October 16, 2012 Leave a comment
July 19, 2012 6 Comments
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.
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.
July 2, 2012 2 Comments
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:-
“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.
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.
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.”
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.”
June 30, 2012 2 Comments
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.
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 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.
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.