Euro 2012 preview: Spain
Spain didn’t win World Cup 2010 through pure tiki-taka. They won because they mixed tiki-taka with different options that brought more directness and urgency to their play.
When they went with pure tiki-taka, they stumbled. The defeat to Switzerland in their opening game of the World Cup was a huge shock, but while the Swiss deserved credit for the way they defended, the real story was how painfully predictable Spain were in their build-up play. With Andres Iniesta on one flank and David Silva on the other, and both coming inside into the same area of the pitch, Spain often occupied a width of around ten metres with their attacking trio. With Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets all sitting behind the ball, Spain never looked like offering enough variation to make the breakthrough, and they lost 1-0.
From then on, Spain were always enhanced when they added ’something different’ to the mix. Silva didn’t see any more gametime, which was harsh on him, but considering Iniesta’s impact on the rest of the tournament, Vicente Del Bosque dropped the right man.
There were three elements of variety. First, they could offer directness from the flanks, which came from David Villa starting wide and charging towards goal (with Fernando Torres upfront), or from more natural wide players like Pedro Rodriguez and Jesus Navas, who both played important roles in the final.
The second option was direct forward runs from midfield, which came from Cesc Fabregas, used from the bench four times in the competition, including in the final.
The third option only featured once – Fernando Llorente came on to play a target man role against Portugal and transformed the way Spain played. He should have scored at least once, but his mere presence pushed Portugal back and closed out the game.
Del Bosque is doubtless aware of this, and while he’s a fine coach, he’s not a particularly keen tactician. The main feature of his management, without wishing to simplify his talents, is to create a harmonious squad. As important as the variation on the field in South Africa was the togetherness off it, and his determination to replicate that is demonstrated by how he’s tried to keep that World Cup squad together – only David Villa and Carles Puyol (injured) and Joan Capdevila and Carlos Marchena (34 and 32, and neither regulars for their clubs over the course of 2011/12). He hasn’t left out any serious options.
Even Torres and Pedro, coming off the back of awful campaigns, remain – they’re popular members of the squad. Roberto Soldado, a fine striker but a potential troublemaker, was axed from the travelling party. “One of the fundamental issues is the good relationship that exists within the group,” Del Bosque says. “I have been fortunate to have a good group made up of nice people. It is important to reinforce the relations that exists between the players – that was a key part of our success in recent years.”
All of which is important in any successful team, but it is paramount to Del Bosque. He listens to his players when it comes to tactics – Carles Puyol’s header against Germany in the World Cup semi-final was a move requested by the players, who thought they’d been overusing Del Bosque’s favoured short corner. Perhaps he listens to them on selection issues too – Silva complained that he hadn’t been used enough last year. “‘Over the past year I’ve been feeling like a bit part player. I’ll work hard to maintain my level with City but I doubt if I’ll go to the European Championship finals,” he said. “‘I do not count on the confidence of the coach.”
It was an exaggerated protest – there was no chance that a fit Silva wasn’t going to be in the 23. But since then, seeing the first sign of dissent amongst his ranks, Del Bosque has tried to make room for Silva.
But this puts Spain back to the situation seen in the Switzerland game – you don’t want two wide players coming inside. Del Bosque has even tried to fit Silva in as a false nine, (largely without success) and Silva doesn’t quite have the natural skillset for that role anyway. Besides, if you have a forward coming short, you need wide players (or midfield runners) making direct runs. You can’t have four players bunching into the same part of the pitch, central between the lines.
Who to drop?
The problem is that Del Bosque can’t include all his playmakers. Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Fabregas, Iniesta, Silva, Mata and Santi Cazorla, judging by their ability and form over the past season, all ‘deserve’ to be in their national side. But eight ball-playing midfielders can’t exist together. Probably only four can, naturally – in conjunction with a back four, a striker and a wide player who stretches things. Del Bosque’s attempts to include five or even six are fascinating, but potentially suicidal.
