Itaipava Arena Fonte Nova
Friday, June 13th, 19:00 GMT
Group B of FIFA World Cup 2014 kicks off with a rematch of the 2010 World Cup Final, as Spain play the Netherlands. Spain come into this World Cup looking to become the first side to successfully defend the World Cup since Brazil in 1962. The Netherlands will look to put the disappointment of their Euro 2012 performance well behind them and, at the very least, get out of a group in which they may be the third best side.
With the presence of a quality side like Chile, there exists an added importance, particularly for the Netherlands, to come away from this match with at least a point. For either team, losing this match, combined with Chile’s likely victory over Australia, represents a significant blow to the chances of advancing to the knockout stage.
Team News and Tactics
Spain come into this tournament as one of the favorites to lift the World Cup and probably the biggest favorite of the European sides. For Spain, there already exists an understanding/familiarity in the squad as these men have played with one another on the national team for some time. However, such consistent reliance on some of the older members of this team could put the quest for back-to-back World Cups in jeopardy.
While squads that actually go to the World Cup often lack players with questionable fitness at the start of the tournament, Spain may have concerns about the hamstring of Diego Costa. With David Villa and Fernando Torres as the only other more traditional striking options (though manager Vincente Del Bosque did show a willingness to play Cesc Fabregas as “false 9” in Euro 2012), a healthy Diego Costa represents a significant weapon for Spain, a player that embodies the idea of La Furia Roja. An unfit Diego Costa could see Vincente Del Bosque field Cesc Fabregas up front for most of the tournament.
Other than the question of center forward, Spain should line-up as they normally do, in a 4-3-3. Casillas will start in goal despite his relative lack of playing time for Real Madrid, probably due to Victor Valdes’ knee injury. At the back, Spain will probably have Jordi Alba at left back, Ramos and Pique at center-back, and either Juanfran or Cesar Azpilicueta at right back. The choice comes down to Vincente Del Bosque’s desire to keep things tight at the back or provide width in attack. Juanfran represents the superior defensive option and would likely be paired with a more traditional wide player on the right like Pedro. Azpilicueta, free of Jose Mourinho’s desire to curb his attacking intent by playing him at left back, represents the better attacking option at right back and could provide someone to overlap if a player like David Silva plays on the right.
In midfield, the familiar trio of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso, and Xavi Hernandez will look to control the match. While some have compared Spain to Barcelona, the midfield trio serves as an important difference. At Barcelona, the midfield trio of Sergio Busquets, Xavi, and Andres Iniesta represent more of a one back-two up midfield triangle, with Iniesta further forward that Xavi. Spain’s midfield trio looks more like a two down-one up with Busquets and Alonso back and Xavi further forward. This gives Spain greater defensive structure, and allows them to have the fullbacks and/or Pique go forward at will. It also moves Xavi higher up the pitch relative to his position at Barcelona. However, his decline in performance this season makes him a player to watch for Spain. If he plays like the Xavi of old, then Spain should be clear favorites to win the World Cup. If he plays like an old Xavi, then Spain may make some changes in midfield. One could see a return of the Spain from 2008, which had Marcos Senna in central midfield instead of two more holding midfielders. Playing Javi Martinez in a box-to-box role with Iniesta in the center of midfield, and Busquets holding would give Spain a more fluid and dynamic midfield. If Del Bosque wishes to maintain that solidity in midfield, then two players could continue to operate as holders while Xavi is replaced by Cesc Fabregas, Koke, Santi Cazorla, etc. The midfield options and flexibility of Spain truly astound.
Up front, flanking whoever plays at center forward will probably be Andres Iniesta on the left, though his position on the pitch will be further back and more infield than one would expect the left sided player in a more traditional 4-3-3. A wide playmaker, like David Silva, Juan Mata, etc. could play on the right with Azpilicueta providing width from right back. Spain may look to start matches like this to control the proceedings and then, depending on the situation, look to bring on a more direct player like Pedro, especially if they need a goal or wish to pin back the opponent’s left back. Granted, playing Iniesta and Silva on the flanks could make Spain too narrow, too slow in their play, and not direct enough. That narrowness did cost them against Switzerland in World Cup 2010. This represents another reason why Diego Costa’s fitness matter for Spain, as he provides direct play, constant movement, and an ability to bring these midfielders into play allowing them to play such a narrow, controlling style.
