Lessons to be Learned?

It’s not like sections of the media to overreact. Is it? Yet that’s precisely what happened recently following events in Brazil. The home side took the Confederations Cup on home soil with as comprehensive a competitive win over the Spanish as there has been for many years. It left del Bosque and La Furia Roja to admit that their period of domination was coming to an end. The Spanish have had a good run. Two European Championships and a World Cup yet the prize upon which you are now seemingly judged, the Confederations Cup, has escaped their clutches twice. Its now back to the drawing board for the Spanish. They must navigate the remainder of their qualifying campaign to claim a place in Brazil next summer but their powers are on the wane already.

Why bother though. The World Cup appears to be a foregone conclusion. Spain won’t win it and it seems a few semi decent performances from Brazil has secured their name upon the trophy. The Seleção have the better of their counterparts. It was a technical and tactical triumph overseen by Scolari.

Wasn’t it?

Brazil Press High And Go Direct

The final against Brazil was notable for two reasons. The style of game that Brazil used against their opponents and the manner in which certain aspects of the Spanish system, whether it be the system itself or components within that system, were problematic.

From the outset of this game, Brazil pressed and harassed Spain high up the pitch in an effort to disrupt their game and prevent them from settling down and finding any rhythm to dictate proceedings. This worked as Spain was slow to move the ball and find space, enabling Brazil to close them down and force misplaced passes.

The question that was apparent from midway through the first half was whether Brazil could sustain the same tempo and level of intensity in their play for the entire game. If the game had been played in the stifling heat and humidity of Fortaleza, this tactic would not have worked. In the cooler, fresher surroundings of Rio, this was an entirely viable tactic.

The pressing succeeded and once Brazil had taken the lead it enabled them to drop deeper on occasion to recover and counter attack Spain. It does highlight the changing face of the Brazilian team at international level. The days of open, flowing football are now long gone. A distant memory consigned to be shown as a montage containing the best World Cup goals ever scored, most probably on BBC3 or ITV2. Primarily a counter attacking team, Brazil struggled to break down opponents who sat deep themselves. Their tactical strategy appears to revolve around getting the ball to Neymar quickly and waiting for something to happen. The midfield lacks creativity and is purely functional, a consequence of the domestic games desire to produce functional defensive midfielders. It wielded a trophy though but Scolari will have taken notice of the stodgy performances that were produced in the process.

For Spain, is the loss important? Yes, if you want to win the Confederations Cup that continues to elude them. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for del Bosque to see what must happen on and off the pitch if Spain is to march to an unprecedented fourth successive international tournament win.

Issues to Confront

This tournament has provided a welcome jolt to remind del Bosque and his players of the challenges that lie ahead in trying to defend their crown in 2014. It’s not just about what happens on the pitch that will decide the World Cup next year but also how you prepare for the tournament itself and how you adapt to the diverse climatic conditions that exist in Brazil.

The tournament will be hosted by a vast country that experiences different conditions dependent upon where you play. The problem for the qualifying sides is the ability to control factors is only partial. Acclimatising to those conditions by arriving early and preparing is within your powers to an extent. Gaining a favourable draw to avoid extensive travelling around the country is not within your powers.

The Spanish must look at the system and the players who are chosen to enable that system to function. Have some vital parts become worn and need replacing?

Does The System Still Work?

Surprisingly, despite the loss to Brazil and the relatively poor performances against Nigeria and Italy, there has been no outbreak of Plan B syndrome in the media. No cries for the ball to be launched high into the air aimlessly. Perhaps after three tournament wins, people are a little more circumspect when considering Spain.

Spain was a little more direct in this tournament. The deployment of a traditional no9 for the games aided this process. Teams have adjusted once more against Spain and now use a mid level block against La Roja in recognition that the sit deep and hope tactic was futile. It provides space behind that Spain can attack but it hinders their build up play in the midfield area. Opponents can close them down quicker in a densely packed area. Spain needed to recycle possession faster and be more direct themselves. Look for the runs in behind the opposing defence but there was a lack of supporting runs from the midfield area during this tournament. The verticality and thrust that was needed never arrived.

There were reasons why it never worked. Fatigue was a constant issue for the side. Only against Uruguay in the opening 45minutes did Spain produce a level of football normally associated with them. Leaving that aside, Spain possesses players with the technical and tactical proficiency to ensure the system is a success.

It needs players to move quickly in midfield, recycling possession. The full backs must push high and offer themselves when the middle of the pitch becomes too congested and the attacking players must be prepared to drive in diagonally between opposing centre backs and full backs to offer the opportunity for through balls. There must be options from the second line of attack. The system is built upon control but that is precisely what Spain lacked. La Roja often looked unsure defensively and opponents able to attack their defence too easily in the central areas. The Spanish possess these qualities but failed to show them.

If the system does work, then it may be the components that need adjusting.

Succession PlanningLife After Xavi

Central to whatever del Bosque chooses will be how Spain adapt to life without Xavi. Its an issue that is vexing Barcelona right now and one to which they appear to have no credible answer.

Xavi is nearing the end of his career and if he continues to play over 60 games per season then the twilight of his career will fade quicker than necessary. Xavi can continue but only if he plays fewer games for club and country. Such a position is only a short-term solution however and Spain must look beyond Xavi and begin the process of reconstructing the midfield. As the lynchpin of the side ages and slows, his passing becomes more horizontal and safer. It lacks penetration and so opponents are safer. The runs into the opposition penalty area decrease. And his ability to track back and share defensive duties pushes his tired limbs too far. Xavi plays within the middle of the pitch. Unable to hurt opponents and unable to stop opponents hurting his team. It leaves Busquets overexposed at one of the pitch and Iniesta lacks someone to share the creative burden for the side. With Alonso to offer greater control, Spain were exposed in the central areas.

