Spain – No Turning Back

When the final whistle blew in Gdansk on Monday evening, the European Championships drew to a close for Slaven Bilic and his Croatian players. Some players accepted the applause from their supporters and returned the offer, whilst others swapped shirts and exchanged words with their friends in the Spanish team. At that precise moment, as the feeling of defeat sunk in for the Croatian players, there was the impending realisation that despite coming close to achieving their objective of escaping from the group stage, they had ultimately failed. Dejected, they stood still, exhausted as the victors took the applause.

In the technical area, Bilic, who now departs the national team as a career in club management beginning with Locomotiv Moscow awaits, embraced Vicente del Bosque before the Spanish manager departed into the tunnel.

There was, however, no celebration from the Spanish players on the pitch. The players simply walked off the pitch.

Was this the first piece of visual evidence of the perceived lack of lack of hunger within the team? Players no longer showing emotion at the final whistle? Or was it simply an acknowledgement that the first part of the tournament had been negotiated successfully? The second part would prove harder.

In the post match press conference, del Bosque, although keen to accentuate the positives from qualifying as group winners, sounded downbeat:-

“The truth is it was not a great game overall and this should concern us. Things didn’t go according to plan”

Spain had just beaten Croatia 1-0 to finish top of Group C and secure a quarter final berth but the level of performance in the group stages has polarised public opinion.

The failure to use a recognised, conventional striker in the opening group match against Italy was the first step. Torres, Negredo and Llorente were all overlooked to accommodate Cesc Fabregas. Critics will point to the lack of a central focal point in the attack, the lack of penetration and the over indulgence on a raft of talented playmakers. The inclusion of both Xavi and Xabi Alonso in midfield necessitates squeezing Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva into the forward line. It’s a wonderful ensemble of attacking creative talent but does it come at a cost? What price the addition of cutting edge to your play?

Yet the Spanish goal against Italy was vindication of the system and personnel. David Silva, occupying the false 9 role, dropped deep and provided the assist for Fabregas who arrived late into the penalty area. Llegada, the Spanish call it. The ability to arrive in the penalty area on cue from the second line of attack. Fabregas has demonstrated llegada in abundance at Barcelona this season.

It’s also what Spain often lack. A midfield runner prepared to break beyond the forward line. The deployment of Iniesta in an advanced attacking role on the left removes this element from his game. Fabregas remains the one midfielder within the squad who is direct and offers vertical movement. Or “anarchy” as the technical staff at Barcelona labelled it.

The Ireland match offered a glimpse into the future expanded European Championships, when smaller, plucky nations punch above their weight and qualify for a major tournament only to inevitably suffer a few hefty beatings before meekly departing. The game told us nothing new about Spain. It simply boosted the confidence of Fernando Torres via a brace.

And so Croatia would provide the final opponents for Spain. Dependant upon your perspective, the hallmarks / failings of this Spanish side were evident throughout. Spain continued to pass effectively / without penetration. Their intricate passing seeking to pull the opposition out of position / whilst lacking width.

The performances have not lived up to expectations yet upon closer scrutiny, does the performance not exceed the expectations of almost every other footballing nation? Is the burden upon the Spanish now so great that we pour over every aspect of their play seeking deficiency?

“The worst thing we can do is doubt the style and change it. It has worked and we think we have the resources to beat teams that wait deep for us. Neither the players nor anyone else should doubt the style”

Del Bosque, it seems, is not for turning.

It must be recognised that, like all champions, Spain are faced with opponents raising their performance level when they meet la seleccion. Spain are increasingly faced with a defensive wall comprising 8 or 9 outfield players as the opponent lies in wait for the one or two chances they will have during the course of a match to alter its outcome. Rakitic failed to take that chance for Croatia and eventually, worn down physically and mentally, Jesus Navas struck. A goal of supreme creativity and one which epitomises Spain’s outfield play. Navas walked the ball into the net.

Should another team deliver a performance on the technical level of the Spanish, it would be revered but familiarity has bred contempt in some quarters. We expect it of the Spanish and more besides. We demand demolition football whereby the opponent is thrashed. At this level of football, it is simply not going to happen.

The statistics do not lie. On Monday evening Spain had 64% possession and 15 shots at goal according to Uefa.com. With 38 shots on target to their name thus far, Spain also lead the way in this department. And they also lead the charts for possession,  pass completion, fewest goals conceded, most corners.

And so a trip to the Donbass Arena in Donetsk to face France on Saturday evening awaits Spain. The sides have met on six occasion in competitive matches with les bleus winning five times. Spain’s best result being a draw.

