Spain 1-0 Paraguay: Spain squeeze out a result again

July 4, 2010

The formations for the majority of the first half

A familiar story for Spain. Good ball retention, a struggle until Torres departs, and Villa saves the day, scoring in a 1-0 win.

That could quite easily be a description of their previous game, against Portugal.

Spain lined up with their usual lopsided 4-2-3-1 formation and the expected XI, whilst Paraguay made six – yes, six – changes to the side that scraped through against Japan in the previous round.

Spain started with a different shape to the one depicted on the diagram on the left. Andres Iniesta began the game on the left rather than the right, which meant David Villa played centrally and Fernando Torres worked the right-hand side channel. This only lasted for a quarter of an hour, however, before Spain returned to the shape shown.

Paraguay’s formation was a fairly standard 4-4-2. Their midfield and defence played very narrow – trying to replicate Switzerland’s successful approach – and Spain rarely looked to stretch them by playing down the flanks.

Interestingly, whereas most of Spain’s opponents have deployed their midfield very deep to pick up Xavi and Iniesta, Paraguay were reasonably happy to give those two space between the lines, and instead attempted to cut off the supply to them.

Therefore, they looked to press Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso far more than Spain are used to, hence their noticeably wayward passing throughout the opening period of the game. The one player who did look threatening was Sergio Ramos, who had a lot of space at right-back, but he created little of note. Iniesta saw more of the ball when he stayed in wide positions, whilst Alonso started to drop deeper than Busquets in order to buy some time in possession.

Alonso (yellow) started to play deeper than Busquets (pink) when Spain had the ball, meaning he was always available for a pass

Paraguay’s approach was uncomplicated – defend solidly, press in midfield, leave the attacking to the two forwards. Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo stayed central and had few defensive responsibilities, though they did look to close down Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique from goal-kicks, meaning Spain weren’t able to play out from the back.

Torres still disappoints

Spain’s main problem was again Torres – seemingly lacking in both fitness and confidence. Balls slid into the channels saw him lose out to defenders in terms of both pace and strength (an underrated feature of his game), although on a couple of occasions this was equally the fault of the passer – Xavi noticeably overhitting one through-ball.

The secondary problem (or, a related problem, if you like) was again a lack of width. Iniesta played so centrally that Spain often looked like they were playing a narrow ’square’ of four central midfielders, and though Ramos was constantly free, they weren’t able to stretch Paraguay’s defence enough, with the inevitable conclusion that balls played through the centre of the pitch were often intercepted.

Spain's "square" of central midfielders (in red) gave them little width. Paraguay's four midfielders were happy to stay in a narrow line, and press the ball when Alonso and Busquets received

A fairly stale first half came to an end at 0-0, and the first ten minutes of the second period were no more exciting. The inevitable withdrawal of Torres came on 55 minutes – although he was replaced by Cesc Fabregas, rather than Fernando Llorente (as happened against Portugal, with some success), or a wide player.

Fabregas’ individual performance was reasonably good – he certainly contributed more than Torres, with driving runs from the centre of midfield, but the substitution actually worsened Spain’s problem. When Torres was on, they had two players looking to start in wide areas – Iniesta and Villa. With Villa going upfront and Fabregas deployed centrally, they were essentially just packing another player into a zone they were already overstocked in.

Fabregas' introduction meant Spain increasingly lacked width - here their five midfielders are covering about 10 yards worth of width across the pitch

Paraguay threatened on a slightly more consistent basis, mostly with balls over the top for Valdez. Spain played a high line, and both Pique and Puyol looked uncomfortable – despite them being used to this style of defence at Barcelona.

Pique hasn’t looked himself throughout the tournament, and conceded a penalty for a ludicrous challenge from a corner. Cardozo – usually so reliable from the spot, as he’s shown for Benfica in the past year – failed to beat Iker Casillas. Spain got a penalty of their own seconds later when Villa was tripped – but Xabi Alonso also saw his (re-taken) penalty saved.

Pedro brings width

The game was more stretched than in the first half, but the general pattern of play was the same. Spain only really stepped it up in the final 15 minutes, when Alonso was withdrawn and Spain, mercifully, had some natural width in Pedro. He stretched the play high up the pitch, forcing one of the full-backs out wide and creating gaps in the Paraguyan defence. He was also crucial in the eventual winner – Iniesta slipped past two challenges, laid the ball to Pedro, whose shot hit the post, before Villa just about converted the rebound.

The goal didn’t necessarily demonstrate what Pedro was bringing to the side, but it was fitting that he was heavily involved, and his advanced position would not have been one taken up by another player if the substitution had not been made. Xavi dropped deeper and did Alonso’s job well, and Spain didn’t suffer from the departure of one of their central midfielders – they still kept the ball.

Pedro (on the ball) immediately took up different, wider positions that stretched Paraguay. Here, merely by having possession of the ball in a wide area, he has forced the full-back on the near side 20 yards ahead of his fellow defenders

And they did that for the rest of the game, apart from one chance that fell Roque Santa Cruz’s way. Tiki-taka involves talented, creative players but is as much a defensive tactic as it is an attacking one, argues Sid Lowe. Throughout this tournament, you’ve never been completely convinced Spain are going to take the lead, but once they do, you never think that they might lose it. It’s been the pattern of the game against Honduras, Chile, Portugal and now Paraguay.

Conclusion

What is going on with Spain, then? Are they an impressive, unfussy side who are content to go 1-0 up and close out the game, or are they attempting to play a more exciting brand of football and not completely clicking? Your opinion on that decides whether you think they have been excellent, or slightly underwhelming so far.

Either way, it probably doesn’t matter at this stage in the competition – two more boringish 1-0s will do them nicely. Still, Vicente del Bosque has selection and formation decisions to make ahead of the semi-final with Germany, and Spain have clearly been better when Torres hasn’t been involved.

Maybe his presence in the side from the start is part of a more complex del Bosque plan about how Spain should win games – wear opponents down by keeping the play central and having the immediate Torres-Villa threat, before switching to wider, more fluid approach where Fabregas and Pedro/Silva/Navas can cause problems from different areas.

It’s an approach often used by Jose Mourinho – at both Chelsea and Inter he’s often suddenly switched between 4-3-1-2 and 4-3-3 / 4-2-3-1 formations midway through games, both for attacking and defensive reasons (see here for an example against Chelsea in last season’s Champions League). Torres isn’t firing on all cylinders, but Spain have won the four games he has started, even if they’ve got the goals after his departure. His form would indicate he should be dropped, but maybe del Bosque thinks the alternatives to him are better used as impact subs.

Spain 1-0 Paraguay: Spain squeeze out a result again

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