Can Xavi stay in the light?

Can Xavi stay in the light?

The maestro needs time to rest and recuperate. If he receives it, he still has a pivotal role to play for club and country. If he doesn’t then it becomes a real dilemma.

Indeed, when you consider that Iniesta is 29 and has suffered numerous injuries, Xabi Alonso is also the wrong side of 30 then Spain really need to find and identify who will step into the void for all three players. It’s not simply a case of saying “look at all the quality players Spain can choose from”. It’s identifying and saying that these are the players who can step up regularly and claim a starting berth.

Spain has extremely talented midfield players within their U21 squad. The next 12 months must see the process of integrating a few of these players into the senior side.

The Future of Spain's Midfield?

The Future of Spain’s Midfield?

The likes of Isco, Thaigo and Illarramendi must be called up to the senior squad and enjoy playing time. It will be difficult but crucial to aid their development and Spain’s during this transitional period.

Loyalty: How Far Should It Go?

How Far? One thing that del Bosque has shown time and time again is his loyalty to the players who have delivered for him previously. It could be suggested that the loyalty is partly a result of Spain lacking credible alternatives in a few key positions. The loyalty to Alvaro Arbeloa and Fernando Torres at both the World Cup and European Championships may be questioned but were there really credible alternatives at the previous tournaments?

Too loyal?

Too loyal?

Who could have replaced Arbeloa at the World Cup? Iraola would have been in the squad were it not for an unfortunate injury whilst Juanfran is more attack minded but lack defensive nous. And does Arbeloa’s more conservative nature not provide greater balance for the team? That was the argument before but the full back offered neither defensive nor attacking qualities in the final. The player’s international career should not hinge upon one poor game but his lack of technical quality on the ball is becoming an issue for Spain on the right. Too much of their thrust comes from the left and the attacking qualities are lop-sided. Is it time to remove Arbeloa from the squad? Azpilicueta is ready and what of Carlos Martinez at Real Sociedad or even Carvejal or Montoya as deputies? The options exist for a more balanced right full back who can attack whilst also providing the defensive solidity required.

At centre back, is it time to remove Raul Albiol from the squad and replace him with Inigo Martinez? The youngster from Sociedad is the future whilst Albiol seldom gets playing time. Make the change now and provide Martinez with 12months to bed in before the World Cup.

Despite the depth of quality within the Spanish ranks, they arguably lack a genuine goalscorer for the No9 jersey. Negredo has had opportunities and now Soldado has been deployed yet neither truly convinces and del Bosque returns to Torres on occasion. Will Torres get playing time at Chelsea under Mourinho?

Morata - A possible solution?

Morata – A possible solution?

Is the time right to experiment with an alternative? Could Morata be granted an opportunity if he secures playing time in Madrid? This may seem ludicrous to suggest that a player with such limited playing exposure at Madrid be given a call up to the senior squad but Morata possesses the qualities that the national side lack in attack. He is very direct and moves immediately towards goal. This vertical nature is what Spain needs allied to his aerial ability. He is not some form of panacea to their attacking problems as such but must be considered a real alternative now.

The Return to Brazil

There are flaws present both within the squad and within the system. To ignore these problems would be foolish but just as foolish would be to overestimate the damage they could cause and pretend they are insurmountable.

Vicente del Bosque cannot afford to be too loyal to some of the players who have brought them this far. All great teams enjoy a period of success before their cycle comes to an end. If Spain wishes to prolong their cycle of dominance, some hard choices face the coach. He must not shirk from these but equally he must not overreact. Addressing such matters will not guarantee success next summer but it will provide Spain with the optimum opportunity to succeed but so many other factors will come into play. The Confederations Cup highlighted just how important location will be in Brazil to avoid extremely hot and humid conditions. Arriving in time and acclimatising as well as can be expected will be important.

In 2009, Spain lost to USA 2-0 in South Africa. The European Champions were humbled and their credentials were questioned. Twelve months later they returned to South Africa and claimed the World Cup.

Would you really bet against lighting striking twice?

Nigeria vs Spain: Some Thoughts

Spain progress from the group stage of the Confederations Cup with a perfect record of three wins from three games with this victory in Fortaleza. If the Spanish press were particularly enthusiastic after the opening game against Uruguay, their reaction to a sluggish, lethargic performance against Nigeria, despite the final scoreline flattering La Roja, would be interesting to say the least.

Spain opened brightly before falling away quite sharply. With greater quality in the final third, Nigeria could have asked some serious questions of the Spanish.

Line Ups

Spain coach del Bosque made changes to his starting line up yet against after the heavy defeat of Tahiti. Only Sergio Ramos remained which meant the Real Madrid defender has started all three games. The remainder of the team that had defeated Uruguay returned with the one exception being Valdes replacing Casillas in goal.

Nigeria vs Spain Starting Line Ups

Nigeria vs Spain Starting Line Ups

Nigerian coach Stephen Keshi named his strongest available line up for a game that Nigeria had to win following their narrow defeat to Uruguay.

Spain Flattered

An unusual occurrence at the final whistle of this game arrived in the shape of a scoreline which, on the balance of the quality of chances created, probably flattered Spain.

La Roja started brightly and Iniesta had a shot well saved in the opening minute with Alba providing a supporting run. An early warning sign that was repeated just two minutes later when the marauding left back opening the scoring. Whilst his run was superb, the Nigerian defence should have dealt with him as he cut in centrally but any attempts to tackle him were poor at best. This should not deflect from the crucial moment in the development of the goal. The movement and positioning of Fabregas, Iniesta and Pedro.

