Spain didn’t just lose to the Netherlands. Spain were annihilated by the Netherlands, an annihilation of such magnitude that it’s almost impossible to comprehend.
Unexpected thrashings don’t make much sense at the time, which is great, because everybody is far too busy laughing or crying or gasping or vomiting or doing the conga. And that’s as it should be. But unexpected thrashings don’t make much sense afterwards either, which is a problem when it comes to writing entertaining-yet-informative features for a discerning international audience. Tempting as it is to just write ‘LOL OMG WUT’ over and over, it’s not really what you’ve come here to read.
If it had been just a normal victory — If Netherlands had won 2-1, say — then things would be straightforward and sensible. Louis van Gaal’s decision to embrace wing-backs would have been laudable, David Silva’s miss at 1-0 would have be regrettable, Iker Casillas and his defenders would have been mildly castigatable, and the world would have carried on as normal. The heat-mappers would have heat-mapped, the punners would have punned. Ah, folks would be saying, but they lost the first game in South Africa too.
Instead, all of the above is true, but it’s true to a remarkable and slightly disquieting extent. This was a Spinal Tap loss: everything dialled right up to 11. It could have been six, seven, eight, said Robin van Persie after the game, and he was absolutely right. Ten wouldn’t have been a surprise. Yes, Spain lost the first game in South Africa too. But not like this.
Take van Gaal’s wingbacks. For a Dutchman, playing anything that doesn’t look like a 4-3-3 is an act of sedition akin to finding tulips a little tedious. But even van Gaal, having made his peace with his treason, cannot possibly have imagined that Daley Blind would take possession of the left flank to such a ludicrous extent. That van Persie and Arjen Robben would take it in turns to find so much space between Spain’s centre-halves. That Spain’s only goal — and these, it’s worth remembering, are the world champions — would come from a generously awarded penalty. That Xavi would lose the midfield battle against Nigel de Jong, and it wouldn’t even involve that much applied violence.
Nor could he have conceived that the reigning world champions, who haven’t so much as conceded a goal in ten major tournament knock-out games, would defend like strangers. Like drunk strangers. Like drunk strangers who, upon meeting one another for the first time, had taken an instant and belligerent dislike to one another. On the BBC, one pundit suggested that both Ramos and Pique had simply forgotten how to play against two strikers; certainly, as van Persie and Robben took it in turns to saunter into the acres of grass between them, it seemed that this was something bigger than a simple bad performance. They’ve played badly before, but they’ve rarely (if ever) looked sillier.
And then, Casillas. He’s been teetering on the edge of proper dodgy for a while, but was a performance that sang of the glue factory. Not only did he let in five, which is never a good look, but he did so in a manner that handily emphasised all the question marks that hang over him as a keeper and as an aging professional. The first goal was made possible by an unwise advance from his line into noman’s land, while the third was accompanied by a jump limp to the point of impotence. The fourth bounced off his foot to the lurking striker, while the fifth saw him scrambling helplessly around his penalty area. It was, a couple of excellent saves in between times notwithstanding, a catalogue of inadequacies.
Perhaps it was inevitable that a man nicknamed San Iker should end up getting crucified in public. Of course, there was some monstrous bad luck involved as well. In another universe, van Persie goes for that header and only succeeds in putting the ball wide and his back out. Or the referee gets the goalkeeper off the hook for the third, or the pass for the fourth isn’t quite so firm, or Robben has decided to be Bad Robben rather than Amazing Robben, and so trips over his own sense of overweening self.
“This is inexplicable. We trained all those weeks for this. The match has gone exactly as the coaching staff predicted.” Van Persie sounds like he’s talking happy post-victory drivel — surely, Shirley, a thing can’t be both inexplicable and predicted — and yet it kind of makes sense. Going up against a team like Spain doesn’t lend itself to plans that are supposed to work every time a side strolls forward. Keep it tight, plug away at those semi-weaknesses that the coach has identified, and maybe there’ll be a couple of opportunities. That’s why Sneijder’s early miss felt, at 0-0, so significant. It’s not like chances that good aren’t going to come along every five minutes. That would just be ridiculous.
Ridiculous is right. Everybody’s seen these games once or twice before: the ones where every ball leaves their (or sometimes your) striker’s foot and arrows into the corner. Where your (or occasionally their) goalkeeper makes poor decision on top of poor decision. Where everything breaks one way and collapses the other. Games where the outcome is correct, but the magnitude of the outcome is exaggerated by the unfortunate intersection of a bad performance with a good performance on top of something almost mystical, a ley-line of perfection, a perfect storm. Everything Netherlands tried came off. That isn’t supposed to happen.
Such a convergence is rare, and while Spain absolutely have to improve by a considerable margin, they can at least console themselves that they’re unlikely to get dissected with quite such ruthlessness again. They lost because they deserved to lose, but they ended up getting smashed into white-hot fragments because the Netherlands had the best of all possible days at the office, and because football, sometimes, is weird and completely brilliant, and all you can really do is shake your head.