The obvious way to accommodate another of the attacking playmakers would be to play only one holder, which would mean dropping Alonso (rather than Busquets who is better at breaking up play). This would allow Xavi deeper into his Barcelona role, and the same goes for Iniesta. Even then, however, it’s probable that Del Bosque would then put Silva on one flank and either Cazorla or Mata on the other, which doesn’t solve the problem.
And while Del Bosque has said that “We may adopt an even more attacking approach”, it is highly unlikely he’ll do away with Busquets, Alonso or Xavi. This is slightly frustrating – as Roberticus says, “Spain is currently achieving the laudable feat of fielding three of the world’s iconic midfielders and somehow conspiring to render each one uncomfortable and less effective in the presence of one another.”
Still need width
Regardless of the discussion above, Silva and Iniesta will probably start in the wide positions. Iniesta is undroppable, while Del Bosque seems particularly keen to include Silva. Those two combined superbly for the only goal in the pre-tournament friendly victory over China, but that paints a false picture – Spain were terrible in the first half and good in the second – and the main reason for the improvement was that Jesus Navas came on to stretch the play, opening up gaps for Silva and Iniesta to create. The situation hasn’t changed.
If Spain go with Iniesta and Silva wide, and no true winger, then it’s not unrealistic to say that their most important player is Jordi Alba at left-back, a relative newcomer to the side. Everyone else’s job is broadly covered by another player in the XI, but Alba is the only one who would offer outright pace, directness and width. Right-back Alvaro Arbeloa is a good full-back, but nowhere near as accomplished technically. Alba could become 2012’s Pedro/Navas figure, which would allow Del Bosque to indulge in his festival of playmakers higher up.
In defence, the loss of Puyol is huge for both his defensive ability and his leadership ability. Ramos has come inside into the centre of defence, where he’s played for Real Madrid – weakening Spain’s attacking thrust from right-back – but his partner is uncertain. Two years ago the idea that Gerard Pique wouldn’t be first-choice in 2012 was laughable, but after a poor season for Barcelona, and amid various reports that he’s taken his eye off the ball, Raul Albiol could start instead.
The other issue is at the opposite end of the pitch. The loss of David Villa is huge – his international goalscoring record is incredible, and so often he provided key goals for Spain in international tournaments. Assuming Del Bosque doesn’t start with Silva or Fabregas as a false nine (which remains unlikely), he has a straight three-way choice between Torres, Llorente and Alvaro Negredo. Each has a clear weakness – Torres lacks form, Llorente lacks fitness, Negredo lacks experience. This is very difficult to call, and it would be a surprise if all three were not used at some point in the competition.
Llorente would be favourite if fully fit, and Negredo’s clever runs in behind the defence give Spain offer most penetration, but Del Bosque’s loyalty to Torres shouldn’t be underestimated. It’s not the right decision on paper – but Del Bosque isn’t an ‘on paper’ man. He’s a ‘dressing room’ man, and as always, squad unity and harmony appears to come before tactical efficiency.
Compared to two years ago, Spain are even stronger in the department they excel in. Silva and Mata have developed further since their moves to England, Fabregas has become a better player tactically, in his own words, by returning to Spain. The sublime Cazorla, injured two years ago, offers yet another option.
Yet elsewhere they are weaker – there’s no Villa upfront, there’s no Puyol at the back, and Pedro and Pique aren’t at the level of 2010 (all of which has dealt a bow to the Barcelona connection throughout the side). Spain have an unbalanced squad, but Del Bosque must assemble a balanced team.
Coach – Vicente Del Bosque
Formation – Roughly 4-2-1-3
Key player – Whoever offers width: possibly Jordi Alba
Strength – Xavi, Iniesta, Mata, Silva, Fabregas, Cazorla – six of the best playmakers in the world
Weakness – The lack of a settled back four
Key tactical question – Who does Del Bosque play in the wide positions?
Key quote – Del Bosque: “The hardest thing about being a national manager is that you have to leave out people who have done enough to deserve a place, players who are not regulars for their club, or you have players on the bench and they are not happy.”
Betfair odds: 3.9 (roughly 3/1)
Recommended bet: A Spain v Germany final is 9.0 (8/1)