Saturday, 14 June 2014

'The Manner of the Defeat'

Anyone who has read my previous posts here can easily imagine my response to the Dutch demolition of Spain last night. As the TV commentary team kept repeating, more important than the fact of defeat was the manner of the defeat.  I think they meant the quantity of goals - but equally significant was their quality. The buccaneering directness of the Dutch style made for an exhilarating contrast with tiki-taka. If this really is the end of an era, what a way for it to go.

Even during the relatively even first half, there was something different about the match than the typical tiki-taka game. The tension without drama that has characterised most of the matches involving Spain in recent tournaments was entirely absent.  In tiki-taka, goals were excreted rarely and painfully, as if issuing from a constipated bowel. Spain sucked the life out of their opponents (and the game) like a large snake consuming its prey: the outcome was never in any doubt, but the actual killer moments were slow in coming. For the most part, Spain would win by one goal, often the only goal of the game. But last night, instead of being clogged in an endless midfield without a point, the game was open, unpredictable, moving quickly from goalmouth to goalmouth.

The presence of Diego Costa seemed to fatally destabilise the Spanish team. With Costa up front, the  temptation to pass quickly and directly appeared irresistible, undermining the infernal patience necessary for tiki-taka discipline. It has long seemed that tiki-taka Spain can only operate properly with an ineffective centre forward, as if the sacrifice of one player was the price paid for success. This can be the only reason for the otherwise inexplicable introduction of Torres, someone who looks like he's played with shackles on his legs for club and country for years now, when things started to wrong. But by then it was too late; the game had opened up, the goals had been scored, and Torres' only contribution was to fluff an easy chance.

As to the Dutch, they were the very antithesis of tiki-taka. This is a team based around getting the ball up to strikers very quickly. Van Persie's first goal typified this - reminding us, after the short-passing miserliness of tiki-taka, that there can be a beauty and an elegance to the long ball. Arjen Robben, meanwhile, is the very essence of directness. There is something about Robben that makes him hard to love, but last night he showed all the sleek remorselessness of the T-1000 in Terminator II. Robben played like a machine programmed to score - devoid of doubt, ruthless, unstoppable. For those of us who have endured rather than enjoyed Spain's domination, it was hard not to take a sadistic glee in seeing goal after goal going in. The deluge felt like payback for all those hours of football stripped of excitement and goals.

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