The fans know it. The players know. And the manager knows it. Yet, it is still so far away. There is still so much to overcome to grasp it, obstacles both real and imaginary which must be navigated to realise it.
“Others have improved, the gap has been narrowed” they claim.
Germany have continued to grow as a team over the past few years with Joachin Low moving towards a more patient possession based game in the mould of Bayern Munich. Holland retain the physicality of Van Bommel and De Jong, even if the approach has softened slightly, with the guile and craft of Sneijder, Van Persie et al. France appear renewed under Blanc and Italy will surely not flop as they did in the World Cup 2010.
“You won’t last the pace, you have given too much already” is their next assertion.
The stalwarts of the Spanish side have played almost continuous football for club and country since winning the European Championship in 2008. A never ending succession of increasingly important matches. Copa del Rey finals, Champions League finals, World Club Championships, Confederations Cup, European Championships, World Cups. The games continued apace with no respite. Can the bulk of the squad lift themselves one more time?
Spain Euro 2008 Winners – No rest for the victors.
“Your preparations are amateurish” perfectly encapsulating the announcement of a provisional squad for two friendlies prior to Chelsea competing in the Champions League Final and the Spanish season finishing with the Copa del Rey Final between Athletic and Barcelona. A situation needlessly arising with RFEF failing to take control and reschedule the Copa del Rey Final once Barcelona’s involvement in the Champions League had ended.
Both Athletic and Barcelona were in agreement. Bring forward the final. Allow the players more recovery time. Set to be staged at the Santiago Bernabeu, a shift in date needed the consent of Real Madrid. It was not forthcoming. The final was subsequently played at the Vicente Calderon. Petty internecine rivalries between Real and Barca hindering the pursuit of history by la seleccion.
That some members of the provisional squad remained, after del Bosque announced the final squad, to complete another friendly game is, in many respects, nonsensical and highlights the lack of organisation within RFEF. Why Monreal, Benat, Soldado and Dominguez all played against South Korea when del Bosque could have been fine tuning his squad seems a little foolish. The key players in the squad benefitted with more rest, will be the counter argument. Let’s hope it is an argument which remains sound.
Those three criticisms are entirely predictable and entirely plausible.
And then it gets blurted out. The defining piece of evidence in their argument. So infallible, that it cannot be countered.
“You don’t have a Plan B”
The European Championship 2012 Part 1
The forthcoming European Championships being held in Ukraine and Poland offer Spain the opportunity to create footballing history. To become the first international side to win three major international tournaments consecutively. The obstacles in their path, as touched upon above, include the continual improvement of both Germany and Holland as genuine contenders to succeed la furia roja as European Champions. However the biggest impediments to the successful defence of their title may come from within Vicente del Bosque’s immensely talented squad – fatigue, the tactical set up deployed and the somewhat infamous Plan B.
And it’s the same critique that was levelled at Barcelona during the closing weeks of the season, primarily the lack of variation in their tactical approach which saw Real Madrid and then Chelsea claim crucial results over them which defined their season.
Barcelona and Spain are both different footballing entities. With such short time periods in which to develop a coherent game plan at international level, an international side will never be able to assimilate the philosophical and footballing philosophy of La Masia. Yet Spain do show several glimpses of the Barcelona philosophy which is completely practical given the large Barcelona contingent within the squad. Some elements of the Barcelona game though, are too difficult to develop at international levels with any real understanding. The fluidity of the back four becoming a back three is unlikely to be replicated by Spain who will remain true to the 4-3-3 formation, instigated by Luis Aragones and continued by del Bosque, and which has brought them such success over the past few years.
Miguel Delaney has covered the issue of fatigue in some depth. The salient points revolve around the continuous football played by some members of the Spain squad over the past few years most notably the Barcelona contingent. Xavi Hernandez, for example, had made an average of 66 appearances in each of the last four seasons. Such continued operation at the highest level is unsustainable in the longer term and we saw clear evidence of Xavi toiling as the season drew to a conclusion.
The performance of Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) continues to look like a collection of amateurs overseeing the organisation of one of the best leagues in the world and the best national side in the world. From the inability to schedule games properly in advance to the needlessly scheduling of endless friendly games for la seleccion following their recent triumphs, off the pitch RFEF have considerable work to undertake to match Spain on the pitch.
Factors outwith the control of del Bosque. Yet the factors within his control are arguably the most important.
Do Spain need a Plan B?
The constant speculation around this issue is actually deflecting attention away from the crux of the issue. In order to satisfy his entire squad, and also avoid criticism at home, del Bosque has packed a glittering array of talent into his first eleven.
