Holland and Spain were on top of the world a decade ago but the pioneers of Total Football and tiki-taka have slumped since with neither having won a major knockout game in six years… so can they find their football identity in time for Euro 2020?
- Holland host Spain in an international friendly on Wednesday in Amsterdam
- Spain head into it having lost at Ukraine in the Nations League last time out
- Holland are struggling and are winless in four games over the last 14 months
- Both have struggled at tournaments since meeting in 2010 World Cup final
- Neither have won a knock-out match at one since Holland at 2014 World Cup
By the time the 2010 World Cup final had kicked off, the tournament had already been panned as being one of the most lacklustre in history but there was one last hope that a clash between Holland and Spain could save it.
There were grounds for that. A disappointing event in South Africa largely down to negative tactics, a controversial Jabulani football and a psychic octopus revealing spoilers before matches were played could still be forgotten if two of football’s great entertainers could and produce a classic in Johannesburg.
Holland with their DNA of Total Football that made them a force in the global game from the 1970s onwards were up against a Spain side arguably at their peak, with their brand of tiki-taka football having taken them from one of the biggest chokers at major tournaments to one of the most feared following their Euro 2008 success.
The 2010 World Cup final proved a bad tempered affair between Holland and Spain, with Nigel de Jong fortunate to escape serious punishment following his foul on Xabi Alonso
Holland defender John Heitinga was sent off during extra-time in South Africa
Andres Iniesta went on to grab the winning goal for Spain to crown them world champions
In the two hours that followed instead of kicking the ball they kicked each other and after thirteen yellow cards and a red card for John Heitinga, it was Spain who scraped by thanks to Andres Iniesta’s late winner. At the time we could have put the awful spectacle down to the influence of the poor tournament but it appears now the faintest of cracks were developing among two famous names in European as well as global football.
Spain of course didn’t fall away immediately, they were just as dominant two years later at Euro 2012, but it proved to be just a final fling with glory and since their shock group stage exit in Brazil as world champions in 2014 they have not looked the same.
Holland meanwhile were one of those that swatted Spain to one side as they galloped to third place in South America but we haven’t seen them since.
Iniesta lifts the World Cup for Spain in Johannesburg but Spain have largely struggled since and have not won a major knock-out game for eight years
Holland got revenge four years later when in the group stage of the 2014 World Cup, Robin van Persie’s famous diving header earned them a 5-1 victory in Brazil
The two sides meet again on Wednesday in Amsterdam away from the global lights, as they face off in a friendly to try and get back on track ahead of Euro 2020 next year.
Spain have just one survivor who featured in the World Cup final 10 years ago in Sergio Ramos, but the stars including Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso have not been replaced to keep the midfield ticking over – even if that was always going to prove a difficult task.
Key stalwarts in defence including Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique have also moved on while attacking depth with David Villa and Fernando Torres is just a faded memory by now.
It’s not just some of Spain’s best players exiting that has caused their demise. Since their capitulation in Brazil, the aura and fear that surrounded them is not what it once was and they have been ordinary at best in tournaments since.
Sergio Ramos is the only player for Spain who featured in the 2010 World Cup final
Spain have struggled to replace the world class stars of 2010 but they retain a decent outfit that includes Ferran Torres of Manchester City (right)
At Euro 2016 they were comfortably eliminated in the last-16 by Italy just four years after demolishing them 4-0 in the final, while at the last World Cup even Russia no longer feared Spain to dump them out of the last-16 again on penalties. Having won three major tournaments in a row, Spain have now not won a knock-out game in eight years. Even England beat them two years ago in their own backyard to deny them progress to the Nations League finals.
That at the moment is set to change as they top a group featuring Germany, Switzerland and Ukraine. But defeat in Kiev last time out leaves them vulnerable and still far away from their previous heights.
Admittedly those heights were unsustainable by any imagination and the squad is still a good one. It features experience in every area of the field through David de Gea in goal, Ramos, Sergio Busquets in midfield and Alvaro Morata up front who is averaging around a goal every other game in his 33 appearances.
There is a lot of competence surrounding them too, even if the amount of caps say otherwise. Tottenham and Arsenal full-backs Sergio Reguilon and Hector Bellerin are excellent options. Koke for Atletico Madrid and Marco Asensio for Real Madrid are Champions League midfielders, while Rodri and Ferran Torres are first team stars at Manchester City.
Spain have frustrated at recent tournaments and were dumped out of the 2018 World Cup by Russia in the last-16 following a penalty shootout
None of Holland’s team from the final in South Africa remain led by the likes of Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben and Robin van Persie. But even with those players Holland’s failure to reach either of the previous two major tournaments had been deeply surprising.
The nadir of this was finishing fourth in their Euro 2016 qualifying group behind Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey to not even earn a play-off for the tournament which had been expanded from 16 teams to 24.
They missed out on the play-offs again two years later finishing behind France and Spain trying to qualify for the World Cup but green shoots appeared last summer when they defeated France, Germany and England to reach the inaugural finals of the Nations League. They may have lost to host nation Portugal in the final but it indicated they were back on the right track – especially having also qualified for Euro 2020.
However, doubts are creeping back in again. This time they are lingering in a Nations League group containing Poland and Italy and Bosnia & Herzegovina. They are third with two matches to play and the squad isn’t bursting with household names that have often saturated Dutch squads of the past.
Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk is crucial to Holland but will be out until next summer
Donny van de Beek is key to the Dutch side but is struggling for minutes at Manchester United
The one that is in Liverpool defender Virgil van Dijk may still be struggling for fitness ahead of next summer’s finals following his season ending injury at Everton. There are excellent players in Van Dijk’s Reds team-mate Georginio Wijnaldum, Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong and Barcelona’s Matthijs de Ligt but another stand out star in Donny van de Beek can hardly get a kick at Manchester United.
Holland are also on a terrible run of form, having failed to win in 14 months in a run that has seen them lose at home to Italy and Mexico without scoring while drawing away to the Italians as well as in Bosnia.
It’s difficult to read too much into Nations League form as many teams are using them as glorified friendlies to experiment, but heading into the clash with Spain, Frank de Boer’s side arguably need the win much more than their opponents. Whatever the outcome though both sides need to improve for Euro 2020, especially as neither have won a knock-out game at a major tournament since Holland defeated Brazil in the third place-play off at the 2014 World Cup.
While Spain are not the force they once were, they are still one of Europe’s strongest teams and the result in Ukraine is just a blip as they prepare for next summer. Holland though need a win from somewhere and a victory at the Johan Cruyff Arena on Wednesday night may be what they need to get Total Football back on track.
Matthijs de Ligt helped Holland defeat England at the Nations League last summer in the semi-finals but they have slumped recently by failing to win any of their last four games
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