One of the most fascinating aspects of football is how playing style differs across different regions. There is a Spanish style of football, a Scandinavian style of football, even a South American style of football -- and at international tournaments, these differences are at their most obvious.
Although distinct styles have survived through the globalization of football in recent decades, the playing style of each country and region evolves over time. Sometimes that is in accordance with the general change in playing style across the globe, occasionally it’s simply because of one coach’s impact upon the national team, or a dominant club side.
We’ve seen plenty of evolution among the four European powerhouses in the past few years, with Spain, Germany, Netherlands and Italy all moving away from their stereotypical way of playing, and all coming to mimic each other, in various respects. Here, we look at how those four proud footballing cultures don’t necessarily sum up their current side.
The stereotype: Talented yet unreliable; full of skillful players, but likely to lose their nerve in the knockout stages
The reality: Spain is one of the most dominant international sides the world has seen – between 2007 and 2010 it won 49 of its 54 games while winning the European Championships and the World Cup back-to-back. There is no longer a question about La Furia Roja’s mental strength. While its form has slipped slightly in the past couple of years, particularly in friendlies against strong sides, Spain possesses a huge number of players who offer consistency and an appetite for the big occasion. Xavi Hernandez’s continued influence upon big games, for instance, is unprecedented. Whereas Spain was once unpredictable, it is now calm, methodical and strategic.
It has such an array of stars that head coach Vicente del Bosque does not have wispy, enigmatic showboaters on his bench, but instead the likes of Juan Mata, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas, among the most reliable playmakers in the world. That says so much about the sheer durability and reliability of the squad’s first-choice midfield.
Ironically, Vicente del Bosque’s problem might now be too many “safe” players; Spain won the World Cup partly thanks to the unpredictability of Jesus Navas and Pedro Rodriguez on the flanks. Neither is in great form, but del Bosque must retain that element of surprise.
The current formula: The footballing culture of Netherlands, mixed with Italy’s tendency to start slowly but eventually prevail
The stereotype: Boring, functional, lacking creativity – don’t count them out, but they’re not one of the favorites
The reality: Germany was the most exciting side at the World Cup two years ago – whereas Spain won the tournament with four consecutive 1-0 wins in the knockout stage, Jogi Low’s side destroyed England 4-1 before defeating Argentina 4-0 in an equally dominant display. The pace, movement and width of the front four was the envy of the world.
Germany has a superb generation of young talent that is promising yet established, and the technical quality across the side is remarkable. It boasts the most fearsome No. 10 in the tournament in Real Madrid’s Mesut Ozil, a talented yet selfless playmaker who has a wonderful appreciation of space and a brilliant ability to play angled through balls for forwards and wingers. Low has also experimented with a second playmaker in a friendly against Ukraine, fielding Mario Gotze alongside Ozil.
Bastian Schweinsteiger is one of the world’s most gifted central midfielders, and his Bayern teammate Toni Kroos is now a genuinely top-class midfielder himself. Then there are the Bender twins, Lars and Sven, plus Sami Khedira, Marco Reus, Thomas Muller, not to mention the various under-21 players likely to be dropped once the 27-man preliminary squad is reduced to 23, simply illustrating how deep Germany’s squad is littered with technically superb individuals.
The current formula: The excitement of Spanish attackers, yet the tendency of Netherlands to mess it up in the final stages
The stereotype: Beautiful, free-flowing, attacking football with plenty of movement
The reality: Netherland’s brutal performance in the 2010 World Cup final left its reputation in tatters. Seven of the starting XI were booked, another was sent off, and Nigel de Jong’s horrendous karate kick into the chest of Xabi Alonso should have seen Netherlands reduced to 10 men within half an hour. Johan Cruyff complained of “ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic” football. “I thought that my country wouldn't dare to and would never renounce their style,” he said.
That was a hugely exaggerated example of Netherlands’ current strategy; it is not a particularly dirty team. But the shape of the side hardly illustrates fluidity, as Bert van Marwijk favors a boxy system featuring two defensive midfielders ahead of the back four, whereas Dutch football traditionally uses a classic 4-3-3 system, with one player sitting deeper than two attack-minded playmakers.
Were Holland any other side, its current run would be regarded as exceptional. Yet its history of wonderful football means it feels like there’s something missing from the current side. There isn’t – that is simply the football van Marwijk wants.
The current formula: The caution of Italy, combined with the efficiency of Germany
The stereotype: Defensive and organized with experienced defenders and ruthless strikers
The reality: Cesare Prandelli is a forward-thinking coach, and a not a typically Italian one. He wants the side to play more proactive, intelligent passing football in midfield rather than the cagey football it has become renowned for. Of course, part of Italy’s defensiveness stemmed from its tendency to feature top-class defenders. But for the first time since 1978, Italy will travel to a major tournament without Franco Baresi, Paolo Maldini or Fabio Cannavaro. Its best defender, Giorgio Chiellini, is barely world-class.
Up front, Prandelli has attempted to embrace the raw talent of Giuseppe Rossi (who's now out due to injury), Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli, but problems with fitness and discipline leaves Italy lacking a reliable star player. There isn’t a brilliant No. 10 like Roberto Baggio, Alessando Del Piero or Francesco Totti, nor a potent No. 9 like Luca Toni, Christian Vieri or Pippo Inzaghi.
There’s also a lack of experience on the squad. Only Pirlo, Daniele De Rossi and Gigi Buffon have more than 50 international caps, and few guarantee consistent performances. None of this is necessarily a problem, and talented midfielders like Pirlo and Riccardo Montolivo will be given license to shine, but this is a particularly un-Italian Italy side.
The current formula: Spain’s insistence on playing open football without a true belief of success, with a dash of Germany’s tendency to lack star names
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He runs zonalmarking.net.