This notion of a Plan B seems to be in vogue in the UK media currently following on from Barcelona’s elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Chelsea and their subsequent victory over Bayern Munich in the final. It was claimed in many quarters, that Barcelona, and to a lesser extent Bayern Munich, lacked a Plan B to navigate through Chelsea’s massed defence with David Pleat going so far as to label Barcelona brainless.
Quite a bold statement from one normally so reserved. Also, quite a wrong statement from one who normally contributes so thoughtfully.
What is a Plan B? A deviation from the norm and yet in the aforementioned game, Barcelona made many tactical changes to try and counter Chelsea. Ultimately, none were successful and so Barcelona were seen to have failed by those unable to see the tactical nuances of the game.
What was the alternative? What would the proponents of the Plan B support?
The mainstream conventional view is that Barcelona did not possess a tall, physically powerful striker who they could aim long balls towards in the hope that this leads to knock downs and the creation of half chances.
This must mean that when a team who play long balls then fail to break down an opponent, their Plan B is to instigate a dramatic switch in style and begin a patient passing game?
Why do we see football in such simplistic terms? Football is not a straightforward choice between two opposing ideologies. The short pass vs the long ball.
A simple approach that misses the point?
It’s worth considering footballing styles as existing on a wide spectrum. Whilst the short passing game and the long ball exist on opposing ends of the spectrum, there are multitudes of permutations in between.
Spain have a Plan B. It’s just not the stereotypical Plan B that many commentators would like them to have. A style and approach which is so radically different from their normal approach, that it can be easily identified by lazy media pundits. Del Bosque has demonstrated before that he can make small changes which have significant impact upon games. It’s just that Spain will not forsake the approach that has delivered them silverware. And nor should they.
For not only do Spain possess a Plan B, they also possess a range of players to actively enforce their alternative arrangements. It’s just that Plan B is a subtle, discreet change and not a massive switch in their interpretation of how the game should be played. Spain can utilise the pace and direct nature of Navas on the right wing, the physicality and strength of Llorente and Negredo, the attacking surges from deep by Alba, the lateral movement of Cazorla.
For in the forthcoming European Championships, the strength of the Spanish squad does not exist in the 7 or 8 players who are widely known. It is the depth of quality and versatility in the newer players and those on the fringes of the starting eleven where the strength exists.
Spain may be running low on reserves of physical energy but the reserves they take to Poland and Ukraine could play a pivotal role if they wish to successfully defend their title.
The Current Position
There were few surprises when Vicente del Bosque announced the Spain squad. The expected names were all there.
Vicente del Bosque auditions for the left back slot.
Juanfran was confirmed in place of the injured Andoni Iraola. This was the perfect platform for Iraola to demonstrate why he is the best Spanish right back. It also offered Spain the option of having two excellent attacking full backs on either side. In the forward department, Soldado and Adrian were both overlooked despite recent goalscoring debuts with Alvaro Negredo joining Llorente, Torres and Pedro.
There was no place in the squad for Iker Muniain. His form shaded towards the end of the season as Athletic struggled physically and mentally.
Del Bosque will remain true to his favoured 4-3-3 formation and despite the injuries to key players, the bulk of the Spanish starting eleven can be stated with a degree of confidence. There is only likely to be a couple of positions where there is any doubt and these revolve around attacking positions. Who does del Bosque choose on the right and who starts, nominally at least, as the central striker?
Spain 2012 Euro’s – Expected Line Up
The team will broadly follow the same system as utilised successfully during the 2010 World Cup.
The back four will contain two full backs who attack but its unlikely that both will do so simultaneously with Alba more likely to push forward than Arbeloa. The left flank will be more attacking than the right, the reverse of the position in 2010 when Ramos stormed forward on the right and Capdevila was more circumspect on the left.
Busquets will sit deepest in midfield with Alonso just in front of him. A slightly lopsided double pivot. Xavi occupies a central position which is more advanced than that which he fulfills for Barcelona.
Iniesta will adopt the wide left attacking position and naturally drift diagonally inward as he does at club level.
The remaining two positions are those where there can be some movement.
The use of David Silva, previously expressing his disquiet about being overlook for la seleccion, in the false 9 role gives further credence to the flirtation with a Barcelona-esque model for the national side but there are specific differences between both primarily the choice of personnel which both teams have at their disposal. Alternatively, could Fabreagas be used here?
