Holland's defensive tactics won few admirers as they sought to suffocate Spain's attacking instincts with heavy tackling
Mark van Bommel bustles Xavi to the turf as Holland's midfield tactics tried to nullify Spain's attack
Bert van Marwijk, the Holland coach, appeared to come into the World Cup final with little confidence that he could win the match on an equal footing. His tactics won few friends and certainly no new admirers of the tremendous contribution that Holland have made to attractive football over the years.
Holland had come into this game on the back of a long unbeaten run but this was a match too far for them. Some may look back and feel that taking such a quality team as Spain into extra-time was a brave performance, while others may feel reflect that Arjen Robben could easily have won the match in normal time. That might be true but it surely would have felt like a hollow victory given what had gone on before.
Nelson Mandela had courageously attended and the crowd warmed to this brave political fighter's brief appearance, but the game itself thrilled no one. With both teams employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, neither side were able to drag the holding midfielders out of their protective roles. Holland, employing two destroyers in Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong, raced into early tackles without caution and were duly punished with yellow cards. With Spain's Sergio Busquets sitting on the clever Dutch playmaker Wesley Sneijder, we had an impasse.
Spain still had the majority of the possession but, as well as their midfield solidity, the Dutch also benefited from their back four retaining their shape and rarely leaving spaces to exploit. Giovanni van Bronckhorst sat sensibly while Johnny Heitinga rarely crossed the halfway line before his dismissal. Indeed, apart from an unopposed Sergio Ramos header, all the intricacies of Xavi and the matchwinner Andrés Iniesta came to nothing for long periods. Robben, running like the wind, was the nearest to scoring in normal time, the forward twice thwarted by Iker Casillas. The former Chelsea man ran willingly throughout and was the sole Dutch threat.
Yet the reality is that while both sides maintained their dual-man insurance policy in midfield, the game was bound to stutter. Holders, destroyers, sitters, call them what you will, they certainly do not encourage an expansive game, particularly when they play like Van Bommel and De Jong did at times last night. They were poor imitations of Claude Makelele, the former French World Cup winner and the finest exponent of the art of breaking up play and initiating attacks.
The tactics of holding Van Bommel and De Jong to protect the centre of defence, together with the tough challenges that followed, led to a fractured game that upset the Spanish rhythm and gave the favourites few goalscoring opportunities. Their discipline to never move in advance of the ball suffocated the instinctive, creative players and it was not until the arrival of Jesús Navas, and in particular Cesc Fábregas, that Spain began to look more threatening and adventurous when attacking.
It was a shame that the final game on the ultimate stage was riddled with so many free-kicks and stagnant play. However, this should not mask the overall contribution of Spain during the tournament. There is no question that the clever football, which involves interchanging of movement, people running off the ball and incisive passing, all of which has been the hallmark of Spain in the last couple of seasons, deserved to win football's greatest prize.