Which stars will Spain leave out of the side?

June 11, 2010

Spain's standard 4-2-3-1 shape

The reigning European Champions and the bookmakers’ favourites – this isn’t a position Spain are used to. Usually they are flashy outsiders everyone expects to self-destruct at the knockout stage, but the incredible results Spain have recorded over the past four years shows that this is both a talented and ultra-professional squad.

The stats are incredible. Del Bosque won his first 13 games, Spain overall have lost just once in 48 games, and 33 of their last 34 competitive games have been victories. Carlos Marchena recently set a new world record for the most number of international games unbeaten. He’s now got 52 caps, and has never lost.

They have changed in the two years since their European Championships victory. That win was largely attributed to the fact Spain had a designated holding midfielder, in Marcos Senna, who played a solid, disciplined role in front of the back four, and let the rest of Spain’s midfielders concentrate on creating. But after a poor two seasons at club level, Senna has been dropped from the squad, and Vicente del Bosque has been forced to consider other options in that position.

He seems intent on playing both Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso deep in midfield, which is an unpopular move with many, because it involves playing one less attacking player. The use of this double pivot in midfield means Spain play a slightly different brand of football when they are in possession, keeping the ball deep in midfield more often, whereas at Euro 2008 they tended to play with the ball high up the pitch, especially in wide zones.

A consequence of playing both Busquets and Alonso is  that Xavi is pushed into a role higher up the pitch than he is used to, as the central player in a band of three. It’s probably not his best role, but his instant control means he gets a split-second longer to pick out a pass than other players would, and he generally plays quite simple balls to the wide players.

Andres Iniesta plays on the left side and always looks to cut in and link up with the other attackers, whilst David Silva stretches the play slightly more on the right, but again, looks to come inside and play short passes, rather than hitting the byline. Upfront, David Villa plays an all-round forward game – coming short to link up with the midfielders, working the channels, creating space for Iniesta and Silva to exploit, and taking up central positions when the ball is in advanced wide positions.

The result of the movement and passing ability in the final third is something like this, from Spain’s final pre-tournament friendly against Poland:

The forgotten duo

Here is Spain's basic defensive shape - a solid back four with the two holding midfielders in front. The use of both Busquets and Alonso means one can come towards the ball when it is in a wide position, whilst the other can cover the centre

Premiership fans could be forgiven for wondering why Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas look like missing out, but the winning statistics and the goal above should go some way to answering the questions. Villa and Torres are both magnificent players and often link up well, but a theme of their Euro 2008 win was a suspicion that Spain are better off fielding just one forward, and we are in the same situation two years later.

There is basically one less attacking position up for grabs. To include Torres, you would have to take out Iniesta or Silva (and lose width), Xavi (who is undroppable), or one of the two holding players – which would be the popular decision, but not one del Bosque looks like taking. Playing Torres also forces Villa into a different role further away from the goal, and of the two, there’s one clear winner in terms of international scoring ratio – Villa has 38 goals in 58 caps, Torres has 24 in 73.

Including Torres would mean a complete change in style and a switch to a 4-4-2ish shape. That could happen in the group stage where Spain will expect to progress easily, but in the latter stages del Bosque clearly wants to play 4-2-3-1. Including Fabregas in his favoured system would is slightly more imaginable – Xavi could drop back alongside one of the holding players, with Fabregas providing a more direct threat from the centre.


Could Spain implement something of a squad rotation system? It sounds ridiculous, but there are a few factors that might make it worthwhile:

This is how the attacking players set out when Spain don't have the ball, a clear line of three. Iniesta and Silva come relatively central, making it difficult to play through them

First, Spain are the only side who can bring genuinely world class players in and out of the side. At least one, probably two, of Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas, Villa and Torres will miss out every game. (That’s not including Juan Mata, Pedro Rodriguez, Fernando Llorente or Jesus Navas, with the latter probably the closest to breaking into the first team.)

Secondly, many of those problems have had injury problems recently. Torres’ 25 minutes against Poland was his first game in exactly two months. Fabregas has played under 90 minutes since he became injured at home to Barcelona in March. Inista has had injury problems all season, only starting 20 of Barcelona’s 38 league games. Xavi ended the season playing with a potential injury that could have cost him his World Cup place. These four are probably not 100% fit, and to get them playing at their full potential, they may need to be rationed.

Thirdly – and crucially – Spain start the tournament last. If they face France in the final, Spain will have seven games in 26 days, France will have seven games in 31 days; that’s quite a sizeable difference, and Spain will also have one day less rest if they reach the final having won the group.

Therefore, it’s entirely possible that Spain won’t have a fixed line-up. The one depicted above should be their notional first XI, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Torres starting here, Fabregas starting there, as del Bosque nurses his troops to the finish line.

The two deep midfielders play slightly different roles in possession - Busquets sits in front of the defence and rarely looks to break forward, whereas Alonso moves higher up the pitch, and often breaks up opposition counter attacks if possession is lost


In a way, del Bosque is in an unenviable position – if Spain do anything else than win the tournament, he will be criticized for his team selection, because however he plays it, he will be leaving a world class talent on the bench.

The lone striker system does look like being Spain’s best chance of victory, as it allows them to dominate the ball in the centre of the pitch, have natural width on both sides, as well as maintain two holding midfielders. No other side has such an emphasis upon possession football, and therefore including another midfielder at the expense of an excellent striker like Fernando Torres makes sense.

The way to attack Spain is down the flanks, and exploiting the space left by the full-backs’ venture forwards. Spain will play a relatively high defensive line, and Puyol can become drawn out of position and caught out for pace.

Win this tournament, and the Spain side of the past four years will go down as one of the best international sides of all time.

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