Fabregas instigates the move when he plays a forward pass from a deep position enabling Iniesta and Pedro to combine. Both Barcelona players are very central, with Pedro completely vacating his right wing berth to link up. The movement of all three players helps create the chance which Alba converts.

And this set the tone for the opening 15 minutes. Spain pressed high up the pitch and recovered their position quickly against a Nigerian team that didn’t really counter that quickly. Then, Spain began to fade. The pressing dropped off and their general play lessened. Nigeria were able to build moves. Valdes was pressed at every opportunity and forced to kick long.

Nigeria created some half chances from cross balls but the required quality at the final moment was missing from their play and prevented them converting some of the chances they were creating. Mikel prompted play with some driving forward runs from midfield, a position that he occupies for Nigeria rather than his limited role with Chelsea. Musa continued his trend at this tournament of shooting yet failing to hit the target.

In the second half when Spain did increase the tempo once more, Torres scored his fifth goal of the tournament following fine play by David Silva moving laterally across the pitch and opening up space for Pedro to whip in a first time cross. The Nigerians still created and squandered chances with Gambo failing to convert the best opportunity in the 74th minute. The game ebbed away thereafter and Alba scored the most of the most unusual goals you may ever see in an international game. David Villa took a free kick in the left back area and found Alba, the most advanced Spanish player who was crossing the halfway line and who ran through on goal before rounding Enyeama.

Trial Run?

With no Xabi Alonso in the squad due to injury, del Bosque has now opted to play with just Sergio Busquets as the sole defensive midfielder in all three group games. The move away from the doble pivote system has been praised by some who criticised a system that has delivered a World Cup and a European Championship.

Is del Bosque trialling a system for use when Spain combat more defensive opponents or will does he not trust a doble pivote of Busquets and Martinez?

This has enabled him to field a midfield comprised of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta in their normal positions releasing Iniesta from his wide left position with the national side and letting him flourish with driving runs forward from midfield as well as sharing the creative burden with Xavi.

The mid level block that Nigeria used offered space in behind the defence and Spain attempted to utilise this with a more vertical approach at times. The movement of Alba, Pedro and Soldado provides options but this tactic needs to be considered more often. Soldado has being deployed as a true number 9 and supported by Fabregas who plays behind him and has the freedom to move across the pitch laterally as well as horizontally, and Pedro who comes in off the right wing to form a front two on occasion. This system offers Spain tremendous fluidity in the attacking third but it also comes at a price.

Whilst this may please some sections of the media with their consideration of what constitutes attacking play, this verticality weakens the control of Spain. Defence splitting passes are harder to execute successfully. With a risky pass the rewards may be potentially greater but so are the consequences. The opposition gets the ball back more often. With only one defensive midfielder, the defence has less cover. To ensure the defence is adequately protected, the side must press from the front and do so in a coordinated fashion.  And in hot and humid temperatures, no team wants to be pressing hard.

Performance Levels

Nigeria arrived at the Confederations Cup less than 48 hours before their opening group game against Tahiti. Despite the 6-1 win over the minnows, the performance was nowhere near good enough. An improved performance but a defeat followed against Uruguay which left Keshi’s troops to produce what was arguably their best performance of their tournament against Spain.

The current African Cup of Nations holders tackled the game in the correct manner with a mid level block that affords space behind the defensive line but it’s a risk worth taking to keep the defensive and midfield lines tight together. The compact unit becomes harder to play through and combined with Spain’s general malaise, Nigeria coped relatively well.

Their late arrival due to a World Cup qualifier may not have been ideal preparation but the inclusion of so many young Nigerian based players. You have to wonder if the Super Eagles could have claimed a better result against Uruguay had their preparation for this tournament not coincided with such a vital fixture.

Another factor which will surely influence games next year and which has had a noticeable effect on players has been the heat and humidity in some stadiums compared to others. Over such a large country with differing climatic conditions, players may need to adjust quite quickly to searing temperatures for fixtures. Acclimatising to such conditions will surely be at the forefront of many national teams who may want to arrive a little earlier than usual next summer.

Deja Vu?

A semi final against the Azzuri awaits Spain in Fortaleza in a few days time. The focus will be upon the Italians and how they can eliminate the psychological scars from their 4-0 defeat to Spain in the European Championship final just one year ago. A viewpoint that conveniently erases the 1-1 draw during the group phase of the same tournament.

Will Spain continue with the more attacking gameplan or will a fixture against a more tactically astute opponent with players who can execute that plan lead to an alteration in the Spanish system?

The Italians will not arrive in Fortaleza with any inferiority complex. If Spain don’t lift their performance levels on Thursday evening, the Confederations Cup will once again slip from within their grasp as it did in South Africa four years ago.

Spain vs Uruguay – Business As Usual

Spain began their quest to win a fourth major international a tournament in a row with quite possibly the most emphatic 2-1 victory you will ever witness. They have now played 26 competitive games without defeat since their shock defeat to Switzerland in their opening game of the 2010 World Cup.

How good were Spain?

Sections of the Spanish media are proclaiming the first half performance as their best yet under the guidance of del Bosque. And yes, whilst Spain were very good, the poverty of the display by the Uruguayans must form part of the equation. Spain dominated this game in its entirety from start to finish with first half goals from Pedro, via a hefty deflection off Lugano, and Soldado really failing to capture the supremacy of La Roja. A late free kick from Suarez placed a rather favorable slant on the scoreline for Uruguay but this was really yet another night when Andres Iniesta stood head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch.

