The System Works

The issue is not the system, but how you use the system

Xabi Alonso.

The Spanish Advance

Spain have progressed through the European Championships without displaying, to many observers at least, their best football. Their play has been characterised by slow, often ponderous passing, but with moments of sublime quality evident. Their rhythmic passing gradually wearing their opponent down, Pass, pass, pass. The ball goes left, it comes back again. The ball goes right, it comes back again. And all the time the opponent is chasing, a state of perpetual motion as they shut off passing corridors which the Spanish are opening up. They follow Iniesta, Silva and Fabregas so Xavi goes backwards and finds Busquets. It’s a seemingly never ending challenge for the opponent. Press the Spanish, retain the shape, prevent options opening up and throughout, ensure that when you do gain possession, you possess an attacking threat. It’s relentless pressure.

Critics have begun labelling Spain as boring even when Andre Iniesta confirms  “Clearly football is more attractive when both teams try to win. Don’t forget this style changed Spanish history”

There is complete faith in the Spanish squad about the manner and style in which they are playing. The full backs push high up the pitch and provide the width as the inverted wingers cut in field and link with the central midfielders and the striker. The striker?

Spain have successfully implemented a false 9 system at this tournament, mirroring many aspects of the Barcelona system. Given the quantity of Barcelona players in the squad, it’s not a huge surprise.

Yet the inclusion of Fabregas as the false 9 in the Spanish line up has created the most controversy from a Spanish perspective to date. His inclusion at the expense of a striker, principally Fernando Torres, has helped fill numerous column inches and been used in conjunction with the boring tag to denigrate Spain. It’s become the stick with which to beat Spain yet it’s not even fully understood by many of those critics why del Bosque is making these changes to the system.

The discussion has focussed on the wrong issues. Journalists seem to be caught in some form of revisionist haze recalling the free flowing attacking Spain of 2008 and 2010. Whilst the team of 2008 was more attacking, Spain’s domination since then delivers increasingly defensive opponents. As opponents have adapted, so too have Spain.

At the heart of the decision to select Fabregas or Torres is not about who provides the better attacking option. The decision revolves around the issue of control and how Spain can gain that control, maintain it and exercise it over their opponent.

Cesc vs Torres – The Issue of Control

Fabregas and Torres – Passes Received vs France

The chart above illustrates where Cesc and Torres received or attempted to receive passes against France in the quarter finals.

Whilst Cesc stays relatively deep in comparison to a conventional striker, Torres is moving towards the penalty area in most cases, operating off the shoulder of the last defender and always waiting for the through ball when he can utilise his pace.

Opponents of the false 9 system will point to this as further evidence of the need for a striker. Torres helped stretch the French defence and pushed them further back whereas Fabregas operated in front of the defence. Even if Torres is not performing well, his presence on the pitch forces defenders into a decision. If they push high, there is always the chance of Torres breaking free therefore, the opponent recognises this and defends deeper.

Whilst that is true, what is also important to note is the additional control which Fabregas offers. The introduction of Torres against France and a more vertical Spain resulted in possession dropping and a loss of control for a period in the match. Playing through balls to suit the natural game of Torres comes at a premium. Not all passes will be successful and the opposition then have the ball back and Spain need to press once more.

With the movement of Fabregas and his combination play, Spain dominate possession and tire the opponent out.

In the games against Italy, Croatia and France, del Bosque has made a change around the 60 minute mark, introducing pace and width to the side initially via Navas and now with Pedro.

Spain control the game, suffocating you with possession and when you are beginning to tire, they introduce an element of verticality to their play.

It’s becoming the del Bosque standard and allows the Spanish players to operate at a lower physical level during the match as they control the tempo. The players have greater recovery periods during the match whilst the opponents chase shadows. Spain rest when in possession. With greater control comes more possession. Spain can recover.. There are signs of tiredness now.

Many of the Spanish squad have played football incessantly now with little in the way of a summer break over the past 4 years.The fatigue is catching up. The false 9 system recognises this and helps address the problem.

Space Creation

We like when other teams leave out their ball players. It’s good for us when others change their system. We never change ours.”

Xavi Hernandez

Too often, teams are altering their system before playing Spain. Clearly, given the talent within the Spanish team, changes must be considered and implemented but a balance must be struck. You cannot change your team so drastically to tackle Spain that you negate your own attacking possibilities.