From the most recent meeting in 2006 when France triumphed 3-1, only Ribery, Malouda and Diarra remain in the French team. Yet a glance at the Spanish team sheet from that day reveals the names of Casillas, Ramos, Fabregas, Alonso, Xavi, Torres, Iniesta and Reina.

This Spanish side has grown together, setting records and winning trophies in the process. On Saturday evening expect more of the same from Spain even though del Bosque has dropped hints of a more expansive approach.

Navas continues to deliver from the bench. Against tiring limbs, his pace is a valuable asset. When you have chased and harried for 60 minutes, the sight of the Sevilla winger coming off the bench must be disheartening for left backs.

The central trio of Xavi, Busquets and Alonso will continue to pass, pass, pass. Pulling the opponent across the pitch. Probing, seeking the gap to exploit the opponent. The fleet-footed running of Iniesta on the left balanced by the guile and trickery of Silva on the right, both seeking to break forward when the opportunity presents itself, to identify and find the surging run from Torres, creating the yard of space which could be the one opening for Spain to take the lead.

The opponent chases, attempting to win the ball back. They gain possession momentarily before Spain squeeze them, pressing high and forcing errors in their passing. Spain have the ball once more and the opponent enters a vicious circle. Chase, gain possession, lose possession. Finally, with the opponent exhausted and drained, Spain stretch the game and begin to create chance after chance. It’s a relentless game plan and one which is now so well known yet counteracting it remains so difficult.

It is the turn of Laurent Blanc on Saturday evening. Blanc has a number of key decisions to make for this match.

The marauding forward runs of Debuchy on the right, a key feature for the French so far, will likely be reined in as France firstly attempt to halt Spanish attacks. An additional midfield partner for Alou Diarra, who has operated at the base on midfield alone, also seems a logical step for Blanc in this game. Yohan Cabaye may be deployed in a deeper role. This will provide a sound platform to build upon. It offers the new, as yet untested in the competition, centre back pairing of Rami and Koscielny, the necessary support.

Les Bleus need a performance from Frank Ribery on Saturday evening both individually and collectively. He needs to push Arbeloa back and link with Benzema who has often looked isolated to date. And when the attack breaks down, Ribery must offer support to Evra.

The questions over the positional sense of Evra will be closely examined as will his fitness when Navas eventually emerges.

Can Benzema identify the weakness within his team mate at club level, Sergio Ramos? Throughout the season Ramos performed well at centre back which hinted at a new found level of maturity in his game. Yet the old failings have appeared again, the impetuous charges forward and being caught out of position against both Italy and Croatia. His athleticism saving him the first time, a dubious refereeing decision on the second. Benzema inevitably drifts to the left of centre where he will face club adversary Gerard Pique.

Jeremy Menez will need to curtail the runs of Alba as Nasri becomes a casualty to injury, or the internal bickering depending upon your viewpoint, that has disrupted the French camp ahead of this contest.

The Spanish defence has yet to be tested seriously in this competition. Can Benzema aided by Ribery and Menez provide a closer examination?

A host of key personal battles across the pitch which will combine effortlessly to shape the outcome of this game.

If Spain falter or if they struggle to defeat the French, the questions will surface once more. It will be asserted that del Bosque cannot see the problem, that he is unable to find the solution within a superbly talented squad.

Or maybe he does see the problem. Maybe the stubbornness of one man, his refusal to see the problem and change it is actually the identification of perseverance.

Maybe del Bosque’s reluctance to change is not due to some misguided sense of loyalty to the players on the pitch but a deep held belief that what he has instructed his players to do is correct.

Maybe the worst thing for Spain to do, would be to change tact as del Bosque suggests.

So what should the supporters who questions del Bosque do? What are our options on the sidelines as we query the inclusion of Fabregas and Silva but no striker in the starting eleven? When we ask why Llorente and Negredo have seen only a few minutes of playing time combined and will start on the bench yet again?

We should listen to the man who scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup Final, Andres Iniesta.

“Trust us”

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4 Responses to Spain – No Turning Back

  1. Paul Hardy says:

    There’s a dangling modifier here;
    “Finally, exhausted and drained, Spain stretch the game and begin…”
    It’s Spain’s opposition who are exhausted & drained but your sentence reads the reverse

  2. Paul Hardy says:

    Roma managed to make a 4-6-0 “strikerless” system work (intemittently) but they did have Totti who was always a regular feature in opposition boxes, and a striker in the mix as well. Spain only seem to have Fabregas capable of routine incursions into opposition boxes (OK maybe Silva a bit) so generally it works well but can lack for focus as you say. Got to feel a little sorry for Torres who is a gifted modern striker but has found himself surplus to requirements at club & country.

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