Assuming Silva does start as the false 9, on the right wing, it becomes a straight choice between Pedro and Navas with the man from Tenerife probably shading it.
With the startling line up and likely system confirmed, the faults within the system can be identified.
It seems slightly ridiculous to be closely examining one of the most successful international sides ever and finding faults.
Let’s be clear. These faults are stopping Spain from fulfilling their true potential and playing at their maximum. It has so far not stopped Spain from winning, but at this Championship, Spain may need to operate at their peak. It is testament to the talent within la seleccion that a side with faults can be both the reigning European and World Champions and enter the forthcoming tournament as favourites to defend their crown.
The problems have been slow burners. Not openly seen in the 2008 European Championships because of the attacking options, they saw their birth under Luis Aragones. Coming to the forefront in the 2010 World Cup, the difficulties were overcome with del Bosque making some key substitutions such as introducing Llorente against Paraguay or bringing on Fabregas and Navas when a more vertical approach was needed.
In 2012, the problems are easily identifiable. Del Bosque sees them and yet, for whatever reasons, chooses to seemingly ignore them and push forward.
Over Indulgent Midfield?
Do Spain really need to play both Xabi Alonso and Busquets together?
This is the starting point from which the remaining issues all stem. Yet it seems inconceivable that del Bosque would remove either from the team. Del Bosque himself has stated “If I were a player, I would like to be like Busquets”.
Playing Alonso and Busquets together necessitates that Xavi plays in a more advanced position than he does for club. Xavi is the conductor of the orchestra, yet with the national side, he has both hands tied behind his back.
Xavi receives the ball from Busquets or Alonso. He needs to be able to see the full pitch, to see the options available, the darting runs of Pedro and Iniesta ahead of him, the surging runs of Alba from full back, the presence, if they play, of Llorente or Negredo centrally. Yet by starting so far upfield, receiving the ball in the opponents half, the darting runs of Iniesta and Pedro start immediately adjacent to him, the surging run of Alba occurs yet Alba is still slightly behind him. Llorente and Negredo remain a possibility but opponents mark them tightly and Xavi has few options. He is forced to return the ball to Busquets or Alonso. His creativity stifled. The opponent’s hard work achieved by Xavi’s own team.
If Xavi is tightly marked, Busquets may pass to Alonso who then may look for a diagonal ball, the type of pass he has hit with such precision all season for Real Madrid.
Xavi is bypassed.
Xavi Hernandez – What role in Euro 2012?
This maybe an extreme example but is it one which will play out in the coming days. Both Alonso and Xavi need the ball to function properly but only Alonso is in his correct position.
Why does del Bosque persist with his selection of Alnso and Busquets? Is it politically motivated to a certain degree, del Bosque selecting the Real Madrid man lest fielding the Barcelona trio in midfield?
With Xavi struggling from fatigue and dogged by a persistent achilles problem, is the unthinkable possible? Could Xavi’s position be under threat from the form and dynamism of Santi Cazorla?
Furthermore, the inclusion of Busquets and Alonso requires Iniesta to adopt the wide left attacking position which he sometimes occupies for Barcelona. Iniesta will drift inwards and Alba can provide width overlapping from full back. But opponents know this. Iniesta will rarely take on the full back on the outside or hug the touchline and pull the full back towards him. He moves centrally to be involved in the action.
As Iniesta moves centrally, Silva drops deep into the area which Xavi is occupying. Spain are left with no central focal point in attack and unless Alba pushes forward there is a lack of genuine width.
This will be exacerbated considerably if Spain line up without a recognised forward in their team.
How del Bosque chooses to implement his 4-3-3 system is crucial as he lacks key components within his squad to fully implement the Barcelona system. What we are left with is a hybrid which is not functioning properly as del Bosque shoe horns his best players into the starting eleven rather than focus upon selecting his best team.
The Spanish squad is arguably the most talented in world football presently. Del Bosque has a plethora of players available who would probably make other international squads yet cannot break into la seleccion. Mikel Arteta of Arsenal is a prime example of this. A fine midfield who can play in a variety of positions, he is destined to remain with only U21 caps.
Should Spain play with a false 9 and if so, who is the best option?
If you assume that Iniesta plays wide left and Silva is a false 9, what transpires is a glut of players converging on the centre, in the same area that Xavi is, wrongly in my view, occupying. Graham Hunter referred to Xavi as the inverted sheepdog, sending his players out away from him and picking them out with passes. As the play becomes congested, the ball circulation begins to lose efficiency, the play narrows and the opponent, although deeply positioned within their own half and working extremely hard, has temporarily halted the Spanish advance.