Against both Croatia and France, opposition substitutions have created space for Spain to attack.  Croatia set out defensively but as they required a win to progress to the quarter final stage, Bilic was forced to make alterations as the game meandered towards a 0-0 stalemate. The final throw of the dice for Bilic was the removal of Vukojevic in the 81st minute. One change which immediately created new openings for Spain. The removal of Vukojevic allowed Fabregas space to move forward unopposed and play the pass which released Iniesta against Croatia. Navas subsequently walked the ball into the net.

Similarly, against France, Blanc was forced to make positive changes to his team as les bleus trailed 1-0. The removal of M’Vila after 79 minutes provided France with a new attacking threat in Giroud but it also created the space for Spain to function more efficiently. Santi Cazorla found time and space to pass forward to Pedro under no pressure. Why was there no pressure? M’Vila had been removed and France lacked any defensive midfield presence.

Teams set out defensive formations against Spain but the loss of a goal alters the paradigm of the match. The opposition coach must react, typically, by removing a defensive payer and replacing him with an attacking player. But so far this has not yielded results and only offered Spain more room to create attacks and ultimately, score goals.

“morir con las botas puestas

Die with your boots on. At least possess the courage to have a go and if you suffer defeat, experience it on your own terms rather than abandoning your footballing principles for a defend at all costs mentality.

Spanish Right vs Portuguese Left

“Ronaldo is one of the world’s best and has incredible qualities but it’s not an individual duel; it’s collective. The key is to control the game. If we have the ball, he’ll participate less and cause us fewer problems.”

It’s an interesting situation. Portugal’s strength is attacking from the left but the achilles heel is the poor defensive performance here. All four goals they have conceded have been via their left.

One of the most interesting features about Portugal is the positioning of Ronaldo on the left wing, That in itself is not unusual nor is the fact that he remains high up the pitch and does not track back.

The question must be why Portugal persist with using a central striker in Helder Postiga (although due to injury, he will be probably be replaced by Hugo Almeida) rather than place Ronaldo in the central striking position.

This would enable the left winger to track back and offer support for Flavio Coentrao. Portugal have conceded four goals in the tournament to date and all of which have originated down their own left side.

As del Bosque trusts his payers, so too does Paulo Bento. Players are played in the position in which they operate at their clubs. Ronaldo is used an inverted left winger with Real Madrid and so performs the same role with Portugal.

Ronaldo will face up against club mate Alvaro Arbeloa. Maligned since the outset of the tournament, Arbeloa offers defensive stability but lacks an attacking threat.

Arbeloa will be supported by a team mate when Ronaldo is about to receive the ball most probably Busquets. Once Ronaldo has possession and has turned towards goal, problems emerge which are infinitely more difficult to solve. Spain will double up on him and deal with him collectively as Pique implies.

Whether his Portuguese team mates can take advantage of the additional space they receive as a consequence of the focus being on Ronaldo, remains to be seen.

The Portugal Challenge

“I think they will sit back and wait. Their midfield is strong and tough. If we’re not right, they can manage the game.”

Andres Iniesta

The question which Paulo Bento must ask is whether he changes tact or does have he have the same level of faith is his players which del Bosque shows in the Spanish?

Portugal are content to cede possession to the opponent and counter attack benefitting from the physical prowess of Ronaldo. With an average of just 46% possession in the games so far, it is unlikely to cause Bento and his charges too much trouble if they see less of the ball.

The midfield trio of Moutinho, Meireles and Veluso combine workrate with flair. Miguel Veluso is normally the deepest of the three but it’s likely that Moutinho will operate slightly deeper than normally. Meireles will look to push forward more often if the opportunity arises.

Nani will need to demonstrate the work ethic he has shown at Man Utd and adequately support Perreira at right back against the surging runs of Alba and the trickery of Iniesta. Alba has settled well into the left back position and from tentative beginnings has developed as the tournament progresses. With Arbeloa likely to hold back, there will be an increasing onus upon Alba to provide real width.

The false 9 system will present a new challenge for Bruno Alves and Pepe at the heart of the defence. Who do they mark? Do they hold if Fabregas drifts deep ir does one stay and one mark?

What of del Bosque and Spain, how will they react? With the same system as before.

The system works.

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