Spain 4-0 Ireland: whitewash
The biggest win of Euro 2012 so far.
Vicente del Bosque made one change, leaving out Cesc Fabregas and playing with a proper striker – Fernando Torres started upfront.
Giovanni Trapattoni also made a single change upfront – Kevin Doyle dropped out, and Simon Cox started behind Robbie Keane.
Spain were clearly the better side here – so much so, that the tactical battle was almost non-existent. Ireland did well to get to half-time at only 0-1, but Spain wrapped the game up soon into the second half. Neither side did anything different or unusual tactically.
It was the usual from Ireland – two banks of four behind the ball, though now Cox was dropping back to become a fifth midfielder, and Keane stayed high up the pitch, drifting towards the left and testing the Spanish offside line.
Ireland shot themselves in the foot by conceding another early goal, so it was difficult to get a fair impression of how they would have coped for long periods against a Spanish team needing to score.
Stephen Ward and John O’Shea tucked in and stayed very narrow, which often frustrated Spain when they tried to play through the back four. There was again little width high up the pitch from del Bosque’s side, although both Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa were more attack-minded than against Italy, enjoying the space out wide when Damien Duff and Aiden McGeady got sucked into the midfield battle.
After going behind to Torres’ goal, Ireland coped reasonably well defensively. Their problem was with the ball – no-one expected them to even compete in terms of possession, but they really struggled with Spain’s pressing high up the pitch, often getting caught in possession within their own third.
This was where Spain’s narrowness does work quite well – Spain didn’t press the entire Irish defence at the same time, but generally focused it on one area of the pitch. For example, if O’Shea had the ball, Spain would shut out all the passing options close to him, all moving towards one side of the pitch. A better technical team than Ireland would have transferred the ball quickly to the opposite flank and countered, but the Irish defenders didn’t even see this option, and often hoofed the ball forward hopefully.
But Spain were in their comfort zone far too early, playing possession football with little penetration, and for the final 20 minutes of the first half, Ireland rarely looked like conceding a second. There were more clever runs from the Spanish attacking midfielders, with David Silva moving into some good positions, but because Ireland defended so deep, the through-ball had to be incredibly precise, and was particularly difficult because of the narrowness of the Irish back four.
Trapattoni had decisions to make at half-time, and his lone change – Jon Walters on for Cox – was quite unambitious, giving Ireland no extra attacking intent. It’s difficult to fault his general approach, though – if Ireland had attacked at the start of the second half and scored early, one got the feeling that Spain would be able to step it up and win the game. Trapattoni’s best bet was to continue playing defensively, to hope that Spain maintained playing without any penetration, and then attack later on in the second half, when a goal would be more decisive.
But, for the fourth half running, Ireland conceded a goal within the first four minutes. Silva poked the ball in, and at 2-0 Spain had won the game.
The rest of the game was something of a training exercise for Spain. Torres scored another goal after Ireland again failed to deal with the pressing, before being replaced by Fabregas, who later scored his second goal of the tournament. Javi Martinez replaced Xabi Alonso, who had performed very well but was on a yellow card, while Santi Cazorla got some deserved playing time in place of Andres Iniesta, another star performer.
Trapattoni finally introduced James McClean on the flank, but at 3-0 down and with no chance of the Sunderland winger influencing the game. Paul Green got a late run-out, but things were barely relevant at this stage.
It’s also worth pointing out how dominant Spain were with their passing. They completed more passes than any side has in a single game in European Championship history, while Xavi took the same record for an individual player. The difference in passing between the two sides was not unexpected, but still extraordinary.
Trapattoni’s approach will be questioned, but his overall strategy made sense – Ireland sat back and tried to deal with Spanish pressure, but individual mistakes let them down. That will be hugely frustrating for Trapattoni, especially as the same thing happened against Croatia. That opening match, rather than this defeat to Spain, was their downfall.
Spain were again frustrating, packing the centre of the pitch and appearing complacent at 1-0. They were always likely to win the game from that position, but their defence simply isn’t as strong as two years ago – they can’t afford to rely upon a clean sheet, and allowed Ireland a couple of half-chances at 1-0. In fairness, they played quicker passes and provided more incisive balls after half-time, and played some excellent football.
Del Bosque’s side looked better with one fewer playmaker and a proper striker upfront. Torres simply gave them a different option, bringing variety to their attack and natural centre-forward runs in behind the defence. It still makes sense for Spain to use a player who offers width, in order to stretch the play, but del Bosque wants to dominate possession heavily in the first half, then attack more relentlessly once the opposition have tired.