Possible Starting Lineup [4-3-3]: Casillas (GK); Azpilicueta, Pique, Ramos, Alba; Busquets, Alonso, Xavi; Silva, Costa, Iniesta
While Spain come into this tournament as favorites in to win, the Netherlands’ goal is probably to just get out of this group (the 2nd place team from this group seems likely to play Brazil in the first knockout round). After the debacle that was their Euro 2012, Bert Van Marwijk was replaced by Louis Van Gaal. While their qualifying campaign went well, the loss of Kevin Strootman has caused Van Gaal to rethink how to deploy his Dutch side. With Strootman, it seemed obvious that the Dutch would return to a 4-3-3, especially with Van Gaal as their manager. Strootman’s injury takes away the Netherlands’s best all-around midfield presence and has led to Van Gaal experimenting with a 3-4-1-2 formation before the tournament.
So unlike Spain, whose formation and playing style are known to most, the Netherlands’ tactics remain a mystery. Against Spain, who play with a lone center forward and will look to dominate the center of the pitch, Van Gaal may opt for a 4-3-1-2 to give the Dutch an ability to cope with the number of Spanish ball-players in the center of the pitch. In goal, the Netherlands will start Ajax’s Jasper Cillessen, with a likely back four of Bruno Martins Indi at left back, Ron Vlaar and Stefan De Vrig at center back, and Daryl Janmaat at right back. In midfield, Nigel De Jong seems sure to start as he gives the Dutch an increased ability to win the ball back and will hold his position. Not the most “Dutch” of midfielders (Xabi Alonso can attest to that), but a necessary player for a side with little chance of dominating their opponents with possession. The two other spots in the three will most likely compromise of a controller and a ball-carrier. In the controller role, the two candidates seem to be Daley Blind and Jordy Clasie. Unless Blind finds himself at left back (definitely a possibility), it seems that role would belong to Blind, with Clasie as his understudy. The Dutch would need a ball-carrier in midfield so to link the midfield trio with the more attacking trio (1-2). Without such a player, counter attacks in this system would struggle to progress quick enough to catch the opponent out of position. It seems that either Jonathan De Guzman or Leroy Fer play that role for the Dutch.
Up front, Wesley Sneijder will operate as a central advanced playmaker. Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie would function as a front two when the Dutch have possession and will probably move into wide areas when the opponent has possession, so the opponent fullbacks do have all the time and space they want. With Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie the Dutch could prove lethal on the counter-attack. Wesley Sneijder will probably play a key role in how this attack functions. If he operates as a lazier No. 10, looking to stay central and stay high up the pitch, the Netherlands become highly dependent on the ball-carrier from the midfield trio to link the attack front and the rest of the side. If the Netherlands had a player of Angel Di Maria’s caliber, then they could afford Sneijder’s tendency for immobility. If the Sneijder of 2010 Inter Milan appears, stylistically at least, then the Dutch attack becomes more potent.
Possible Starting Lineup [4-3-1-2]: Cillessen (GK); Martins Indi, Vlaar, De Vrij, Janmaat; Blind, De Jong, De Guzman; Sneijder; Robben, Van Persie
Player to Watch Out For
Xavi Hernandez (Spain)
The Netherlands have some fine players and Spain have players who may excite more than Xavi. However, when to comes to the question of who will win the World Cup, Xavi is one of the most important players at this World Cup, as his performance plays a significant role in how far Spain go in this tournament. His passing, ball retention, and pressing are all critical to how this Spanish side currently functions. His form this season for Barcelona does raise some concerns about attrition of skills and physical attrition after playing so many games for club and country the past six seasons. If Xavi continues to play beneath the lofty standards he has set, then it could force Spain to drop one of its most decorated players and potentially change the style of the team to one more reminiscent of the Euro 2008 Champions than the World Cup 2010/Euro 2012 Champions. And if a change is needed, it needs to happen quickly, as Spain’s next match comes up against Chile, the most frenetic side of the tournament.
Spain 2-0 Netherlands
Without Kevin Strootman and with their tactical uncertainty, the Dutch appear ill-equipped to play a side with the combination of class and cohesion that Spain possesses. Spain will probably dominate the match, with the Netherlands looking to get whatever they can off the counter-attack. Given the two holders that they field and their more restrained attack compared to Barcelona, Spain seems unlikely to give up a comical goal off a counter attack like Barcelona. With their issues in midfield, particularly their ability to transition from midfield to the attacking front, it seems that the Netherlands may have to capitalize on whatever set-piece opportunities they earn.
Blast from the Past