From such a one-sided game, there were three interesting features worth further exploration; the Spanish set up, Uruguay’s ineffectiveness and the substitutions that occurred.

Line Ups

With no Xabi Alonso due to injury, del Bosque named what was otherwise, arguably his strongest line up right now. The absence of Alonso forced del Bosque into a change with the removal of the doble pivote that has served Spain so well in major competitions. Busquets was now positioned alone at the base of midfield.

Spain vs Uruguay Starting Line Ups

Spain vs Uruguay Starting Line Ups

For Tabarez, his side lined up in a 4-4-2. Cavani supported Suzrez with Forlan on the bench.

System

On paper, the Spanish were playing their obligatory 4-3-3 formation but in reality the system was far more fluid than that and also, far more asymmetrical. The system fluctuated from a 4-4-2 with a diamond in midfield to a 3-4-3 with Arbeloa and Alba operating as wing backs.  The defensive unit took care of itself with Alba always happier to push forward more often and higher than Arbeloa on the right.

With no Alonso, there was the possibility of Busquets getting isolated by Uruguay. To compensate for this, both Xavi and Iniesta played closer together. Iniesta played far more centrally than he normally does for Spain vacating the left wing berth and allowing Alba to move up and down here. The benefit of playing Iniesta in his natural position close to the centre enables him to share the burden of creativity with Xavi. Spain become harder to stop with two outlets.

Fabregas completed the diamond in midfield and operated behind Soldado as the most advanced midfielder and his movement caused problems for a very linear opponent to deal with.

Soldado remained the central reference point in attack with Pedro on the right but the winger was swift to move infield and link with team mates whilst providing space for Arbeloa to overlap. There remain questions over the suitability of Arbeloa. Too conservative going forward, opponents can provide him with space given his limited contribution in the final third but this reluctance to advance provides greater balance defensively. Could Spain really afford to have two full backs who attack relentlessly?

The inability to add to their lead must play on del Bosque’s mind however. This game should have been finished by half time instead the late strike by Suarez led to a few brief nervous moments.

Uruguay Insipid

Since their performances at the 2010 World Cup followed by the claiming of a record 15th Copa America title, it’s been something of a downward spiral for Uruguay. They find themselves mired in the middle of the pack in the current South American qualifying campaign for Brazil next year. An aging side has continued to grow old with slow gradual evolution favoured in place of the quicker, more disruptive revolution. The reason possibly being that there is nobody ready to step forward and benefit from such a revolution. The Olympic campaign was vastly underwhelming and has not identified the prospects to replace the old guard. Tabarez remains faithful to the bulk of the players who delivered the success but the momentum of the Copa triumph is waning. The recent 1-0 win over Venezuela in qualification halted a run of six qualifying games without a win which included four defeats.

Taking that into consideration, Uruguay may have been expected to enter last night’s encounter buoyed by the recent success. Instead what we witnessed was a strange, at times baffling, display from a side who appeared to be following a template to combat Spain that was identified around 3 years ago. An approach which Spain have identified and resolved.

Uruguay initially sat off Spain with pressure being applied at the halfway line but this strategy quickly gave way to la celeste dropping off even further and simply employing a low block using a 4-4-2 with Cavani and Suarez left up front. The side failed to retain possession though, badly panicking when recovering the ball and being placed under pressure by Spain. This led to the situation of being camped deep within their own half, unable to escape.

When Uruguay did break forward, the plan seemed to be for Suarez and Cavani to run into space in the channels, pulling the Spanish pairing of Ramos and Pique wide but it never materialised. Nor did any attempt to expose Busquets operating alone.

There was no intensity to Uruguay’s play, no hunger or desire. It was as if the players did not want to be there.

The low block still failed to adequately deal with the movement of Fabregas who found space between the lines to provide the assist for Soldado. Quite frankly Uruguay looked disorgansied at times which can be rarely said of a Tabarez side.

Changes

The use of Gaston Ramirez, bursting forward to support Suarez from a central position clearly failed in the first half with the Spanish swarming over their opponents centrally. He was replaced at half time by Gonzalez.

Around the middle of the second half, Tabarez made two substitutions within a short space of time which were very surprising given how the game had played out until this point. The coach opted to withdraw both his central defensive midfielders in Gargano and Perez to be replaced by the Lodeiro, to operate as a deep lying playmaker, and Forlan. This created the possibility of being cut open by Spain but with the tempo dropping considerably, no further damage was inflicted by La Roja although it was noticeable that with the game stretched and open, Spain don’t enjoy the same level of control.

With 13 minutes remaining, Javi Martinez replaced Xavi. The options for del Bosque was to return to the doble pivote and see the game out at 2-0 or continue with one defensive midfield and push one of the players into a higher role than they would normally enjoy at club level. There has been conjecture over the possibility of Busquets operating higher, demonstrating his first time vertical passing to open up opponents defences. In this event, Busquets remained in position and Martinez went further up field. Perhaps indicating that del Bosque values the defensive contribution of the Barcelona player above all else.

With hindsight, Spain should have returned to the doble pivote. The game ended with the sides stretched and this served Uruguay far better than Spain who lacked that element of control centrally which they so desire in games

Widening Gap

Two years ago this game would have been considered a serious fight between two heavyweights at the top of their profession. Since then, Spain have maintained their level whilst Uruguay have dropped off. The gap in quality between the two is now more pronounced. What promised much had the feeling of a glorified pre-season friendly as it wore on. Was Uruguay more concerned about retaining their strength for the game against Nigeria? Had they already conceded defeat before they even went on the pitch? Their meek surrender certainly lends weight to this line of thought.

