Spain finally finds its groove
Heading into the World Cup in South Africa, Spain was heralded as legitimate title contenders. With a wealth of talent at its disposal, Spain was expected to dominate games from start to finish, seeing off opponents with relative ease.
That hasn't been the case, however, and leading up to Wednesday's semi-final matchup against the in-form Germans, it would be fair to say that Spain hasn't had an easy time of things.
That all changed against Germany, though, when the real Spain decided to make its first appearance at the tournament.
Despite the narrow 1-0 margin of victory, it was a complete performance from the Spaniards. They dominated possession of the ball from the early stages of the game onwards, and they never allowed the Germans to get a foothold in the game.
The only downside for the Spaniards, once again, was that they failed to turn their dominance into goals.
Heading into the game it was the Germans who had found the back of the net more often, scoring 13 goals in five games, compared to six goals in five games for Spain. But the Germans rarely threatened to add to that total against their European opponents, in large part because they rarely had the ball.
Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque's approach to the game is to ask his players to keep the ball at all times, prodding and probing for an opening. It is a tactic that works for Spain because they have the most technically proficient midfield in the world.
Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Pedro, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are all comfortable on the ball and are all intelligent and creative in their movement. Rarely were any of them left exposed when in possession, and there were always two or three passing options available to the man on the ball.
Sergio Ramos was allowed to venture forward down the right wing at will, because either Iniesta or Pedro, whoever happened to be on the right flank, would take up a more central position. This not only served to give Spain a numerical advantage in central midfield, it also freed up space for Ramos to attack.
This is a central principle in Spain's tactical formation - a midfield that can interchange at any time, coupled with two fullbacks (Ramos on the right and Joan Capdevila on the left) who are athletic enough to join in when Spain is in possession.
The fullbacks are allowed to move forward because Busquets and Alonso are disciplined in their positional play and are able to cover for either fullback when necessary.
After Germany's demolition job on Argentina, I praised German coach Joachim Loew for his tactical awareness in recognizing the weakness of his opponent.
Against Spain, I thought that Loew failed to effectively counter the strength of his opponent and keep possession of the ball.
Spain has struggled against opponents who put them under pressure when they have the ball. Up until they had a man sent off in their final group game, Chile gave Spain a difficult time because it harassed the Spanish all over the park. Likewise, Paraguay frustrated Spain in their quarter-final game because of the high tempo, high-pressure tactics that it employed.
Strategy backfires on Germany
I thought Germany should have done the same thing.
Pushing both of their wide midfielders, Lukas Podolski and Piotr Trochowski, onto the fullbacks would have denied Spain an outlet from Iker Casillas in goal. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Sami Khedira and Mesut Oezil would then need to close down their counterparts in midfield, while Philip Lahm and Jerome Boateng would need to track the movements of Iniesta and Pedro.
One other point of note: when the Spaniards lost possession of the ball, they put Germany under intense pressure to win it back.
On the rare occasion that the Germans found themselves in possession, they were quickly surrounded by a swarm of players in red jerseys. The Germans expended so much energy chasing shadows that they had little left to give when the onus was on them to create scoring chances.
Del Bosque admitted after the game that his team is happy when it is in possession of the ball, and uncomfortable when they are not. Germany failed to understand that mentality, and paid a heavy price.
With the benefit of watching the dominant Spanish performance, I think Dutch coach Bert Van Marwijk will be wary of making the same mistake in the final on Sunday.