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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Spain vs Croatia: Tactical Analysis

The final group game for both sides brought the usual list of permutations which could ensure qualification for either side.

Amidst all the talk around the multiple outcomes and Italian cries of fair play, without any hint of irony, for Spain and Croatia to avoid a 2-2 which would see Italy eliminated irrespective of their result, a game of football threatened to break out. Almost, but not quite.

Spain won with a late goal from Jesus Navas and, combined with Italy’s 2-0 win over Ireland, this sent Croatia home from Euro 2012.

This was a drab, scrappy game with Spain poor. It became increasingly nervy for supporters of a Spanish persuasion as the game wore on. Del Bosque confirmed the lack of quality on display :-

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

Line Ups

Del Bosque retained faith with the same players who had beaten Ireland with ease in the previous group game.

Spain vs Croatia – Spanish Starting Line Up

Jelavic and Perisic dropped to the bench for Croatia to be replaced by Pranjic on the left of midfield and Vida at right back.

Although appearing as something akin to a 4-2-3-1 on paper, Croatia switched to a 5-3-2 in the defensive phase with Srna dropping deep to cover for the forward runs of Alba. Vida subsequently tucked in as something of a makeshift centre back.

Modric took up an advanced role just behind Mandzukic and sought to run into the channels, primarily to the left, either side of the central striker.

Spain vs Croatia – Croatian Starting Line Up

The Italian Job – Part 2?

From the outset, it was clear that, although Croatia were not following the same game plan as Prandelli had utilised with Italy, there were many broad similarities.

Croatia fell into a back five when defending with Srna acting as more of a conventional right wing back than Strinic, who was more conservative, on the left.

The midfield three stayed close to the defence and narrow to prevent Spain from passing their way through the midfield. Pranjic tucked in on the left which left Arebloa free but he was never able to take advantage of this space.

In the attacking department, Modric and Mandzukic, to a lesser extent, both sought to run into the channels and find the space vacated by the Spanish full backs who occupied very high starting positions.

Allied to this was the deliberate ploy of breaking the game up with fouls ranging from niggly to the downright cynical during the first half  (Srna being the prime suspect here) which prevented Spain from developing any rhythm.

Pass, pass, pass etc

Spain continued their trend at Euro 2012 of dominating possession but playing with little intensity during the opening half of the game.

Alba and Arbeloa took up very high positions from the outset but Arebloa was seldom utilised on the right despite his space whilst Alba was closely watched by Srna.

In the centre Alonso dropped between Pique and Ramos when Spain took possession, helping switch play on occasion but the passing was far too slow and ponderous.

Silva frequently left his right wing berth and adopted a very central position further narrowing the game.

As ever, the central area of the pitch was congested and the passing speed deteriorated as the half progressed.

The one player who sought to eschew the incessant passing was Iniesta who, as demonstrated against Italy, would make darting forward runs towards the Croatian defence.

Overall, Spain had 64% possession but they need to produce a final product to ensure overall control of the game.

Croatian Set Pieces

On the few occasions that Croatia won a set piece in the Spanish half, a number of players moved forward in anticipation of an aerial delivery into the penalty area. Spain are weak aerially and often appear chaotic when defending se pieces. Yet, this can often be an ideal opportunity for Spain to break down a defensive opponent.

The transition offers Spain a number of possibilities if they can move forward at pace whilst the opponent is still moving back into position.

These opportunities though are seldom grasped by the Spanish either through a lack of pace or through seeking an additional touch or pass when a more direct movement is required. The lack of directness is apparent in other elements of the Spanish play.

David Silva is often the guilty party. In the 40th minute he was over indulgent in the penalty area, shifting the ball from side to side before his shot was blocked. In the 62nd minute, Spain had a quick counter attack but Silva took an additional touch on the halfway line instead of releasing the forward pass and was tackled, losing possession.

Substitutions

Del Bosque made the first Spanish change with Torres exiting to be replaced by Navas in the 59th minute. Although this provided Spain with more width and variation in their game, the removal of Torres was arguably wrong.

When Spain had opportunities they were arriving on the transition. Silva lacks genuine pace and always prefers to take an additional touch as discussed above.

In addition to this, removing Torres meant Spain lacked a central reference point. If Navas beat his opponent and reached the goal line, who would he cross to?

The substitution was a conservative move and demonstrated del Bosque’s belief in keeping control of the game.

The heat map below demonstrates the worth of Navas in stretching the game and providing width and pace in the Spanish attack. Navas will attack the goal line and look for cut backs. It forces defenders to turn and move back towards their goal whereas normally the Spanish play in front of you.

Even if Navas can be frustrating on occasion and his final ball can lack quality, he brings something else to the game which no other Spanish player offers.

Spain vs Croatia – Spain with and without Jesus Navas

This contrasts sharply with the Croatian substitutions although Bilic had to seek a winning goal, a draw was no use to Croatia at this point. Had this been the first or second group game, Bilic would most likely have continued with the same game plan. Here, he had to seek a solution.

Croatia moved from their 5-3-2 formation to a more positive 4-4-2 with the removal of Vida and Pranjic with Jelavic and Perisic coming on.

With hindsight, perhaps Bilic should have made the move earlier in the second half rather than waiting.

Del Bosque’s second substitution was the straight swap of Fabregas for Silva which must leave Fernando Llorente and Alvaro Negredo wondering why they are in the squad.

Another conservative move and one which seeks the control of the midfield area at all costs.

Jesus Navas Goal

Supporters of del Bosque will claim the goal exonerates his decisions and to a degree there is truth in that. However, the goal arose because Fabregas had space to move into with Croatia abandoning their more circumspect formation as they chased the game. With neither Vukojevic now off the pitch and Rakitic also pushing forward, the Spanish could run at the Croatian defence.

The goal itself was superbly crafted and executed with a deftly lobbed ball through to Iniesta who square for Navas to walk the ball into the net.

Conclusions

Spain are through and publicly, the squad and staff are likely to confirm that the first goal of the tournament has been achieved but privately there must be reservations over the manner of their play at times.

The ball was recycled far too slowly and the lack of width has still not been fully resolved.

Del Bosque will be criticised for the performance in the Spanish press. Bilic set his team out well and can take credit despite the defeat.

Spain won by remaining true to their beliefs in tiki taka but the margin for error tonight was virtually non-existent. They could easily have drawn or even lost the game.

The easy games for Spain, as such, are over. More demanding and tougher challenges await when there will be no margin for error.