Teams of the Decade #7: Spain 2008
It’s hard to place this Spain team on a list which attempts to focus upon tactical innovations as much as success and pretty football – on one hand, the side was so wonderfully fluid and dynamic it was difficult to categorise them into a set formation, on the other it became increasingly clear that their first-choice system, with two strikers, wasn’t working for them.
They’re the obvious star players, but to highlight Xavi and Andres Iniesta’s roles perhaps overlooks the reason why this Spain side were successful. Spain have never been lacking in players like the Barcelona duo – the Valencia partnership of Ruben Baraja and David Albelda, if less spectacular players, were equally effective in the centre of midfield. Juan Carlos Valeron was another player who is the equal of his nearest equivalent, David Silva, in this side. The reason Luis Aragones’ side won Euro 2008 was, of course, the use of a designated holding player in front of the defence. In many ways, Aragones leant from the Barcelona side which failed because it attempted to fit three similar players into the centre of midfield; Xavi, Iniesta and Deco. The need for a more physical, holding player was apparent, and Barcelona’s midfield worked better when first Edmilson and then Yaya Toure filled the position. To emphasise the increased defensive solidarity because of the holding player is obvious, but the key was that it let Xavi and Iniesta go and play.
And of course, a pretty identical thing happened with this Spain side. Although the formation was different to the one used by Barcelona, the use of Marcos Senna meant that Xavi and Iniesta were freed to go forward and create. Their ability to keep possession, to find the forwards and to float around the pitch without losing their defensive shape was magnificent. Spain produce ball-playing central midfielders like no other country, but they’ve always struggled to produce a disciplined, physical player like Senna, a Brazilian by birth.
As mentioned in the introduction, however, there remains a suspicion that Spain function better with only one frontman. They struggled against Italy at the quarter-final stage with both Fernando Torres and David Villa, failing to score. The semi-final against Russia was particularly telling – their awful first-half display with two up top was brought to a close by Villa’s injury. He was replaced by Fabregas, creating a 4-5-1, and Spain went onto win 3-0. The final, where Spain were still without Villa, was a solid if unspectacular dismissal of Germany, thanks to a Torres goal.
It might seem ridiculous to state that the loss of Villa (who won the tournament’s Golden Boot award) helped Spain, but they were without question more effective with just one striker.
Credit should go to the back five, who conceded just two goals in the tournament, none in the knock-out stages. The eagnerness to attack from both Capdevilla and Ramos drew the opposition midfield out of position, opened up space for Xavi and Iniesta, and meant that the relative lack of width on one side (David Silva tended to float from wing to wing) was always solved from forward runs from full-back.
Spain were a tremendously popular side, and fully deserved to win the competition. Their best football came in the 3-0 semi-final win against Russia, producing three superb goals. Worth a watch, if you don’t mind unnecessary Spanish music.