Uruguay were lucky to escape with such a tight scoreline as Tabarez confessed in the press conference afterward

“Taking into account the development of the game, it could have been a catastrophic result”

Tabarez has admitted the game against Nigeria is of greater consequence to his side stating that it is “the most important of all” but even allowing for that, the manner of the capitulation last night must hurt.

Del Bosque conceded that the Spanish grew tired as the game progressed with the high levels of humidity. And if you consider gaps, how do you measure that which exists between Spain and the minnows of Tahiti? Del Bosque is expected to make wholesale changes for a game in which double figures for Spain seems inevitable.

The ability to rest players against Tahiti and possibly again against Nigeria as qualification will have been assured must be very appealing to the coach. It ensures all the squad can participate in the tournament giving fringe players some valuable game time while the key players rest.

It’s just one game and it’s only the start of the tournament but the question already has to be asked of who can stop Spain. It simply looks like business as usual.

Spain vs Italy: Tactical Analysis

Spain retain the European Championship with an emphatic display against the Azzuri and in doing so, break yet more records.

Away from the record breaking achievements, this was a result which provided a resounding answer to those critics who had wrongly claimed Spain were boring during this tournament. This was a performance marked by supreme technical quality, pace and above all, an aggressive streak which had been missing from Spain. From the outset of this match, Spain went for Italy.

Line Ups

Spain began the match with the same starting eleven that had faced Italy in their opening group game. In doing so, Spain created their first piece of history as no previous finalist had used the same eleven in the final and their first group game.

The Negredo experiment had failed and Cesc Fabregas returned to the starting line up as the false 9. Despite suggestions that Navas or Pedro would start, David Silva retained his place.

Spain vs Italy – Spanish Starting Line Up

Cesare Prandelli had more to consider but resisted the temptation to revert to a 3-5-2 as he had done in the group match against Spain. One change was made, Balzaretti being replaced by Abate at right back.

Spain vs Italy – Italian Starting Line Up

Opening

Italy broadly lined up in their 4-4-2 diamond which has served them so well in recent game but with a couple of interesting features. As against Germany, Chiellini looked to get forward as much as possible from the left back position when Italy had possession. At this junction, the team shifted to something along the lines of 3-5-2. With Chiellini pushing very high, De Rossi dropped into a central defensive position to form a back three. This also provided Italy with an alternative option for passing should the midfield area become congested.

The opening minutes saw Italy try to establish a foothold in the match, similar to the approach adopted by Portuguese against Spain in the semi final, with pressing high up but Spain responded and took over. The passage of play around the 10th minute showcased all of the Spanish attributes. The quick passing and movement coupled with the aggressive intent. Xavi and Iniesta both had shots blocked before Xavi shot just over from 20 yards. Spain had moved up a gear from anything else they had produced in previous performances in the tournament.

Despite his wide position in attacking phase, Chiellini tucked in when defending yet Iniesta was able to thread a pass through to the on running Fabregas, himself making the sort of run typical of a striker, and the subsequent cross was converted by Silva.

Despite falling a goal down, Italy responded well and enjoyed their best period of the match. The Italian midfield worked extremely hard to close down their opponents and build attacks. For all of the praise of Spain, this was a period when they lacked control. They were unable to dictate the tempo of the match.

Midfield Battle

The Italian midfield was able to gain temporary superiority over their counterparts from midway through the first half.

There were two main reasons for this.

Chiellini had received plenty of space early on with Arbeloa his only direct opponent. Silva, deployed on the left for the opening few minutes, was tucking in far too much. The Italian left was strengthened through adversity when Chiellini was forced to go off injured after 20 minutes. Balzaretti replaced him and continued to enjoy space on the left. A much more adventurous left back, Balzaretti linked well with Cassano during Italy’s best period of the game.

The space was granted due to concerns surrounding the potential for Pirlo to have an effect on the game. Both Iniesta and Silva were tucking in far too centrally. The Italian outball, as it had been against Germany, was on the left.

Pirlo was closed down quickly primarily by Xavi but also by whichever midfield player was closest to him during that particular phase of play. The result of which was Pirlo being forced to pass quickly to team mates whilst being pressed. He was seldom able to lift his head and pick out a pass. Italy missed the opportunity to go long towards Balotelli and turn the Spanish backline.

The second goal arriving just before half time changed the dynamic of the game once more. It was the result of two elements. Xavi Hernandez and Spain’s increasing vertical play. From Casillas kick out, it took just 14 seconds until Alba scored.

Xavi Hernandez

This has been a tricky tournament for Xavi. He has rarely hit top form in what could be his last major competition. If that is to be the case, last night provided him with the opportunity to display his talents once more. Again, he started in an advanced position but this time he was surrounded by movement. He had options to pass to. There were forward runs on the flanks, Fabregas was moving in behind the defence and Busquets and Alonso were positioned slightly deeper.

Alonso and Busquets vs Italy

The midfield was Xavi’s and he took hold of the game.

The first half goal’s altered the dynamic of the game considerably. The Italian’s were never going to park the bus but space opened up as Italy sought a way back into the game. Xavi was able to thrive.

Prior to the final Xavi had noted his concerns over his contribution to the team. Against France, Alonso was too advanced and Xavi was squeezed. Too often there has been no runners against deep lying defences. Now he had space from his own team mates and the opponents:-

Xavi Final Third Passes vs Italy

 “We played a full game, our best of the tournament. It helped to go ahead early, we had possession and could use the space.”

The provision of two assists in the final was just reward for his endeavors at this tournament and the architect of Barcelona’s play confirmed as much:-

“today I felt comfortable on the pitch”

Spain’s Vertical Play

As he began to demonstrate as the tournament progressed, Jordi Alba provided Spain with pace and width on the left. Perhaps what was more impressive in this game however, and what had been lacking in others was a slightly deeper starting position. With Italy trying to push high, Alba was positioned further back than he had been in earlier games.

