Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Tic Tac Toe Finals

In its current format, it takes 62 matches in the World Cup to determine the two finalists. The 63rd match is largely pointless, the winner gets the consolation for finishing 3rd and then we have the Final. The most important match in world football for four years.
The 2010 World Cup, hosted quite beautifully by South Africa (if I have a concern, its been the sluggish nature of pitches which have not lent well to quick passing along the ground), has now reached the final stages. Tonight Germay and Uruguay will play in the 3rd-4th place play-off match, but really everyone is waiting for tomorrow when The Netherlands and Spain will face-off in what is an unlikely final match. Unlikely because, inspite of having produced some of the finest footballers in the world; inspite of having clubs that have often been kings of Europe (Ajax, Real Madrid and Barcelona), these two countries have continued to under-perform at the world stage for a long time. Things have changed this time for the better, and I am particularly happy to see both these teams in the final. So here's my take on both the finalists
IN DEFENSE OF THE DUTCH: Ask anyone (who pretends to know football) about Dutch football, and chances are they will start talking about Total Football and Johann Cruyff. The term has stuck around the Dutch team for far too long and for no reason. The two final appearances in 1974 and 1978 remain the high points of their history along with the magnificient team of 1988 starring Van Basten, Gullit and Rijkard that lifted the 1988 Euros. And despite having some of the world's best footballers through the nineties and noughties ( Bergkamp, Overmars, the De Boer brothers, Stam, Kluivert, Van Nistelroy, Seedorf, Davids to just name a few) and coming close several times (W Cup 1998 Semi finals, Euro 2000 Semi finals), the Dutch are reaching a major final for the first time since 1988. The thing to note this time is that this team is very different from the Dutch teams of the past and comparisons have almost inevitably led to criticism.
This Dutch team doesn't play Total Football (circa 1970's). This much we know. Has any other team played like that ever ? Not that I am aware of. So the point is: Not playing Total Football cannot be a reasonable ground for criticism. What has however, also been missing is the usual free flowing, attacking football and flair, that one has come to associate with the Oranjes.... But a closer look at the team and the current talent pool will tell us why.
In goal - Stekelenburg and the back four in front of him - Van Der Wiel, Heitinga, Mathijsen and GIOvanni van Brockhorst are competent players. None of them are what one might call world class. Apart from a couple of dodgy goals let in by the keeper from shots outside the box, they have been solid, without being spectacular. Well, other than, GIO's screamer of a goal in the semis against Uruguay that is :).
Next we have the defensive mid-field partnership of Mark Van Bommel and Nigel De Jong. At their best, they are two tigers on the prowl in the centre of the park, who have been extremely effective in stopping the opposition attack; at their worst, they might be accussed of two thugs in disguise. In fact, some of Van Bommel's challenges have been horrendous to say the least, and yet he has got away with just a couple of yellow cards. The joke going round on twitter is that Harry Potter wants his invisibility cloak back from him, so blind have the referees been to his indiscretions so far.
Up front, they play with Sneijder as the playmaker, Kuyt on the left wing, Robben on the right and Van Persie up top. Four very different players, who have at times not combined very well at all. Dirk Kuyt provides work-rate, defensive cover for Gio, and intelligent runs and passes, and has had a very good tournament. Robben, who started the tournament late, recovering from an injury, has been playing the way he does best, making runs on the wing, cutting in at times and shooting. He has drawn a lot of fouls too, and has sucked the opposition into kicking him as Brazil did. He dives, sometimes, to win freekicks, generally makes most of whatever contact he gets, and then produces the occassional moment of magic or brilliance which can turn a game. Van Persie, coming into the world cup from an injury plagued season at Arsenal has remained largely subdued, and yet with the talents at his disposal keeps the opposition sufficiently occupied. His off the ball runs and some deft touches around the box are all that we have seen and yet he has been at the centre of confusion in the opposition penalty box when the Dutch have scored. And the person who has been doing most of the damage has been Wesley Sneijder, the man, who I believe has been influencing more big games in the last 3-4 months in world football than anyone else. Sneijder plays the game with intelligence. Often he drifts in and out of games. His genius is in picking moments to make a sublime defence splitting pass (as he showed for Inter against Chelsea or Bayern) or a shot/ cross as he has done throughout the world cup with his 5 goals. Off the bench, Van der Vaart remains their most likely creative force capable of changing a match and he has played well at times during the tournament. The Dutch as a team in this tournament have been a reflection of how Sneijder has been playing. Largely functional, effective and efficient for the duration of the game, yet having moments of brilliance and inspiration, doing just enough to get the job done for a match and then move on. What they have done well so far is not to have an implosion wherein they lose their bearings during a crucial period of a match, or get too gung ho while attacking, leaving their defense exposed.  They appear to have a resilience about them, as witnessed in the comeback against Brazil, in a tournament when not many teams have over-turned deficits to win. They have managed to get goals from unlikely sources too - headers from Sneijder and Robben, (two not too big, bald men), proving to be winners in the quarter finals and finals. Their success has come at the cost of beauty and flair, but right now Coach Van Marwick and his men would be happy to follow their sponsor Nike's tagline and JUST DO IT!!
