They have not routed any side at this World Cup, but the way they monopolise possession must feel like a drubbing. It is a form of persecution, however bewitching it might appear, as they deny competitors the opportunity to perform.
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The manner of play is sophisticated, but that alone does not account for its devastating effectiveness. Other teams, after all, contain players capable of passing the ball crisply and appreciating the geometry of the pitch. Spain have become distinguished because their strategy is something more than merely a tactical ruse.
It is not a style that they express, but an identity. The qualities are familiar – short, sharp passing, astute movement, pressing and work rate – because they are instinctive to the players raised at La Masia, Barcelona’s youth academy. Receive, pass, offer, receive, pass, offer, is a mantra that has shaped several generations of footballers.
Xavi once described himself as a “child of the system”, and there is an element of regimentation at work. Individualism is encouraged, but always to the same aim: to maintain possession of the ball. The object is to control matches, and no team at this World Cup is quite so gracefully imperious.
Six players who started the semi-final victory over Germany played for Barcelona last season, while Victor Valdes, the goalkeeper, was on the bench, along with Cesc Fabregas and Pepe Reina, who are both products of La Masia. La Liga is populated with esteemed clubs and accomplished players, but it is the Barcelona approach that Spain most closely resemble.
Even their crudest goal at the tournament was first imagined on the club’s training ground. When Vincente del Bosque told his players that Germany employed a zonal marking system at corner kicks, Carles Puyol suggested a ploy he often used at Barcelona, of attacking the ball from deep to evade attention. His powerful header in the semi-final was a matter of routine.
Del Bosque is a lugubrious character and he would never bridle at others taking credit. The humility is apt, as if a single figure is to be pinpointed as the cardinal influence then it would be Johan Cruyff. No other individual quite so strikingly moulded Barcelona’s creed.
Rinus Michels was the first Dutchman to manage the club, in 1971, while Luis van Gaal and Frank Rijkaard were in charge more recently. A corps of players from the Netherlands have also represented the club. Even so, Cruyff was alone in leaving a legacy. The Dream Team he led to glory between 1991 and 1994 was the expression of an ideal: the exquisite touch and movement that typified the Ajax and Holland teams of his own playing career.
It was at La Masia where Cruyff established a philosophy that continues to shape the club. Scouts, for instance, are instructed to ignore a youth player’s position when watching them, and focus instead on their skill and awareness. The heritage is not wholly theoretical and a line of significant individuals can be traced directly from Cruyff.
Pep Guardiola made his debut under the Dutchman when he was 19 and continues to trust in his philosophies. “Cruyff had a theory as to how we should play,” Guardiola said. “He taught us how to play by moving the ball quickly. He only used players with exceptional technique. We still look for these qualities.”
When Guardiola became manager two years ago, he set about building a team around a midfield core of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, while blooding youngsters like Sergio Busquets and Pedro from the youth team. “We chose a philosophy, not a brand,” said Joan Laporta, the chairman who appointed Guardiola. “He knows the club. He represents continuity with Cruyff’s model.”
All the same, replicating one club’s tactics is not the sole reason for Spain’s accomplishment. Other La Liga sides were influenced by the ideals of Cruyff’s Dream Team, and an entire football culture can be said to carry the Dutchman’s imprint. Even Real Madrid bought a clutch of Dutch footballers – among them Wesley Sneijder and Rafael van der Vaart – before discarding most of them for the latest galactico initiative.
“Spain, a replica of Barca, is the best publicity for football,” Cruyff wrote in his column for the El Periodico newspaper last week. “Who am I supporting? I am Dutch but I support the football that Spain is playing.”
He would never be mistaken for a wallflower, but Cruyff’s conviction is merited; the Dutch ideals that he helped to shape by being part of Michel’s innovations at Ajax are evident in this Spanish side. Puyol, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Pedro were schooled at La Masia, but the likes of Sergio Ramos and David Villa – who has agreed to move to Barcelona from Valencia – are consummate enough to fit seamlessly into the method.
Passing expertise will be the dominant trait in the final tomorrow.
Holland are a robust team, but they will encounter a version of their own history that is irrepressible.