world cup

Can the Dutch Do It?

Josh Dean, one of the founding editors of the late PLAY, The New York Times Sports Magazine and occasional sportswriter for Rolling Stone and Outside, will be writing every weekday for The Sports Section about the World Cup. Today … a preview of Sunday’s World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands.

Oh, what a pickle. I am in the unique and precarious position of predicting victory for a team that I am no longer certain will win. Don’t get me wrong: I do believe the Dutch can win. It’s just that after watching Spain on Wednesday, I’m increasingly sure that they won’t. But I’m a man who sticks to his word, so here’s how they might.

Holland has won six-straight games and is the only team in the World Cup to go undefeated. It also won all of its qualifiers, going 10–0. It is a team laden with stars from the major clubs and ticks all of the boxes required of a potential champion: strong tactics, talented on-the-ball players, good team cohesion (at least on the field), disciplined defending, the ability to overcome adversity, and at least one sprightly winger who looks like an old man. (Today’s mind-blowing fact: Arjen Robben, the Benjamin Button of the pitch, is only 26.) Also, of the two nations, Holland has a far better World Cup history. The Dutch finished as runners-up twice, in 1974 and 1978, losing both times to teams playing on home soil (West Germany and Argentina). That isn’t really relevant, of course; I just thought I’d bring it up.

Spain is in the midst of a golden generation, during which a core of outstanding players — Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Pique, Puyol — have been able to play together, many for club and country, perfecting a highly organized game that no other team on Earth can match, at least at the moment. You can just see it in the way these guys anticipate each other’s movements, making even trick passes look easy.

To beat that, you need to level the possession battle, and Holland is probably the one team (other than Argentina, when playing with a plan) capable of making a go of it. Particularly in the front five or six, Holland has talent to match Spain, and in Wesley Sneijder it has something the Spanish don’t: a dominant midfielder who’s a constant threat to score. I’ve said multiple times that the frustrating thing about Spain is that they attempt to play too perfectly, often making one pass too many when a shot would have been the better choice. Holland has no such hang-ups. The Dutch will fire early and often; in the tournament’s early games, I found myself stunned by just how often they would blast away with the Jabulani, causing far more risk to fans in the second deck than to whichever goalkeeper was on the line.

Lately, though, they’ve been finding their range. (See especially van Bronckhorst’s cannonball against Uruguay.) And that, combined with their willingness to counter quickly (see the fantastic one-pass Sneijder-to-Robben break that opened the scoring against Slovakia) and the ability of Robben especially to create off the dribble, offers more ways to break the Spanish down. Germany’s problem was that they had only one plan: the all-out sprinting counterattack. And at times, it scared the Spanish. But the problem with the counter is that it’s effective because it’s surprising; by nature, it doesn’t happen often.
It also doesn’t lead to sustained possession. Holland has the capacity to dink and donk almost to the same infuriating lengths as Spain, world champions of the Hypnosis Attack. The Dutch are probably a close second, in fact, in passes that go sideways or backward, often frustrating as a spectator, but even more so for an opposing side that’s getting tired of chasing the ball.

If Spain’s finishing were as impressive as its overall attack — if, say, Fernando Torres were in form and not playing like a brown-haired, stone-footed impostor — I’d say Holland had no shot. But Spain doesn’t score much, and Holland is certain to have more chances than Germany. That should mean the game could go either way. And in that case I’m going with the team that shoots more, and only a little because I picked them to win in the first place.

Holland in a nail-biter, maybe even in extra time!

The score: 2–1.

Can the Dutch Do It?