Thirteen World Cup Theses
by Alan Jacobs · July 9, 2010
1) Nobody plays “total football” any more, so please stop referring to it unless you are providing helpful historical context. Even if you call it Totaalvoetbal, teams would get slaughtered if they tried it against modern tactical sides.
2) The current Dutch team aren’t the “heirs” of anything except perhaps the drills created and overseen by coaches and trainers at Ajax’s football academy.
3) I love Wesley Sneijder, but he has been amazingly lucky in this World Cup.
4) If Dirk Kuyt could run faster than my mother, he might well be the best player in the world.
5) Nobody has said anything about this World Cup smarter than Jonathan Wilson’s comment that “Formations are one thing, their employment something else.” What matters is not how the players are deployed on the whiteboard, but how they deploy themselves in conditions of stress or opportunity.
6) Much has been made, in some quarters, of the passing accuracy of the Spanish midfielders, especially Xavi and Xabi Alonso (and in the Germany match Busquets). And it is remarkable, and worthy of praise. But here’s the key thing: in the Spanish offense there’s always someone to pass to. You can’t have a high percentage of completions if you’re regularly trying to pass to tightly marked teammates.
7) Thus the key stat about Xavi in the Germany match was not his high number of passages and high completion percentage, but the fact that he ran farther than any other player: he continually moves to open spots on the pitch to receive passes—and his teammates do the same.
8 ) It’s this circulatory movement that makes Spain so efficient; but while the constant weaving and unweaving is mesmerizing to some, it is boring and frustrating to others. But the way Spain plays bears no resemblance to Coldplay’s music, okay? Random associations of things you vaguely dislike do not rise to the dignity of metaphor.
9) Spain always plays the ball to the open spot on the pitch; if the open spot on the pitch is not close to the goal, then alas. They just don’t make chancy passes: the low-percentage opportunity, seized in a moment of insightful ambition (if it works) or thoughtlessness (if it doesn’t). Sooner or later, the Spanish players think, space will open in a position from which we can attack, and when that happens we’ll be clinical.
10) But of course against well-organized defenses that opening will indeed happen later rather than sooner, which accounts for the Spanish scorelines: 0-1, 2-0, 2-1, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 (with the goals in those last three matches scored at the 62nd, 82nd, and 72nd minutes respectively).
11) Meanwhile, as long as Spain have the ball . . . you know where I’m going with this. Possession percentages in Spain’s matches: 67%, 66%, 59%, 62%, 62%, 61%. Chile has been the only team to hold the ball more than 39% of the time.
12) All this said, the Dutch don’t need as many chances as most teams do: one moment of individual brilliance from Sneijder or Kuyt or Robben or Van Persie (who looked good, for once, against Uruguay) or even van Bronckhorst can disrupt the Spanish plan. If they get behind, the Spaniards will almost certainly maintain their patience—but that might work against them as time wears on.
13) The prediction, then: a relatively early (first half-hour) goal from Robben; Spanish tiki-taka for much of the next hour; finally, when Spain begins to push harder than usual, a counter-attack and another Dutch goal. Spain will pull one back late, but in the end the Dutch will win 2-1, and Spain’s chief consolation and frustration will be its highest possession percentage of the tournament.
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