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.

Across the Divide

Ramos celebrates his goal vs France with Iniesta

1, 2, 3 Rodriguez

Pedro celebrates his first international hat trick with team mate Alba

Domination and Capitulation: La Liga Finances

The Spanish have no footballing equals.

La Furia Roja dominate European and World football in an unprecedented era of success. The team that made history, claiming back to back European Championships with the small matter of a World Cup win sandwiched neatly between these triumphs, offer no evidence to suggest this unparalled period is close to halting. The forecast indicates further success. The Spanish are reaping a rich harvest.

The Under 23 squad enter the Olympic Games amongst the favourites to claim the coveted gold medal. The Under 21′s are the present European Champions whilst the Under 19′s have just defended their European Championship crown with a panache reminiscent of their superiors.

This is the era of tiki-taka.

The announcement of fixtures for the forthcoming La Liga campaign will alter Spanish eyes. The triumphs on the international front will soon be consigned to distant memories as players return to their respective clubs and the gaze refocuses upon the domestic product. And there will be interest, as ever, in the relegation zone where La Liga specialises in the production of tense, nervous last day drama. The quest for the title will be as thrilling as ever. There will be twists and turns, outbursts in the media crudely camouflaged as “mind games” amidst games containing moments of sublime and captivating skill, delivered by some of the greatest players that the world has ever known.

And the title race will contain just two teams.

Two footballing giants in a land of, financially speaking, pygmies. A league which contains twenty teams but in which eighteen of those teams have no realistic possibility of even challenging for the league title. The real excitement in La Liga this season will, as it has done for the past four seasons, center around the race for third place.

For as it is on the international scene, so, strangely enough, is it replicated on the domestic scene. Whilst Spain dominate internationally, domestically, their teams capitulate. For a reason.

At home, there are two clubs who push forward remorselessly, aggressively. Barcelona and Real Madrid have no equals. The gap between second place and third place grows by the season reaching a high of 30 points in the season past. To finish third is to finish closer to the relegation zone than challenge for the title.

It was not always this way.

There was a time when the gap was smaller,  when there were more than just two teams competing. Yet it all seems so far away now. A distant memory which is unlikely to be replicated any time soon. The concern is whether the gap grows or has it reached its pinnacle, now ready to plateau? The possibility of the gap growing further is beyond contemplation.

Could the gap really move beyond 30 points in the forthcoming season?

And where are those teams who offered a challenge? Who provided a momentary break in the duopoly that has engulfed La Liga?

The Deportivo side under Irureta who reached the semi finals of the Champions League and contained talents such as the gifted, gliding figure of Juan Carlos Valeron. A shadow of their former self, promotion from la Segunda ensures survival will be their sole priority this season.

The Valencia team guided by Benitez, built upon a superb defence marshalled by Roberto Ayala with Ruben Baraja and David Albelda adding further strength in midfield. Under Emery, Los Che threatened to challenge but never quite made it as they became embroiled in their own financial crisis. With hindsight, perhaps Valencia fans will acknowledge that finishing third in La Liga was a substantial achievement given their main opponent was always their crippling debt.

In four seasons at Valencia, Unai Emery never once defeated Barcelona yet it is arguable if any other coach challenged Barcelona so effectively in individual games during that spell. Emery is now gone. A victim of his own success and the thirst of Club President Manuel Llorente and Valencia fans’ desire to achieve more and reclaim the glory days of Benitez. To move beyond their station.

Two great sides who were victorious and temporarily halted the Barcelona / Real Madrid duopoly.

Even the pretenders led by Juande Ramos’ Sevilla and followed by the great Villarreal side under the tutelage of Pellegrini have meekly surrounded, moved off into the shadows. The Yellow submarine have sunk to the depths of la Segunda.

Who will challenge Barcelona and Real Madrid on the pitch in the forthcoming season?

Can Bielsa’s Athletic side add some consistency to the form they have demonstrated in cup competitions? Could Diego Simeone bring defensive stability to an Athletic team which has always scored goals. And conceded them in equal measure. Will Pellegrini continue the project at Malaga? A Champions League qualification place has been gained at the first attempt. Is 3rd place next on the agenda?

And what of Pellegino arriving at Valencia. Is this a bold move in the vein of appointing Emery? Or is it a return to the boldness shown by the appointment of Koeman? And finally we arrive at Sevilla. Under Michel can they re-emerge aided by the inspired signings of Monchi?

The challenges on the pitch are considerable but they are simply the manifestation of what occurs off the pitch. This is where the real battle will be fought. La Liga is not won or lost on the pitches of the Sanchez Pizjuan, La Rosaleda, Camp Nou, Vicente Calderon, Mestalla or Santiago Bernabeu.

For it has already been lost within the boardrooms of the clubs. Agreements reached over the imminent TV deal scheduled to commence in season 2013/14 and which guarantees Real Madrid and Barcelona a minimum of 35% of TV revenues, in doing so enshrining the inequalities within the league. A new deal which brings a collective element to the league, replacing the individual TV deals but which brings other, unwanted, baggage.