A high starting position is not always conducive to success

The deeper point with which Alba began provided him with the perfect platform to burst forward, that moment of explosiveness which is lacking when you start so high up the pitch. His goal was the perfect example. A driving run from a deep position showcased his ability and gave Spain the verticality which they have often been criticised for lacking.

What had slowly surfaced in the group games and culminated against the Portuguese in extra time, continued from the outset here. Alba’s repeated drives forward are now key components of the Spanish system.

It must be remembered though that Spain’s effectiveness in the first half was aided by the Italian’s pressing.  Such pressing requires a high line and Spain took advantage of this.

Second Half.

Prandelli brought on Di Natale for Cassano at half time and the Udinese frontman had an impact for the first 15 minutes of the second half until the unfortunate injury to Thiago Motta.

With Italy trying to increase the tempo of the game, it became increasingly stretched and at one point Gerard Pique led a breakaway for Spain. This initailly favoured Italy more than Spain and Di Natale was presented with an excellent chance to bring Italy back into the game, being denied by a great save from Casillas. Di Natale made a number of runs in behind Spain, offering a different problem for Pique and Ramos from that which Cassano had presented.

When Motta left the pitch with a hamstring injury, so to did any scant hope which Italy possessed to claw a way back into this game. As the second half wore on, Spain refused to ease up, introducing Torres, Pedro and finally Mata to stretch the rapidly tiring Italians further. Spain remained aggressive until the end.

Conclusions

In many respects, Prandelli and Italy were undeserving of the final outcome and yet, it did not flatter Spain. The game as a contest was almost certainly over before Motta was stretched off after 60 minutes.

Criticism of Prandelli for making the third and final substitution so early in the second half are wrong. Montolivo was tired and Italy needed fresh impetus to try and press Spain high up. Motta was the obvious choice.

Despite this setback, the Azzuri must retain faith in Prandelli as these are the first steps, albeit vastly significant ones, on the route back towards success. The ghost of the 2010 World Cup has been exorcised.

 “We gave our best performance in the last game. This is something unrepeatable.”

Iniesta

Spain produced their best performance of the tournament and deservedly walk away with the European Championship, entering the history books in the process.

Unlike previous teams who had succumb to the narrow Italian midfield, Spain made some slight adjustments and prospered.

No superlatives can adequately capture what Spain have achieved or in the manner in which they have done so.

A quote from Spanish television though, comes close:-

“People of the world, football is still ours.”

On The Brink

From Vienna to Kiev via Johannesburg.

The final destination is known but the outcome remains unclear.

Spain and Italy will meet for the second time at Euro 2012. The opening group game which ended in a 1-1 draw, was a slow, tactical affair with Prandelli surprising Spain with his use of a 3-5-2 system which provided the Italians with strength in the midfield and nullified the threat of the Spanish full backs. An in depth analysis of the opening group match can be viewed here.

And so to Sunday and again, there will be much deliberation by Prandelli and how he lines up his side.The personal may be largely known but the system to be deployed is the key question which he must address. Whatever system is chosen, the same conundrums that have vexed opposing coaches throughout this tournament need to be addressed and answered. Firstly, how to contain Spain and thereafter, how to beat Spain.

Italy

Prandelli faces one main issue ahead of this game.

Does he stick with the loose 4-4-2 system with a diamond in midfield which has aided Italian success thus far or does he return to the 3-5-2 system which created so many problems for Spain in the opening game. That he has the luxury of using either system is both his fortune and his burden ahead of this game. Win and his tactical set up was correct. Lose and his tactics failed him.

Such assertions can be wholly inaccurate but are thrown around as if gospel. The inability of those to understand that the result merely represents the final outcome and not what occurred during the game itself. Of course, a correct tactical system would be scant consolation should the result not favour you at this stage of the competition.

Neither system will prevent Spain from dominating possession. Prandelli has already acknowledged this:-

“We don’t expect to be in charge of this game.”

Instead, Prandelli must choose which system can maximise Italian potential.

Should Prandelli favour the 3-5-2, it’s likely to mean a recall for Maggio at right wing back with Balzaretti returning on the left. Balzagli, Bonucci and Chielini would form the defensive trio.

The key question which Prandelli must then answer is who would he drop from Montolivo, De Rossi and Marchisio? The three have played well throughout the tournament and De Rossi and Marchisio offer the perfect screen for Pirlo, pushing forward onto opponents midfield and leaving Pirlo deep to circulate the ball. If the midfielders cannot push further up the pitch, Pirlo has less space to operate.

If Pirlo has time, he will automatically look for the strikers with long passes as the Italians have sought to do throughout. The tactic was used repeatedly early in the game against England and achieved success in the first half against Germany.

Cassano and Balotelli will remain as the two strikers, seeking to isolate the Spanish central defensive pairing of Pique and Ramos as often as possible, pulling them into the channels and the space vacated by the full backs pushing high.

Although wing backs naturally start higher up the pitch, it’s highly unlikely that the Spanish full backs would adopt such conservative positioning again as they did in the first game. Could Maggio and Balzaretti push Albs and Arbeloa back?

The other concern with the 3-5-2 would be the role that the central defenders fulfill if Fabregas starts. Who do they mark? Fabregas will drop deep and leave three central defenders with no clear role. The solution would be to start De Rossi in the back line again and Montolivo to retain his position in midfield but this loses the aggression and robustness of De Rossi from a central area which would be required to assist with breaking up Spanish attacks.

