Spain vs Ireland: Tactical Analysis

Ireland become the first team to officially leave Euro 2012 after a comprehensive 4-0 defeat at the hands of the reigning European Champions.

An incredibly one sided game, with the exception of boosting the confidence of Fernando Torres, it’s difficult to assess what we actually learned from this performance from a Spanish perspective.

For Ireland, a side who entered the tournament on the back of a belief in the highly systemised approach Trapattoni had instigated, the manner of the defeat will be highly demoralising.

The Line Ups

Spain made one alteration to the side which started against Italy in the opening group match. Fernando Torres returned to the side at the expenses of Cesc Fabregas who dropped to the bench due to concerns over a niggling thigh injury.

Spain vs Ireland – Spanish Starting Line Up

The change in the line up meant a slight change in the system. The false 9 experiment was abandoned with Torres becoming the reference point for the attack and Silva predominately on the right, although still narrow, throughout.

Likewise, Ireland made one change to their starting eleven who lost 3-1 to Croatia. Simon Cox replaced Kevin Doyle and dropped in behind Robbie Keane who was used as the main striker.

Spain vs Ireland – Ireland Starting Line Up

Tactics? What Tactics?

In some games, though seldom at the highest level, there is no tactical discussion. One side is simply vastly superior to their opponents, both individually and collectively. Tonight was one such occasion.

Despite their determination and workrate, qualities which are admirable and which can fulfill part of the journey towards success, Ireland were outclassed.

Juanma Lillo, the ex-manager of Almeria and an influential figure in the career of Pep Guardiola claimed that results simply reflect the final outcome of the game. They do not tell you what occurred during the game.

I imagine that Lillo was reflecting upon games when one side dominates yet their opponents sneak a goal and hold on for a 1-0 win. I doubt he had games as witnessed tonight fresh in his mind when he spoke those words. For the scoreline tonight does not accurately reflect what occurred on the pitch.

Spain had 75% possession with 27 attempts at goal. During the course of the match they completed 860 passes setting a new European Championship record. Unsurprisingly, Xavi was the epicentre, recording an individual record of 136 passes.

The scoreline did not reflect accurately the gulf in class.

Conditions

Following the opening game in Gdansk, Spain had complained bitterly about the condition of the pitch, Cesc Fabregas being the most vocal critic:-

“It is lamentable that we have to play on a pitch like this. I don’t want to complain but we deserve much more.”

The Spanish wanted the surface watered prior to kick off whilst the Italians, predictably, refused. The result was a dry surface which hindered sharp passing.

Tonight, with rainfall in Gdansk, the pitch was slick from the outset which immediately aided the Spanish.

Pressing

In the 3rd minute, Iniesta moved between the Irish lines which had opened up as the midfield pressed high yet the defence dropped off and fizzed a ball along the greasy surface to Silva. Despite the intervention of Dunne, Torres stole the ball and scored with Ward, a bystander, and Given, possibly carrying an injury, unable to respond.

Fernando Torres – Back tonight. Back for good?

A second early goal conceded by Ireland in two games and one which prevented any defensive stand against la seleccion. Had Ireland held out longer, perhaps Spain would have become frustrated or nervous although this seems wishful thinking on the part of the Irish.

Yet despite this setback, Ireland continued to press higher up the pitch, attempting to prevent Spain from building attacks. Casillas was forced to kick long from a goal kick in the 10th minute. Yet gradually, the intensity of the press dropped due to the sheer physical exertion required and the position of the team fell back too. The defensive line moved back and the midfield followed until Keane became isolated and was left foraging for scraps from long punts towards him, often caught offside. Damien Duff was fouled in his own penalty area in the 31st minute after backtracking and clearing the ball. Ireland could not get up the pitch.

Simon Cox had been deployed as a link between midfield and Robbie Keane in attack yet never really offered either option. In the defensive phase he should have dropped between Andrews and Whelan quicker. Instead, the Irish duo were being overrun as the first half progressed. A situation which was only going to be exacerbated as the game progressed and fatigue, both physical and mental, developed.

This contrasted sharply with Spain who pressed in a coherent, and importantly, hungry fashion throughout. Torres central starting position provided the shape needed with Silva dropping right and Iniesta to the left. With the full backs high, Spain closed down their opponents quickly and Ireland lacked the technical ability to play out from defence. The end product of this aptly displayed by Shay Given being Ireland’s 4th best passer.

Width

Spain had been too narrow against Italy but here the full backs adopted very high starting positions especially Alvaro Arbeloa. Whilst much has been expected from Jordi Alba in this tournament, it was Arbeloa who offered himself as a constant option, hugging the right touchline and the recipient of numerous crossfield passes early on as Spain probed.

In the 7th and 28th minute, Arbeloa managed to get in behind Ward and latch on to Xavi passes and head back across goal. Ward was tucking in to offer support to his central defenders but McGeady was offering little defensive protection ahead of him as he was drawn into the centre of the pitch. A predicament created by Spain always having at least a  3 vs 2 in this area.

Ireland completely failed to respond to this and Arbeloa was still enjoying freedom late in the second half, enjoying two strikes at goal.

Complacency

The early goal possibly adversely affected Spain. They fell into a lull, content to dominate Ireland but lacking any cutting edge or penetration and passing horizontally around 35 yards out from the Irish goal. The intensity of the passing dropped too and Xavi could be seen shouting at Arbeloa to move the ball quicker.

Against a limited opponent such as Ireland, there is no real concern but Spain simply will not have this luxury against others in the tournament. Is del Bosque trying to tire out his opponents by dominating possession and then striking as the game moves on?

Pique – Central defender or wannabe winger?

It’s a dangerous tactic as the defence is unsteady on occasion and suspect to aerial attacks. The calming influence of Puyol has not been replaced.

Second Half

Spain increased the tempo noticeably at the start of the second half and the early goal by Silva finally killed the game as a contest. Almost typical of Silva, he initially chose not to shoot when presented with an opportunity, working the ball onto to his favoured left foot approximately 8 yards out before rolling the ball into the net. Other defenders will not be as generous as the Irish.

From this point onwards, it was more akin to a training game for Spain with Ireland left chasing shadows across the pitch. The 3rd goal resulted from an intensive, yet haphazard, moment of pressing from Ireland resulting in a high line and a lack of shape which Torres exposed.

Fabregas Goal

The final goal for Spain was an example of the mental fatigue which had enveloped Ireland late in the game. A quick corner was played in low to Fabregas who spun and relied on power to beat Given from an acute angle.

Fabregas was the only Spanish player in the penalty area when the corner was played to him. There were six Irish defenders, all of whom failed to react until it was too late.

Conclusions

For Trapattoni and Ireland, one game remains to salvage some pride before some of the stalwarts of this side move on and the team enters a rebuilding phase.

It must be borne in mind, through all of the criticism of Ireland above, that ultimately Spain are simply a much better side but the manner of the goals conceded will concern Ireland. If questions persist about deploying a 4-4-2 against Spain remember that USA and Switzerland employed such systems and won. For all of the criticism that will be aimed at Trapattoni, the players must take their share too.

The defeat tonight did not end Ireland’s European Championship campaign, the loss to Croatia did. The damage suffered in Poznan was irreparable.

For Spain, it’s a confidence boost for Torres. Not only the goals but the faith demonstrated by del Bosque. Javi Martinez and Santi Cazorla secured some playing time also which will be useful as there will be the need for rotation at some point.

Croatia now await and the potential for yet another significant clash on the wings with Jordi Alba likely to face up against the adventurous Dario Srna. Win the game and Spain win the group but it’s unlikely to be anywhere near as simple as tonight.

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