The false 9 needs to be both creative and provide a penetrative cutting edge. Silva only fulfills one part of the bargain. He lacks the cutting edge to operate as the primary striker for Spain.
If Silva is to play for Spain, he needs to be stationed out wide, most probably on the right, but this again contributes to the central congestion and Silva will operate as an inverted winger always seeking out the opportunity to move infield and onto his favoured left foot.
The Lack of Width
The problem with having so many central midfielders, is they all want to move into the centre of the pitch irrespective of where you initially station them. And so with Spain, we see the central area of the pitch clogged by Spanish players and opponents. If the flirtation with the Barcelona model continues, we could see Spain fielding four defenders and six, predominately, central midfielders.
What we will then witness is Spain securing plentiful possession but the majority of which will be horizontal passing about 35 yards from goal as the opponent regains shape and structure.
Where is the space?
Spain must use the full width of the pitch to overcome obstinate opponents
On the flanks.
This is a genuine issue which del Bosque must address if Spain are to be successful.
How can Spain introduce more width into their game when there is a glut of creative, technical, creative central midfielders at his disposal and only one true winger, Jesus Navas, in the squad.
Spain need to find a balance and probably adopt an asymmetrical attacking formation. This is particularly true if Iniesta is used on the left, which seems highly likely, Spain cannot select a similar player on the right and have two inverted wingers. If Cazorla or even Juan Mata was stationed on the right, Spain would become far too narrow. This cannot happen. The solution on the right would be the selection of Navas or Pedro. Both offer pace and a direct approach, especially Navas, which is lacking in others.
If del Bosque was truly radical, he could utilise both Alba and Juanfran to push forward as attacking full backs. Both are converted wingers themselves and could play with inverted wingers ahead of them, overlapping to provide options and stretch the opponent defensively. This seems a step too far unless Arbeloa is struggling for form, injured or Spain are trailing and need to push on. Juanfran is inexperienced at this level and suspect defensively.
Alba will go on the outside of Iniesta and if Navas or Pedro play on the right and stay wide, there will be space between the opponents full back, pulling wide, and his centre back which the likes of Xavi, Silva, Cazorla etc can exploit.
If further evidence of the need for width was needed, Fifa’s technical report on the 2010 World Cup said: “In modern football, it is very difficult to get behind the opposition defence as teams are often very compact with eight or nine players behind the ball”
“That is why teams now need outstanding individual players who can make their mark one-on-one, particularly down the wings where they can create space that often does not exist down the centre.”
Combating Defensive Opponents
If the inclusion of more width is one method of overcoming opponents, what other methods can Spain employ?
With their belief in tiki taka, the short, sharp passing and constant movement, Spain will enjoy more possession than their opponents in their games. With the similarities to Barcelona, it will not be unusual for opponents to utilise increasingly defensive formations against them.
It is well known that del Bosque prefers to play two midfielders in defensive positions. Alonso’s lack of mobility means he is poorly equipped to singularly perform a defensive midfield position. Indeed, he is more of a deep lying regista, knitting play together with his short and long range passing technique. A change in this aspect of the system is unlikely.
Perhaps Spain need to consider the beliefs of Andre Villa Boas when teams use a low defensive block against them. The provocation of the opponent utilising the ball as bait to bring them out. Typically with continuous circulation of the ball.
The superb Ajax team of the 1990’s under Louis Van Gaal recycled the ball at increasing speed, pulling opponents from side to side waiting for the right moment when the opening appeared in the opponents defence which could be exploited. Van Gaal also instructed his players, even the most technically gifted, to seek the pass rather than commit an opponent to help retain possession. For an ultra low block, this will not work and the provocation needs to be the mixture of ball circulation combined with penetration via driving runs etc to create the space for exploitation.
It was the failure of Barcelona to address this key point which contributed to their failure against Chelsea. Too many Barcelona players adopted very high starting positions and, as a result, there was no explosive movement, no driving runs from deep to overlap the full back. All the play took place in front of the Chelsea block with horizontal recycling of possession. Retaining possession but Chelsea controlled the space and controlled the game.
There are already articles asking if Spain can be overcome the Chelsea way.
Spain need to learn from this.
If Croatia or the Republic of Ireland set out defensive formations, Spain cannot simply push forward and camp in the opponents half of the pitch. There needs to be space for the driving run, for that explosive moment.
What about someone bringing disorder to the tactical structure of the Spanish set up?