Should Prandelli retain faith in the 4-4-2 diamond it allows the midfield trio to stay intact and push onto the Spanish. The downside though is the loss of width as the Italian full backs will be pushed back by the advancing Alba and Arbeloa. Abate could be recalled at right back if injury permits or the impressive Balzaretti may start here again. Maggio is too adventurous for a full back position and would be overlooked. Pirlo is also likely to be hindered by Fabregas dropping deep and occupying the space in which he operates. A reduction in his possession will limit his ability to influence the game.

Spain

Spain will line up with their normal 4-3-3 with the usual questions surrounding two positions; the striker and the right sided attacking berth.

And yet it seems so obvious that del Bosque will opt for Fabregas in the false 9 role to establish control. The thought of Pirlo controlling another game from deep must be anathema to the Spanish. Fabregas will, as we know by now, drop deeper than Torres and link with the midfield.

To combat the Italian numbers in midfield, Fabregas must start and drop deep to provide options. One of the successes of the Spanish game at this tournament as been the manner in which they press quickly to regain possession in a structured fashion. There will be no set instructions for someone to press Pirlo. Whoever is nearer from a fluid midfield must take responsibility and close him down. This could mean Fabregas if central or Iniesta and Silva when tucking in from the wings.

Silva continues to deliver and yet infuriate on the right wing. With one goal and three assists to his name, Silva has played a major role in Spain’s progress to date. Doubt lingers though over what he could be doing. The need for an extra touch sometimes when a simple, quicker pass would be the more profitable option. Del Bosque has removed Silva in each game thus far.

Alba and Arbeloa must advance for Spain. Italy are very narrow and whilst Spain are often accused of a similar failing, they have the ability to change and alter this via Navas and Pedro if need be. In the first instance though, the full backs must push high and stretch the narrow Italian midfield.

Andrea Pirlo

Judging by the reaction to the performance of Andrea Pirlo against England, you may be somewhat surprised to learn that Pirlo is in fact 33 years old with a long and distinguished career behind him which includes most major titles. Except that of European Champion.

The performance of Pirlo against England was often majestic as he glided around the center of the pitch with considerable ease, spraying the ball around and dictating the play. The clamour for him to be crowned player of the tournament has grown steadily aided by another performance infused with class against Germany.

If there is a player who can prevent Pirlo from collecting this individual award, he is lining up opposite Pirlo in the shirt of la furia roja, the man who calmly states that the ball is “my friend”; Andres Iniesta. The Spanish No8 remains one of the few players from la seleccion to have escaped criticism during this tournament. Possessing the ability to accept the ball under pressure and invite challenges before releasing it, Iniesta has provided Spain with a constant driving presence from the left thus far. From within the seemingly relentless passing of the Spanish midfield, Iniesta will break and surge forward and commit defenders creating space for team mates.

Although not in direct competition, the battle between the winners of the Man of the Match awards from the past two World Cup Finals, promises to be something special as they seek to shape and influence the game.

Enter the Pantheon

And so, we journey to Kiev.

A Spain win brings footballing history. Three successive international trophies, the first team to successfully defend their European Championship crown. Winning the trophy brings much more however. It cements Spain’s place in the pantheon of the greats, rightfully taking their place amongst the winners in the history of the game. The pantheon contains more than just winners however. For some teams are fondly recalled for the manner in which they played, their legacy cherished by all who were fortunate enough to glimpse these teams at their footballing peak as they defined an era irrespective of whether they won or not.

Spain will be spoken of alongside the free flowing Brazil of 1970, the total football of Cryuff and Holland in 1974 and 1978, Brazil in 1982 who remain arguably remain the greatest side never to win the World Cup, France in 1998 and 2000 guided by the genius of Zidane. And now Spain in 2008, 2010 and 2012.

This is the era of tiki-taka.

Spain are standing on the brink.

Spain vs Portugal: Tactical Analysis – Cesc’s Moment Part 2

Spain progress to their third successive major international final and join an elite club with just two members; Germany and Brazil.

Spain will now contest their fourth European Championship final, aiming to become the first team to successfully defend their title.

This was a highly interesting game, if seldom electrifying until the conclusion, which witnessed a Portuguese team determined to attack Spain and yet failing to register a single attempt on target in 120 minutes of play.

Line Up

Del Bosque made one change to the side that had defeated France in the Quarter Finals. It was not the change that many had envisaged, that being the choice between Torres and Fabregas again.

Alvaro Negredo made his first start of the tournament in the central striking role.

Spain vs Portugal – Spanish Starting Line Up

Bento had one change enforced upon him with Hugo Almeida replacing the injured Helder Postiga otherwise Bento kept faith with his normal starting eleven.

Spain vs Portugal – Portuguese Starting Line Up

Portugal Approach

Prior to the game Bento had stated his intention not to park the bus. Portugal would attack. For the first time in the tournament, we saw a team prepared to push high up against Spain and press them all over the pitch

Throughout the game, Portugal defended well and sought to push forward and create scoring opportunities. They pressed aggressively and energetically across the whole pitch, forcing Spain to play long balls which the aerial ability of Alves and Pepe could deal with easily.

Spain were clearly unsettled by this and yet for all of the effort displayed, Portugal ultimately failed to muster a single shot on target.

Why Negredo?

“Negredo suits our needs more than Soldado. He’s better aerially and he links up more with the team”

del Bosque

The inclusion of Alvaro Negredo surprised many yet in some respects it made perfect sense. Negredo can provide the compromise solution between Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas. He offers a range of qualities most notably his powerful physical presence allied to his finishing but his ability to drop deeper than a normal striker on occasion and link with the midfield arguably helped gain him the starting slot.

