surprise given his formation. Playing wingbacks and three central defenders, the Dutch might have been expected to try to use a free man on the flanks to get crosses in to Robin van Persie. Instead, the wingbacks Daley Blind and Daryl Janmaat played long and direct passes, but relatively few crosses.
It was a through-pass from Blind to Robin van Persie that, along with van Persie’s improvisational brilliance, created the first Dutch goal. Spain seemed unprepared to be attacked at pace, again and again, either over the top or through the center of the defense. The Netherlands is very close to securing qualification, while Spain faces a tough test in another side known for their directness or verticalidad, Chile. Adjustments from Spain are necessary if the defending champions plan to prevent another embarrassment.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.
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