Holland can learn how to win World Cup trophy from Mourinho

Published Jul. 10, 2010 8:42 p.m. ET

Spain enters the World Cup final as favorite against a Dutch team that seems to stack up as second best in nearly every respect. But the Netherlands are not out of the running. In fact, Spain is a vulnerable side that can be stopped if coaches are willing to make the appropriate tactical adjustments.

One player on the Dutch team certainly knows how to get through what can be a throttling Spanish midfield: after all, Wesley Sneijder’s Inter Milan side broke down the Barcelona team that makes up the heart of the Spanish national side in the Champions League in April en route to winning the European Cup.

Seven of those Barcelona players are on the Spanish roster, and at least five of them are certain to start on Sunday. In contrast, Sneijder is the only Inter man on a Dutch team that has a significant home-based flavor. That doesn’t mean that manager Bert van Marwijk hasn’t learned the lessons taught by Inter’s former manager, Jose Mourinho, who cannily figured out how to foil club football’s most dangerous attacking game.

The way to foil Spain is to disrupt their passing game, which is always easier said than done. But, if a team is able to put a body on the central midfielders, is able to stay upright, and does not get suckered into playing entirely in their own half of the field, they can burst through a Spanish team that doesn’t create as many chances as it should.

The flaw in Spain’s game is that they overpass. As seen against Paraguay and Germany, the Spanish tend to be so focused on perfection that they often overlook the very real need to test a goalkeeper.

In the semifinal, they got away with it because they were dominant against a German side that made the tactical mistake of trying to play a 45-minute game. The Germans sat at home for far too long and then found that they could not change the tempo of the game when they had to. The Dutch have to avoid that trap, and remember that they were able to impose their game on Brazil after 45 minutes of being stifled.

Spain and Barcelona play a modified 4-3-3 formation, slipping between what is now being called the 4-2-3-1 and a 4-2-1-3. Basically, this is a formation that relies on wingbacks to deliver the ball up through midfield, allows defenders to settle and pivot the point of attack. Having a five-man midfield allows Spain to choke off space — as they did against Germany — or burst out and use width to poke apart a defense that must pay attention to multiple threats. It has been argued that this is the new look of both club and international football as it allows both quick transition and midfield linkup.


Against that look, Inter Milan used a four man back line with a three-man wedge to blunt Barcelona, relying on the play of their wingback Maicon to move the ball up and harassing the Barcelona defense with a three-man trident of Samuel Eto’o, Goran Pandev and Diego Milito. Inter were willing to cede possession, but unwilling to be fooled by fancy passing or the clever twists that can make Lionel Messi so creative and so deadly. Most important of all, they pressed Barcelona all over the pitch, stifling Xavi and pouncing on defensive miscues.

The same lessons apply here: Spain gets its power from a three-man spine of Xabi Alonso, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. To defeat them, you must remove the link between Xabi and Xavi, and keep this team from stretching the field. At their best, Spain’s David Villa has been sliding out wide, allowing Iniesta to cut inside off his runs, giving both men two options every time they receive the ball to pass diagonally. Joan Capdevila has been outstanding at getting the ball up field, running right along the touchline with fellow fullback by Sergio Ramos running along the opposite flank in the same role. That stretches defenses laterally and forces the midfielders to play far deeper than they normally would.

Stopping that requires sacrifice. Dirk Kuyt and Robin van Persie will have to track back as often as they go forward, and against Brazil we saw that both men were willing to do that. Giovanni van Bronckhorst has paired very well with Mark van Bommel to cover up a flawed back line, but Nigel de Jong will have to keep his cards close to the chest. He is liable to make the bad foul that can give the Spanish an in.

That means the key man for the Dutch Sunday is the same man who was so critical for Inter Milan. Sneijder must not allow himself to be bogged down in the middle, and has the biggest load of all to carry. Not only does he have to put himself in a position to feed the attack and score goals, but he must disrupt that central Spanish link.

Up top, Kuyt has prospered because so much attention has been lavished on Arjen Robben and van Persie. But those two also have benefited from referees who seem to ignore their tendency to flop. The Spanish are unlikely to foul Robben, and referee Howard Webb is more likely to allow play to continue that reward Dutch dives.

But you do expect that Capdevila will be under heavier pressure in this game than to date in this Cup. He cannot let Robben drift to the center and get a bead on Iker Casillas, and while Carles Puyol will be there to help, the aging centerback can clearly be exposed by a speedier opponent.

The Dutch team has spent much of this week talking about the power of belief. (Kuyt’s use of the word is almost comically routine.) But Mourinho used the same words when he told the media how his unheralded and historically dysfunctional Inter Milan team put down the reigning champions.

The Dutch have reason to believe: they’ve been here before, and they can score goals. Spain is the first team to have reached a final scoring so few, just seven in six matches. Spain also has not shown an ability to come from behind — it lost to Switzerland despite soundly outplaying them.

So if Holland is able to score first, hang on - Spain hasn't shown us that they can claw their way back. And as Mourinho showed the world, belief is the most powerful weapon.

Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com.