The Spanish Assistant Toni Grade noted:-

“Each forward has different characteristics. Negredo is ideal today – power, athleticism & height defending corners.”

One area where Spain have struggled so far is how to use the high number of corner kicks they win. Despite having seven corners last night, Spain inevitably lose possession if the corner is played into the penalty area. Negredo, in theory, should have helped with this.

Spain Corners vs Portugal

The potential which was highlighted never came to fruition though and Negredo departed after just 52 minutes.

Alvaro Negredo – vs Portugal

Negredo had just 22 touches of the ball before he was substituted. What many had considered to be a gamble, even though it was nothing of the sort, had failed. Negredo appeared static and often isolated and whilst he much accept a portion of the criticism for this, part of the reason must also lie with his team mates. Arbeloa has the opportunity to cross to Negredo in the opening 15 minutes but delayed and lost possession. If you select Negredo, you also need to supply him.

The final part of the reason for his lacklustre performance was the manner in which Portugal performed and in particular, their midfield trio.

Portugal Midfield

The usual midfield trio lined up in the midfield for Portuguese with Veluso the deepest of the three, Meireles seeking to link defence and attack and Moutinho providing the creative spark in a more advanced role. Yet to label the three players in such a fashion does them a great disservice. The trio showed tremendous versatility as they provided triangular rotation throughout as the situation dictated.

They were able to press Spain aided by the high defensive line being held. When Spain broke through the midfield, Pepe was very quick to step forward and close down space.

The pressing though was also apparent higher up the pitch. Moutinho stealing the ball from Alba in the 29th minute to offer Ronaldo an opportunity to shoot.

The trio broadly shadowed their Spanish opponents in central midfield with Veluso given tha task of marking Xavi. This was visible in the 19th minute when Xavi, frustrated by his limited involvement, became the deepest Spanish midfielder dropping between the centre backs to collect possession where Veluso followed him.

The result of the aggressive pressing by the Portuguese was that Spain’s pass completion rate in the first half dropped to their lowest level thus far in the competition at 85.3%. Spain ended the first half with 56% possession, again a substantial drop on their normal levels.

It was obvious how much Spain had been affected by the pressing of their opponents. Spain played 29 long balls in the first half beginning at the very outset with a long ball forward to Negredo straight from kick off. The longs balls continued in the second half when Spain played 44 long balls forward.

It should be abundantly clear why Spain play in the manner in which they do. When forced to play long balls and enter a more physical contest, the Spanish are lacking.

This tight marking and aggressive pressing by Portugal resulted in a loss of fluency in the game especially during the second half which developed into a fraught, tense affair.

Xavi Squeezed Again

Just as he had been squeezed against France, last night witnessed another performance by Xavi which is not in keeping with his normal performance level.

His starting position was once again, much higher than normal creating two key problems; he has fewer passing options ahead of him when he receives the ball and he is easier to mark by opposition players, in this instance, Miguel Veluso.

Against France, Spain coped with the performance of Xabi Alonso by as he too was pressed, te Spanish lost their fluent style and any creativity from midfield forward arrived via the driving runs of Andres Iniesta.

Portuguese Left vs Spanish Right

What was billed as being a pivotal duel in the contest never quite lived up to expectations. Much of the pre-match hype surrounded Ronaldo and his ability to cause his team mate at club level, Alvaro Arbeloa, numerous problems.

Arbeloa managed to stay high and attack early on rendering the conventional viewpoint that he would remain defensive, redundant. He linked well with David Silva whilst Ronaldo took up slightly more central positions.

As the second half progressed, Almeida looked to drift across to the left into the space vacated by Arbeloa. This resulted in Almeida having two clear shots on goal but on both occasions, his shooting was wayward.

Ronaldo Shots vs Spain

Billed as the weak link in the Spanish defence, Arbeloa proved defensively solid throughout. Indeed, both he and Pique combined successfully to nullify the threat from Ronaldo. All of Pique’s tackles coming in the right back area as he offered cover to Arbeloa.

Arbeloa did have an element of fortune in his performance through. He committed 8 fouls, the most by any player at Euro 2012 so far, yet his inevitable yellow card arrived due to a handball and not one of the more cynical fouls he committed higher up the pitch.

Arbeloa and Pique – Tackles

Extra Time

As with their other games to date, Spain gradually took control of the game as their opponents tired. The introduction of both Pedro and Navas on the wings helped stretch a tiring defence wider apart and offered the necessary space for Iniesta to have an increasing influence as the game progressed.

Jordi Alba also provided ample evidence of why Barcelona have just signed him with a number of surgng runs forward on the left as Portugal sought to contain their opponents, no longer able to maintain their pressing. Portugal dropped deeper into defence as the extra time wore on.

Penalties

“I looked for people who were confident. Cesc said he wanted to take one which could be decisive.”

del Bosque

Just as he had done on Sunday 22 June 2008, Cesc Fabregas stepped up and scored the decisive penalty kick which took Spain into the European Championship final.

The Spanish Players surround Cesc and Iker

Conclusions

Despite their exit, Bento must be happy with the performance of the Portuguese team at these finals considering the opposition they faced in their initial group.

That Portugal were able to stick with Spain for so long, only really showing visible signs of tiredness as extra time began is a testament to both the tactical system employed by Bento and the ability of his players to implement it.

For Spain, the performance will not do anything to alleviate the critics of the team but at this stage those critics are highly unlikely to change their viewpoint and arguably fail to understand how and why the team is functioning as it is.

For all the talk of teams knowing how to stop Spain, they have still to meet a team who can achieve that objective.

Spain now stand on the cusp of footballing history.

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