I’ll be honest, I’m not in the mood to talk about what happened yesterday. It was an absolute nightmare, as the Netherlands ran riot at crushed the defending champions Spain 5-1. It was the worst Spanish defeat since 1963, the heaviest loss by a World Cup holder, and one of the most complete routs of a major soccer power in the last twenty years of international football. Iker Casillas was woeful – his worst performance in a Spain kit as he was directly responsible for three or four of the Dutch goals. Fernando Torres demonstrated what an utterly baffling decision it was to bring him to Brazil, while the Spanish fullbacks pushed too high and left the defense too exposed.
But I do want to talk about what exactly it is that Louis Van Gaal did, because the overwhelming majority of the press seems to have missed the point. The result was hailed as the end of Spain’s aura of invincibility (it is), the heralding of the end for too many of La Roja’s aging squad (it probably is), but it was also hailed as the definitive end for Spain’s philosophy and style of play, which it most certainly is not. The Daily Mail billed it as Dutch pace and power triumphing over Spanish technical ability. Even The Guardian, so frequently right in its tactical analysis of games, lost the plot a bit. This was not the Dutch repudiating Spain’s style and Spain’s philosophy: It was Van Gaal doing it better.
In order to understand why that is, one needs to remember that the Spanish possession-based philosophy has its roots in the Dutch Total Football of the 1970s, when Ajax Amsterdam ruled the footballing world – three straight European Cups, nearly three seasons without a loss in any competition, seven Eredivisie titles in nine years (when that league was the most competitive on earth). Johan Cruyff, the centrepiece and key exponent of the style that emphasized positional fluidity, possession, high pressure, and creative passing plays, exported the style to Barcelona in the 1990s, revamping La Masia such that its development of players would be based on that Dutch style. It was out of this Dutch tradition that the Spanish style – ridiculously dubbed ‘tiki taka’ – evolved: during the 2010 World Cup, Rafa Honigstein called Spain’s style “a significant upgrade on total football” and an extension of it, wherein the ball does the hard work rather than player movement.
The Dutch style that Van Gaal exports to the teams he coaches is not radically different from this, but rather a slightly different evolution of the exact same root concept. When he coached Ajax in the 1990s, Van Gaal simply took Michels’ and Cruyff’s ideas about total football and tweaked them: more direct, vertical play through the long passing of sweeper Frank De Boer (now Ajax manager), more aggressive, high-line pressure from a young side that had the physical capacity to run for seasons at a time, and a twinned reliance on possession and pressure Sound familiar? Van Gaal’s style of play, evidenced so brutally by Holland’s clinical play yesterday, is not antithetical to the Spanish style. Van Gaal isn’t either: his Ajax side were praised and admired by many of the key figures of the modern Spanish footballing revolution (Pep Guardiola, for one). Van Gaal was responsible for the footballing education and debuts of Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Carles Puyol, Victor Valdes, and reinforced the style that also produced Pepe Reina, Mikel Arteta, and Gerard Pique. Van Gaal also influenced the philosophy of Marcelo Bielsa, who put a greater reliance on pressure and attacking directness that had a huge influence on Guardiola and Chile (who have now adopted Bielsa’s ideas about the game as their national football philosophy). The 3-4-3 that Van Gaal’s side used yesterday (yes, technically it was 5-3-2 but the fullbacks pushed so high that they were basically wing-backs) was the same 3-4-3 that is the basis for AFC Ajax and FC Barcelona’s academy instruction. The overwhelming majority of the Dutch squad has its roots either in Ajax or Feyenoord, both clubs that are exponents of the modern incarnation of Total Football.
This was not a case of the Dutch killing the Spanish philosophy; this was a case of them doing it better. They pressed more energetically (partly due to the hunger for vengeance, partly because they’re a younger squad with better legs), were more clinical in their passing (man of the match Danny Blind in particular) and more fluid in their midfield. From a tactical standpoint, this was a case of seeing two teams with near-identical philosophies compete for the mantle of who did it better. The Dutch played with all the verve, energy, skill, and confidence that marked the Spanish in 2008, 2010, and 2012. The Dutch played the Spanish with their own game, and beat them comprehensively. For the neutral, it was shocking, brilliant football. As a Spain fan, it was a nightmare.