It was a result to bring a tournament to life: Netherlands’ awe-inspiring demolition of world and European champions Spain at Arena Fonte Nova on Friday night. It was, perhaps, a night on which Tiki Taka died just a touch as it’s forebear, TotalVoetbal, sprang into life once more. The Dutch victory, by five stunning goals to one, inspired a nation that held low surprisingly expectations, and thrilled the club Louis van Gaal is to join later this summer.
Indeed, if Manchester United fans were not yet excited by the veteran manager’s arrival next season then surely any reticence has now dissipated into the Salvador heat. After all, two European Championship victories in 2008 and 2012, and the World Cup in 2010, places this is a Spanish side in an élite alongside the finest of any generation, including the Brazilians of 1970 vintage. The Dutch, playing to van Gaal’s tactical masterplan, simply annihilated Spain.
To put Netherlands’ victory into perspective La Roja had lost just three competitive matches since 2008 before Friday: the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-final to USA, the 2010 World Cup opening game against Switzerland, and last summer’s Confederations Cup final against Brazil. Not since 1950 had the Spanish conceded five or more in a competitive game.
True, Barcelona’s slide from its peak at club level had many observers predicting the end of Spanish dominance on the international stage. Yet, it is an observation that also comes in the context of Real Madrid’s Champions League victory final – and Sevilla’s in the Europa League. The national side qualified for Brazil comfortably too – Vincente del Bosque’s outfit coasting through eight matches without defeat.
Still, van Gaal has overseen a renaissance in Dutch football over the past two years, with the Oranje winning each of it’s 10 qualifying matches bar the 2-2 draw with Estonia in Tallin. Yet, the the Dutch also came into the tournament with public confidence at a low. van Gaal’s is a multi-talented squad, but the a blend of youth and talent errs just a little on the side of callow, especially in defence.
None of this mattered in Salvador, where the Netherlands scored five on a night that recalled Bayern Munich’s brutal demolition of Barça over two legs in April 2013. Tiki Taka is not over as a philosophy, but football is certainly an ever evolving beast.
Netherlands’ eventual dominance was not always obvious in the early exchanges though; certainly not as Xabi Alonso struck home a 27th minute penalty – dubiously won – to give Spain a lead. Nor perhaps until Robin van Persie’s glorious diving header brought the Dutch level five minutes before half time.
Yet, the familiar Spanish pattern of ball retention morphed into a strangely pensive mentality over the first period that perhaps underlines La Roja’s growing fragility. The old belief, it seems, has eroded more than anybody realised.
Deviation from the norm was also underlined by Diego Costa’s involvement as the lone Spanish forward – a ‘false 9’ was nowhere in sight. The change in tactical direction seemingly prompted another unfamiliar phenomenon: 30 long balls from Spain that were wholly contrary to a long-established philosophy. Spain, it seems, found a ‘Plan B’ in the robust Atletico Madrid striker; whether it is one that will bring yet more success is very much in doubt.
The Dutch, meanwhile, expertly enacted the now familiar plan to counter-attack at pace; a strategy that destroyed Barça’s Tiki Taka in 2013 and then Pep Guardiola’s Bayern in this season’s Champions League semi-final.
Yet, van Gaal’s approach was an evolution again, with the veteran making a late decision to switch to a back three, while stringing five out across midfield, to offer the Robin van Persie-Arjen Robben attacking axis space to roam. It worked more impressively than even the great coach could have foreseen – even if van Gaal was keen to play down the feat.
“This is a nice start, but we have nothing,” said the incoming United coach. “If we do not win our next game against Australia we have made no progress, but now we are obviously in a good position.”
This was a Dutch victory built not on parking the bus – the fashionable strategy to eschew all possession – but on a determination to spread the game across the pitch, press high and attack at real pace.
It was also built on a clutch of truly wonderful goals. van Persie’s diving header from Daley Blind’s cross-field pass is set to be a classic replayed for generations to come.
“This is a dream come true for us and that’s why we need to enjoy the moment,” said the United forward.
“My equaliser came at just the right time and when Robben made it 2-1, it gave us a huge lift and hurt them badly. The key was to keep the pressure on till the very end, which we were able to do because we’re in great shape.
“This is because of the coach. He has prepared us great and he predicted how the game would go. It’s incredible, because it was exactly as he and the staff predicted for us.”
van Persie’s joyous sprint towards his current – and future – coach, wild high-five, and obvious passion was in marked contrast to much of last season. This is a striker whom David Moyes inexplicably failed to inspire; perhaps even a player the Scot neither rated, nor was prepared to indulge.
van Gaal has no such trouble, not only trusting van Persie as his national captain, but building a team around the 30-year-old’s considerable gifts.
“There was so much feeling,” said the coach “If you can make a goal in that way it’s great, really fantastic. It was great that he (van Persie) came to me. That is a sign of appreciation and that appreciation is mutual.”
It is an observation that should excite United supporters, whether executive vice chairman Ed Woodward brings in the much debated phalanx of new signings, or not. After all, van Persie’s goals alone will push the Reds further up the Premier League table than Moyes was ever likely to achieve.
Yet, it is the Dutch coach’s strategic and tactical brilliance that won the day against Spain despite Robben and van Persie’s individual brilliance. The genius to counter Tiki Taka without hint of conceding the impetus, and the intuitive understanding of how to extract more than the sum of Netherland’s considerable parts.
Good times lie ahead.