We were twenty minutes away from decrying Spain as suffering from Arsenal syndrome. All pretty passing but no penetration and no plan B. But Carles Puyol’s 73rd minute header put this Spanish side into the World Cup final and put its performance into context.
Spain’s three matches in the knockout stages have all finished 1-0 and followed a broadly similar pattern: the best passing side in the world tasked with breaking down two compact banks of four, struggling, making a breakthrough and then – only then – looking worthy of their reputations.
Much has been said about Spain’s tiki-taka passing style as an offensive weapon but if this World Cup has shown us one thing it is that it’s equally, if not more effective when defending a lead. You simply cannot get the ball off these guys.
Joachim Löw steered his side through the second round battering of England and the quarter final trouncing of Argentina by isolating and exploiting each team’s principal weakness; drawing John Terry out of the English defence to isolate Matthew Upson, then scoring three goals against Argentina by pressuring their right back position. He was unable to repeat the feat here, quite understandably, as there is not a single Spanish weakness to exploit.
Not in attack, anyway. In defence Löw got it right, his narrow two banks of four forcing Spain wide, forcing them to cross into a penalty area that was either empty or solely occupied by the diminutive David Villa. Once again his side were set up to break at speed: they did not get a chance to do so until a quarter of the match had passed, Podolski fluffing his layoff, playing it fractionally behind an unhappy Mehsut Özil allowing Spain to regroup.
Vicente Del Bosque shocked many by dropping Fernando Torres, then shocked even more by replacing him with the slight, skilful Pedro rather than the physically imposing Fernando Llorente who would have carried the greater aerial threat. Evidently Del Bosque intended to play through Germany rather than around them, but it didn’t really work. It was going to take a perfect cross to make a breakthrough. So it proved, eventually, Puyol and Pique both unmarked at a corner, Puyol getting to it first and thumping a header past a helpless Manuel Neuer.
It was a fairly drab first half, both teams giving each other a little too much respect. Spain kept the ball well but didn’t commit too many men forward, fearful of German counter-attacks. Germany, perhaps understandably, had to concentrate on defence and there were none of the forward runs from Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger that had been seen earlier in the tournament. In other words this was a proper semi-final. Two excellent teams, wary of each other’s talents. In the second half, surely, things would open up.
Well, barely, but after Xabi Alonso flashed two shots wide in the opening minutes of the half it became the most fascinating 0-0 you ever saw, the best attacking side in the world versus the best at counter-attacking. Spain pressed high up the pitch, giving Friedrich and Mertesacker no time to pick their passes. Germany were coming forward but were unable to play through the middle, went wide instead only to find Puyol and Pique, fantastic throughout, equal to every ball that came their way.
Torres’ replacement, the Barcelona forward Pedro, has all the skills but was incredibly frustrating to watch. His ability to beat the same man three times before losing possession brought to mind a young Joe Cole. Torres came on with ten minutes remaining, replacing David Villa who had tired, unable to use his pace to make the most of Spanish breaks as Germany poured forward in search of an equaliser. Pedro broke, Torres in support with only one defender between them and Neuer. Inexplicably Pedro ignored the option of a two yard square pass to an unmarked Torres, opting instead to jink back in on himself, crowded out by a retreating German defence.
Germany barely created a single chance of note and Löw was charmingly sanguine afterwards, admitting his side had been beaten by the best team in the world. The truth is that while Spain may not have been firing on all cylinders they made this thrilling Germany side look thoroughly workmanlike.
Everyone came into this World Cup expecting Spain to be the best attacking side but instead they have been the best defensive one, never really looking like conceding. Questions persist over how they would react to going a goal down – like Germany they have only been behind once in the tournament and failed to find an equaliser in their opening match against Switzerland – and the Netherlands will know that, as it was here and has been in every Spanish match in this World Cup, the first goal will be key.
This has been a World Cup of surprises and Holland will relish going into this match as underdogs. After all the talk of South American dominance this will be the second consecutive all-European final, and we are guaranteed a first-time winner. Roll on Sunday.