Spain 0-1 Switzerland: Spanish failings the main reason for the scoreline

June 17, 2010

We were looking for Spain to really get the tournament going – they did exactly that, but by being on the end of the biggest shock so far, rather than providing an amazing attacking display.

Switzerland’s win was remarkable – to keep a clean sheet against this Spanish side is very impressive. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s side did not actually play particularly defensively – they rarely had the ball, certainly, but they broke in numbers and frequently got four men in the box when they had the ball in an attacking zone.

Spain fielded the anticipated side in a 4-2-3-1 formation.

Switzerland fielded a more defensive version of their usual 4-4-2 shape, with Gelson Fernandes on the left, and two defensive-minded central midfielders.

It was basically a 4-4-1-1 formation – leaving one man upfront occupying the two centre-backs, and another just behind looking to close down Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Behind those two, they kept two banks of four but didn’t defend particularly deep, nor keep it tight between the lines. Instead, their game was based around preventing the flair players getting time and space on the ball, by immediately harrying them when they received a ball to feet.

For all their possession, Spain didn’t create that many goalscoring opportunities. Whilst Switzerland defended well, the most notable feature of the game was quite how bad David Silva and Andres Iniesta were when they got the ball, how anonymous Xavi was, and how frustrating the full-backs were to watch. The Swiss can take some credit for forcing them into poor performances, but even the pressure on the man in possession doesn’t excuse constantly bad passes, poor movement and a lack of drive from Spain’s host of top-class players.

Swiss defend well

Here, the immediate pressure when players receive possession is clear. David Villa drops deep into midfield to pick up the ball, but Philippe Senderos follows him 15 yards forward, gets tight on him and prevents him turning.

Here, the same thing happens when the ball is played into Busquets – Stephane Grichting comes high up the pitch to meet him and doesn’t allow him any time on the ball.

Late on in the game, the Swiss prevented intelligent balls into the front players by using their forwards well in a defensive sense. Hakan Yakin was brought on as a substitute in the final ten minutes to pick up Xabi Alonso, and prevent him playing long forward passes.

Blaise Nkufo was superb for Switzerland, and did a similar job on Gerard Pique, a centre-back capable of bringing the ball out from defence if given time. Also, in these two photos, notice how Goklan Inler is man-marking Xavi, tracking him wherever he goes.

Spanish failings

For all the good work by the Switzerland defence, however, they were not perfect. They got themselves into some awkward positions; the full-backs often left a large gap between themselves and the centre-backs, whilst the centre-backs’ desire to track David Villa and Fernando Torres when they dropped deep meant they often left spaces at the back.

Look at this shape above, for example. The Swiss have been caught in an awful position at the back from a Spanish counter-attack, but there there are too few Spanish players looking to exploit the clear space in the centre of the defence.

Here, Sergio Ramos has a throw-in in a reasonably attacking position, but only Villa is really looking to take up a position in advance of the ball. Ramos throws it to him, but with Grichting tight and Senderos covering, Villa clearly needs support. None of the attacking band of three look to make a direct run towards him, and so possession is lost.

The lack of Spanish width was incredible – look at this shot from the first half, with Spain’s four attacking players within a ten-yard square in the centre of the pitch, allowing the Swiss defence to concentrate on such a narrow space, leaving the flanks completely free.

Here is another example when the ball is deeper in midfield – Busquets, Alonso, Silva, Xavi and Iniesta are all in central positions.

This problem was solved by the introduction of Jesus Navas in the second half (marked in pink), and he looked the brightest attacking player for Spain, highlighting the problems with width until he came on.

Here, Sergio Ramos picks up the ball in a wide position and is confronted by the Swiss left-back Reto Ziegler, who has moved 15 yards up the pitch to face him. But no Spain player is looking to make a run into that space, or to give Ramos the option of playing a forward pass, and the ball is played backwards again.

This is what needed to happen more. Here, Ziegler has been attracted to Iniesta (run and player marked in pink), leaving Ramos with space to exploit down the right-hand side. Ramos received the ball in a dangerous position, although he wasted the chance by shooting into the side-netting.

All too often, though, the above is what happened. Ramos could take up a position 15 yards further forward and really provide an attacking outlet, but instead gets into a position to receive a sideways ball from the midfielders.

You could argue that the position marked by the blue dot would be too advanced for a full-back – but consider that Ramos’ man to pick up is Gelson Fernandes (also marked in blue), in a position unlikely to cause an immediate attacking threat, so Ramos moving forward would be a gamble worth taking.

The biggest disappointment, though, was Xavi, who didn’t seem comfortable playing as the central playmaker in a 4-2-3-1, despite having been fielded there for most of the qualifiers. A player in that position should be looking to link up with the front player, and should thrive on finding space inbetween the opposition lines of defence and midfield.

Above, as the ball is being played to the far side, Xavi (marked in pink) is in that space between the lines, also marked in pink.

Seconds later, however, Xavi has retreated to a deeper position, one that he is more used to. Surely in his role in this formation, he should be looking to pick up the ball in an area roughly around the square of pink dots?

He eventually does get the ball, but he plays a simple sideways ball for Alonso, rather than the key pass that a central playmaker in a 4-2-3-1 should be looking for.


A good defensive job from Switzerland, but Spain played into their hands in many ways – they were narrow, they didn’t get their full-back forward enough, they didn’t get midfield runners to Villa, and there was simply not enough variety in their approach.

With the amount of attacking talent Vicente del Bosque has at his disposal, it’s probably too easy to criticize his choices of substitutions. Bringing on Navas and Fernando Torres were natural options, and Navas provided the width Spain needed (although Torres looked off the pace).

Navas deserves a chance to start after Silva’s shocking performance, and there must also be a feeling that del Bosque should look to Cesc Fabregas in the next game, however. His driving runs from midfield would have been exactly what Spain needed, and he would have enjoyed the space between the lines, allowing Xavi to drop back into his preferred deeper position.

Who Fabregas would replace in the side is an interesting question – Busquets offers more discipline than the more talented Alonso, and a Xavi-Alonso midfield partnership might be a little bit too creative for del Bosque. Xavi is undroppable, and therefore Alonso might be the man to make way. A front six of Busquets, Xavi; Iniesta, Fabregas, Navas; Villa would surely create more goalscoring chances than Spain did in this game.

Apologies to Switzerland fans, but the story here is not merely that the favourites were beaten, it’s that the favourites played absolutely awfully.

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