Spain's passing wears down foes
Spain has no real weaknesses when it plays in a 4-2-3-1 formation
Holding midfielders Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso are a strong tandem
Spain's posession game is j ust as make a defensive measure as an offensive one
Attrition has never been so beautiful. For three games in a row, Spain has passed and passed and passed, weaved its sophisticated patterns and finally broken its opponent in the second half.
David Villa got the winner after 63 minutes against Portugal in the second round and after 83 minutes against Paraguay in the quarterfinal; Carles Puyol headed the only goal after 73 minutes against Germany in the semifinal. Germany, in the same period, scored eight and conceded just two. Tallying goals alone, though, never tells the whole story.
Spain is the lowest-scoring team to reach a World Cup final, which some may use to dismiss its achievement. But is it the Spaniards' fault that they are so good no team will ever engage them? That they have for three years played football of such technical class and precision that other teams are too terrified to do anything other than sit eight (or nine, or 10) men behind the ball? Against Germany, Spain regularly found eight white shirts blocking its path to goal. Other sides might have panicked and tried something different, knocking long balls in to the back post or attempting impossible dribbles, but not Spain. It just passed some more, recycled possession, worked the ball back to the halfway line and came again. The two late failures on the break against Germany, perhaps, can be attributed to the fact that its forwards so rarely find themselves with any space.
Five of Spain's starting outfielders against Germany play for Barcelona, which was criticized for not altering its approach in the Champions League semifinal after being unable to break down an Internazionale side that, following Thiago Motta's ejection, sat nine players deep. But its strength is that it doesn't need a Plan B, that it remains calm, something Jogi Löw, Germany's coach, pointed out after defeat on Wednesday. Barcelona's loss to Inter was a freak, a one-off against an exceptionally disciplined side -- and even then Barca had a late goal controversially ruled out. Far, far more often Barca and Spain do wear sides down; it's just that a good team winning 1-0 doesn't make headlines.
There are those who criticize Spain's tika-taka style, protesting that it goes nowhere. Perhaps not, or not immediately for every pass fatigues the opponent, but it goes nowhere magnificently. Some of the passing moves it pulls off are worked in preposterously tight spaces.
Xavi, in particular, will show for the ball even with two or three defenders tracking him, confident enough in his touch and his ability to conjure an angle to receive passes even under intense pressure.
That is integral to Spain's approach, for it means attacks can stem from angles that had seemed blocked off. And, of course, if it takes two or more men to subdue Xavi, it means another player is free elsewhere. Watching Spain is, at times, like watching a gifted stage magician, drawing your attention one way and then suddenly -- voila! -- rolling the ball into unexpected space for an on-rushing player somewhere quite unexpected.
But Spain's players are not just great technicians -- and you wonder if any side has ever so mastered a football; they also press superbly.
Barcelona's ability to press was apparent in the Champions League quarterfinal against Arsenal, when it met a side of almost equal technical ability and destroyed it by the rigor of its closing, stifling Arsenal every time it got possession, blocking angles and pressuring the man on the ball. It is implausible given the relative lack of preparation time that any national side could ever be that good, but this Spain is not far off.
Löw spoke of Germany being unable to shake its inhibitions, and perhaps there was a psychological element, but at least as significant is the way Spain unsettled his side, hounding its players in possession, particularly early, denying them possibility of an easy pass. And that, of course, magnifies any doubt that may exist.
The Netherlands, at least, is not a team prone to self-doubt, but it will have to ready itself for having, perhaps, as little as 40 percent of possession, and Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong must know that they will have an evening of chasing as the ball is rotated between Spain's midfield. Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso may be the best holding midfield duo in the world -- one a tough, even nasty enforcer who can also play a pass; the other a calm, intelligent player with as good a range of passing as anybody in the world.
Xavi, one of the greatest passing playmakers ever, then sits just in front, a little deeper than would be usual in a 4-2-3-1 so the shape is almost a hybrid with 4-3-3, a fulcrum for all the team's creativity.
That triangle now feels more natural than it did when Fernando Torres was playing, with Pedro and Andres Iniesta operating wide, drifting in-field and switching flanks at will. David Villa may not offer much in the way of heft at center forward, and it's certainly not worth hoofing long balls at him to hold up, but then that's not Spain's style. His movement is superb, and he is a magnificent finisher, as his five goals -- from a great variety of positions -- in the tournament attest. He clearly prefers coming from effectively an inside-left position, which is bad news for Johnny Heitinga, the right-sided member of the Dutch center backs.
There is a lingering feeling that Spain is vulnerable defensively, although that may stem as much from the knowledge that it is unsurpassed technically as much as anything else. Puyol and Gerard Pique -- a classic combination of the physical and the cultured -- look as good a pair of center backs as any in the tournament (although Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder, of course, was key to the Inter side that beat Barca, not so much in the notorious second leg, but in the game in Milan, which Inter won 3-1); Joan Capdevila is solid at left back, happy to advance when the opportunity arises; and if right back Sergio Ramos can be exposed defensively, the weakness is made up for by the attacking option he offers on the right. Iker Casillas, in goal, has perhaps not had his best season, but the fact that he remains the best of a fine crop of Spanish goalkeepers speaks of his quality.
Is there a weakness the Netherlands could look to exploit? Not really, not when Spain plays 4-2-3-1. The Dutch, like so many before, will have to sit deep, look to frustrate Spain and then see what transpires on the counter. Spain was occasionally troubled by German corners, and the fact that the Dutch scored twice from set pieces against Brazil perhaps offers some hope, but Spain is understandably the favorite. The Dutch know as well as anybody that the best side in the world doesn't necessarily win the World Cup -- for football is a game of probabilities rather than absolutes -- but Spain would be worthy of a coronation.
Jonathan Wilson is the author of Inverting the Pyramid; Behind the Curtain; Sunderland: A Club Transformed; and The Anatomy of England.