Matt Traub

End of the Spanish Reign in world soccer

Created on Jun. 18, 2014 6:21 PM EST

Growing old sucks. Spain got old before our eyes this week.
The King is dead, long live The King, and all the other clichés apply after the defending World Cup champions lost to Chile and were officially eliminated on Wednesday. A team that ruled international soccer for the past six years-plus are out of the biggest tournament in international soccer.
Spain, its aura of intimidation ruined in its first game against the Netherlands, faced a faster, harder-pressing version of itself in Chile. Even with a clearly not 100 percent Arturo Vidal, Chile was turbo-charged compared to a laconic Spain side that did not have Xavi in the starting 11.
Plenty of questions about what this side will be for the next few years are waiting to be answered. But first, given some of the instant reaction on Twitter, the question is asked of whether this has been a champion properly appreciated. The “never did like them, they weren’t exciting enough” sentiment somehow abounds but without the perspective that until this tournament, international play was about bunkering 10 behind the ball against Spain and letting them pass it around the periphery before winning 1-0 or 2-0.
Xavi. Iniesta. Villa. Alonso. Ramos. Casillas. Once majestic, now merely men.  When it took the main stage at Euro 2008, the way it played became the idoltry of clubs around the world, and the Spanish model will still retain heavy influence throughout the game. But it will do so with some modifications; while teams may still use a double pivot in midfield, the high press will be more active. While teams seek to control possession, they will want to do so at an increased tempo with more direct play as a feature, not the feature of last resort.
Spain will go down in the pantheons of history as one of the great international sides. Winning consecutive Euros with a World Cup sandwiched between it stands on its own. Spain still is where some of the most progressive league soccer is played. Two poor games does not wipe away a decade of accomplishment.
Dutch left wanting … Louis Van Gaal hinted before the World Cup that a 3-5-2 formation was only for when the Netherlands played its opener against Spain, but after the 5-1 shocker, he stayed with it against Australia. The difference was the Socceroos are not the threat going forward as the Spanish, so the Dutch game plan was scrambled from the beginning and allowed Australia to gain an unlikely foothold in the game.
It was an absurd opening 25 minutes in multiple ways. The Dutch, wanting Australia to possess the ball so it could counterattack? The Dutch, having to rely on a mistake from a defender pinching up too high and leaving only one man back for its goal? Then Tim Cahill’s wonder strike, a volley that would hold up to any Dutch master?
There were two similarities to previous World Cup matches; first, the Argentina match where Sabella out-thought himself with a 5-3-2 in the first half before changing to a more effective setup for Lionel Messi and Co. Second was the Belgium match, where a team that was heavily favored made tough going out of the first 60 minutes before finally getting two goals and scraping by.
The introduction of Memphis Depay at halftime through injury allowed the Netherlands to go back to its trusted 4-3-3 and even after the handball that allowed Australia to take a shock 2-1 lead, the Netherlands looked more comfortable in their positioning offensively, even if it was still prone to the odd defensive gaffe. Credit to the Aussies, who were full value, but Depay’s ability to get down the left flank was something that changed the game.

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