With Bayern Munich’s humiliation of Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final two years ago, or with Real Madrid’s second leg destruction of Bayern in this year’s Champions League, one suspected that an effective blueprint had been drawn up to combat (and pummel) teams that play tiki-taka football. In successive seasons, tiki-taka teams in Europe’s elite club competition had been blown away by sides who played a muscular, counter-attacking style of football. Lightning quick transitions to lightning quick forwards had scythed through the Barca and Bayern defences, and the diminutive pass-master midfield archetype, less athletic, less direct, was being shown up by the newer breed of player, whose hallmarks were devastating speed, power, and ruthlessly efficient finishing. With the memory of Spain’s humbling at the hands of Brazil in the Confederations Cup Final in the back of the collective minds, eyes turned to the World Cup in Brazil, and to whether Spain could succeed using a footballing system that looked to have been figured out. This first group match, against a Dutch team many didn’t even fancy to escape the group, has confirmed the paradigm shift on the international stage; tiki-taka is in crisis.
The game started normally enough for Spain. They went ahead through Xabi Alonso’s penalty, which had been won by Diego Costa, a particularly unpopular naturalised Spaniard in Brazil. As is per usual for penalties so far this tournament, it looked like Costa had wrapped his foot around the defender’s leg to win it, though the misdeed was nowhere near the level of deception that Fred showed to win his for the Selecao yesterday. So, 1-0 it was to Spain, and they looked as if they were in control of the match, obviously dominating possession, and the Dutch only rarely threatening to score. Spain should have made it 2-0 before halftime, and their inability to do so was made to pay heavily. Just before the first half was up, Robin van Persie scored a goal of ridiculous ingenuity, a flying, long range header that lobbed Casillas, but flew in with such force it defied explanation. It had come out of nothing as well. A ball over the top from the left hand side saw van Persie sprint through to try and meet it. Casillas was off his line, but had no reason to think that van Persie would dive, taking the ball on first-time, and loop the ball over him. He was so bamboozled by the Dutch striker’s action, that he stood motionless and helpless to stop him scoring. It was sensational, and just before half time, it was the boost that the Dutch needed.
As the rain began to fall, the second half began. The game was locked at 1-1 but the Dutch had the momentum. Robben, so pacy and elusive, gave the Dutch the lead twelve minutes into the second half. Reminiscent of Dennis Bergkamp’s iconic goal against Argentina, Robben collected a ball over the top, cushioned it perfectly, brought it inside Pique, and tucked it away past Casillas. Though the ball took a nick off the studs of a Spanish defender, the goal was all down to Robben’s sublime control and poise. The lead forced Spain to push forward, searching to salvage the game, and with half an hour still to go, the Dutch now had an opportunity, having just scored, to pick the tiki-taka merchants off on the counter-attack, just as Real Madrid had had in that second leg against Bayern. And did they ever take advantage.
What followed was a display of uber-efficient, utter devastation on the break. De Vrij scored what looked like a contentious goal from a beautiful Snjeider free kick to make it 3-1. Casillas had been taken out by van Persie, but the referee saw nothing wrong with the Manchester United striker’s leap. Van Persie had already smashed a shot against the bar, after a fluid transition on the counter. Then van Persie stuck the knife into the Spanish hearts, capitalising on a gawling mistake by Casillas. The Spanish captain’s touch when controlling a back pass was heavier than van Persie would allow, and he nipped in to steal the ball and tap in. Robben finished off the scoring with ten minutes to go with a display of just exactly how fast a man he really is. The answer? Fast enough to give Sergio Ramos an eight metre head start, yet still beat him to a perfectly weighted long ball. The Bayern winger then surged into the box, cut back and rounded a sprawling Casillas, and speared the ball into the top corner. It was Robben at his electrifying best.
The Dutch could have scored more, with a number of players guilty of spurning some very good chances. The Spanish walked off the pitch shell-shocked, their supporters ashen faced. van Gaal, the Dutch coach, and his players were beaming, and who wouldn’t be, they’d handed Spain their worst World Cup defeat since the last time it was held in Brazil, in 1950. It was hard to think that Spain would be able to win a fourth major trophy in a row, and this resounding defeat confirms all the doubts. Here are the goals, in GIF or link form.