That the majority of clubs, with one or two key exceptions, agreed to the deal aptly demonstrates the lack of collective will within the league. Each club making key decisions as if they operate in isolation, a vacuum where their decisions have no operational effect on anyone else. We cannot beat Real Madrid or Barcelona? Fine, we’ll agree to a deal that ensures we still beat you.

Real Madrid and Barcelona have always been the dominant forces in Spanish football in the post war era. Depor winning the title in 2000 and Valencia winning titles in 2002 and 2004 were just blips, seasons in which the trend was bucked. Yet over the past few seasons, the complete domination of Real Madrid and Barcelona, breaking numerous records in the process, has led many to ponder if there will be a competitive edge to La Liga outside the big two in the coming years.

It’s what led the Sevilla President, Jose Maria Del Nido, to describe La Liga as “rubbish – the greatest pile of junk in Europe”.

Del Nido attempted to gather support amongst the other clubs into altering the TV deal less in favour of Real Madrid and Barcelona. They would still receive much more than the others but only 17% as opposed to the minimum 35% which was eventually agreed. With more cash for the Valencias, Sevillas etc, perhaps you would have more competition for the title. Perhaps Sevilla would mount a challenge again and succeed where they failed in 2007. Maybe Real Sociedad could take the final step they failed to take in 2003 and claim the biggest prize on offer in Spanish football. Perhaps. The new TV deal ensures that the discussion will remain hypothetical.

The deal, when agreed, according to Villarreal President, Fernando Roig, means that there is “no league”. Monchi sounding depressed simply stated “this reminds me more and more of Scotland”. Roig and Del Nido were so outraged because their clubs are amongst the sixteen clubs sharing 45% between them whilst their main rivals, Valencia and Atletico agreed to the deal and receive a slightly larger piece of a tiny cake – 11% between them.

Although with relegation for Villarreal, Roig’s eyes will be firmly focused on steering the submarine through the choppy, and financially draining, waters of the Segunda. Villarreal will not benefit from a parachute payment but harsh cutbacks combined with the sale of numerous players means Villarreal will avoid financial oblivion as they descend into La Segunda.

And here the importance of the TV deal can be seen by all. Many of Spain’s teams are in severe financial difficulties. Teams are forced to sell their best players in an attempt to balance the books, bringing in cheaper replacements whilst still being competitive on the park. It’s an experience which Unai Emery seemed to thrive upon. As eighteen teams toil, two teams stride forward.

Barcelona and Real Madrid will always complete for the league but the point has been reached whereby only Barcelona or Real Madrid can win the league. The competitive edge of La Liga has been eroded, one fears, irrevocably. Sid Lowe referred to draws for Real Madrid and Barcelona as being the new defeats last season such was their dominance. A draw being celebrated by the opposition whilst the big two wondered, would this draw have a terminal effect on our title challenge?

The past four seasons have seen huge change at many of La Liga’s top clubs. Valencia has seen all of their World Cup winners depart. Now, with the departure of Alba who returns “home” to Camp Nou, another name is added to the list of Champions who no longer perform for Los Che; Villa, Silva, Mata, Albiol and Marchena have all departed the Mestalla as International Tournaments winners. Yet under Emery, Valencia serviced their debt, rebuilt and continually secured third place. As Valencia have lost their winners, Real Madrid have acquired theirs, demonstrating their vast powers of acquisition. From just two members of the 2008 European Championship squad, to the present 2012 squad with five members. Yet the players who arguably should have been there but failed to make it astheir development stalled, provides a more compelling, and equally, damning list. The players that Real Madrid acquired to prevent others from using and whose development has suffered as a result. Granero, Parejo, Canales etc. And whilst Real Madrid may excel at this, Barcelona can be just as damaging to the league with Seydou Keita, a prime example. An integral player for Sevilla yet mainly utilised as a bit part player at Barcelona.

The constant accumulation of a glut of players from teams who should be able to provide a challenge continues apace, facilitated by the TV monies which flow inextricably towards the big two.

Over the course of the next five seasons, it is projected that Valencia will make roughly £350million less than either of the big two. That’s Valencia. The team that has finished third in the last three seasons and the team that is supposed to offer competition to Real Madrid and Barcelona.

La Liga is offering up a product which is hugely entertaining with players from around the world in a competition which is as competitive as the SPL. Deportivo fans demonstrated their anger and the futility of the pretence of a competitive league as they crashed 4-0 at home to Barcelona in January 2011.

“We don’t want another Scottish league”

That maybe be unduly harsh. With Rangers removed from the SPL due to their ongoing financial implosion, La Liga remains more competitive. For the time being.

A more equal division of TV revenue is not a panacea for the current ills which face La Liga nor will it resolve the duopoly at the top. But it would be a positive step forward to redressing the balance and crucially, it offers hope and competition. What is sport without competition?

The opportunity, for the time being, has been missed. Two behemoths will continue to consume everything around them in their quest for national and international dominance on the club scene, propelling each other further and further on completely unaware, or rather unconcerned, of the long term structural damage which they are wreaking to their domestic competition.

Next season? I’ll take 22 please.

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