Someone who brings a more vertical approach to the patient probing play of the Spanish. Could Cesc Fabregas prove instrumental from the bench for the Spanish?
Cesc Fabregas – The bringer of chaos?
This is the player who Barcelona’s technical staff claimed was causing “anarchy” when he joined from Arsenal such was his perceived lack of tactical discipline. Yet this “indiscipline” can also be a positive. The ability to do something different and almost un-Spanish, such as a forward driving run and shot from distance, whilst retaining the technique to make short, sharp passes on route.
By far the most vertical of Spain’s central midfielders, Fabregas brings a different mentality to the team, one which should be harnessed to provide an alternative approach. If the space exists in the opponents defensive line, exploit it. Fabregas will attempt this.
He has also played as a false 9 on occasion for Barcelona this season and although his form declined as the season progressed, he can harness the discipline required as part of the team with the “anarchy” needed to provide something different.
Mobile vs Static. Or both.
Spain have two players in the squad who can offer something different from the small technical players we have come to expect from Spain and which is helping to forge an almost stereotypical view of the average Spanish player now.
Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente are both physically strong and robust players. Although they are both mobile, they offer a central focal point for attacks and can be utilised in such a way. Both are also proven goalscorers.
They are not strikers who you aimlessly lump high balls towards. They can both offer mobility, Negredo more so and from a deeper starting position, and they both link play well and can hold the ball up. But they will not drop deep, the way in which Silva operating as a false 9 would. By remaining in the penalty area, they present the opposition with a constant problem. Opposition defenders now have both a static and mobile problem to contend with. Llorente has demonstrated how effective he can be this season providing one two’s for midfield runners for Athletic Bilbao, something which Spain could harness and reap reward from.
Fernando Torres – Out of form at club level, does the Euro’s offer redemption?
They can provide a quality which Torres, out of form for such a prolonged period now, cannot. With deep defences likely, there is no space for Torres to accelerate into. He cannot link play as well either. Torres seemed resigned to beginning this tournament stationed on the substitutes bench, awaiting a moment of inspiration which can help reignite his stalled career. Can the Euro’s offer that moment?
He is the most experienced striker in the squad. Surely he will get his opportunity and sooner rather than later?
The European Championships 2012 Part 2
Which brings us to the European Championship.
Drawn in a group containing Italy, Ireland and Croatia, Spain will be expected to progress comfortably.
Against Italy, expect Spain to look for control of the game. This is not the moment to be radical. Silva will likely start as the false 9 and Torres will be benched.
Republic of Ireland will likely adopt a narrow, reactive 4-4-2 against Spain. A similar formation to that chosen by the USA and Switzerland when they delivered competitive defeats to Spain in the Confederations Cup 2009 and World Cup 2010. The long balls and aerial ability of the Irish could cause Spain some unsettling moments.
If they secure two wins, the final group game against Croatia allows Spain some breathing space to rotate and also, the opportunity to play an opponent who, whilst possessing a number of attacking options, is weak defensively. With a muddled build up prior to the tournament, this is the game for experimentation and rotation.
Beyond the group stage, it becomes slightly more fraught with dangerous opponents lying in wait. At the quarter final stage France or England are likely to lie in wait. To retain the Championship, Spain will most probably need to navigate past Holland and Germany.
This is when del Bosque will earn his corn.
The others have improved but if Spain perform to their maximum, they were and still are the best side in international football.
Rotation in the group games can help keep key players fresh whilst also ensuring that all players in the squad feel they have made their contribution however few minutes they receive on the pitch. In tournament football, players within the squad who see little or no time on the pitch can often be as important as players on the pitch. Maintaining team morale within the camp cannot be underestimated.
Perhaps this one of the reason’s why Soldado did not travel. Prior to Emery’s departure from Valencia there were suggestions he was losing the dressing room and Soldado openly questioned Emery in the media. Perhaps with little playing time in the pipeline, Soldado could have adversely affected morale?
A footballer on the sidelines seeing no playing time can become frustrated and detrimental to the squad.
For so long the nearly men of international football, to the current European and World Champions. This is the era of Spain and of tiki taka, the phrase wonderfully crafted with scorn by Javier Clemente which now stands as a monument to their technical superiority and the success of a patient short passing game.
If Spain are to retain the European Championships, the players who arrive in Poland and Ukraine and who were considered squad players, albeit supremely talented squad players, maybe the very players who help deliver the Championship for Spain. In future years will the names of Navas, Pedro and Alba be mentioned alongside Puyol, Xavi and Villa?