(Note: In case you are interested in knowing about Total Football, how the current Dutch team are nothing like it, read this interesting piece from Brian Phillips . It's just that I don't agree with his conclusion) 
PASSING the parcel with Spain and other fun and games: Spanish football, so often at the top of the European club scene with Real Madrid and Barcelona had been the biggest under-achievers in world football till 2008, when they won the Euro, with largely the same team. In fact it is remarkable to note that this is the first time they have ever reached the world cup semi-finals, let alone the finals. A country that has always produced talented footballers over the years, often believed to have failed due to dissensions and in team politics, Real vs Barca fights and so on. However, something did change in 2008 when playing a short passing and movement game based on the style that has evolved over the years in Barca, popularly known as Tiki-taka, the Spanish conquered all comers and won the tournament in some style. However, as Sid Lowe (this link provides a brilliant analysis) has pointed out tiki - taka is as much a defensive tactic meant to suffocate the opposition of possession, as it is an attacking ploy. While the aesthetic pleasure derived depends from person to person, its a matter of taste after all; the effectiveness cannot be questioned, having gone through six consecutive knock-out matches now (Q/F, S/F and Final in Euro '08 and Round of 16, Q/F and S/F in W Cup 10) without conceding a goal. Watching Spain pass the ball around with care and style, with a quickness of foot and mind, is a bit like seeing a jealous boy-friend taking around his girl-friend around a park, always possessive and protective from others.
A look at their team now and as we go along we will see how significant the influence has been of the style and the personnel of one club - Barcelona. Iker Cassilas, goal-keeper and captain, world class keeper for a long time, has been largely under-used throughout the cup; his highlight coming in the penalty save against Cardozo. The back 4 is largely settled with Ramos at right back and Capdevilla at left back; Ramos rampaging on the right, more often than his counterpart. Pique and Puyol provide an all Barca centre of defense and have been very good, Puyol having the added honour of scoring the winner in the semis against Germany. Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are the defensive shield in front of the back 4, yet very different players. While Busquets who has come through the ranks at Barca is an interceptor of the ball, who makes very quick and efficient use of it, quickly moving it forward, Alonso has the added advantage of having possibly the most comprehensive passing range in the game. His ability to hit long passes almost makes him "quarter-back" like on a football field and provides a wonderful variation to the generally short passing style employed by the team. Just in front of them is Xavi, the conductor of the orchestra, the man who symbolises Tiki-taka in all its glory. Arguably the greatest midfielder Spain has ever produced (Pep Guardiola his Barca coach is a tough contendor though), Xavi plays the game with such simplicity and grace, that it can leave the spectators and often, the opposition, simply admiring his beauty. Andres Iniesta, the puppet master can make runs, dribble, pass and shoot from all possible ways and is mesmerising at times. David Villa up front has provided the much needed fire-power, the elusive end product,  scoring 5 goals, and basically establishing himself as the world's best striker. He often starts on the left wing, cutting inside, he can shoot from distance or can score from a scrappy situation. That makes 10 almost certain starters. The 11th player has been different from time to time and coach Del Bosque has some incredible options to chose from. He could go for an out of form Torres, who on his day, is a spectacular striker with pace, power and precision; Pedro - Barca's pacy little winger who can run rings around the opposition; Cesc Fabregas - Talismanic captain of my club - who can provide penetration and finishing from midfield. Or he could go for David Silva or Jesus Navas - exceptional wingers or a target man in Llorente - the options are simply mouth watering. And any of these can come in later in the game to make the difference depending on the game situation.
THE MATCH: There will be several intriguing match-ups especially in mid-field which might go on to decide the match. Unless something extra-ordinary happens, Spain will have a majority of the possession.The Dutch will not be too bothered about it. Iniesta and Villa will make the runs and test the Dutch defense thoroughly. How Van Bommell and De Jong deal with Xavi and Iniesta will be interesting, how Howard Webb will deal with Van Bommell will be even more so.... A quick yellow card and Van Bommell might just become more careful, subdued and less of a problem. The Dutch will try to find Robben on the flanks, his matchup against Capdevilla is one of the few they will fancy to win. And then there will Sneijder, lurking, stalking, waiting for his moment to strike and change the course of the game.
I suspect it will be a very close game. I am going for a very tight Spanish victory (2-1), although I would be more than thrilled if The Netherlands become world champions. (Why is that - I am a massive Denis Bergkamp fan :D)
PS: This match is all about Johann Cruyff. If The Netherlands win, his country would have become the world champions. Or if as he predicts here, Spain win, it would be the successful culmination of the short-passing game that he developed at Barcelona. In other words, his style would win. Take your pick :)

2 comments:

  1. David Silva's inclusion does not justify in the current formation that Del Bosque has adopted. He is an out and out right winger in its traditional sense and to give justice to his play, there can not possibly be a two-tier midfield - one holding the attack while the other pushing the momentum forward. I believe Del Bosque will stick to the tried and tested and not try too much on the big occassion. Torres should start and can always be swapped if things still go the way they have so far.

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  2. BTW.... An excellent insight of both the sides contesting. I can truly understand your reverence for Dennis Bergkamp. Hope the Dutch win.

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