The Beginning of the End?

It was always going to happen. It was only a matter of time. That’s the When. The other variables to consider were the Where and the Who. Both would likely be connected. Some had previously guessed answers. Wrongly. And here we were. Still awaiting the When that would provide us with the Where and Who. The great and the good had arrived as guests, were vanquished and departed. There were welcoming arrivals on foreign shores too. Still nothing. We waited. It would come. Time moved on. And then it arrived. 10th October 2014. That’s the When. The Where was a less than salubrious location. Picturesque but not grand. The stadium under the hill. The Duben hill to be precise. The home of MSK Zilina in north western Slovakia. For some it was a new sensation. For three individuals, this had occurred before. Casilas, Iniesta and Fabregas. They had experienced this sensation before. A defeat in a qualifying game. 35 games and 8 years since the last defeat in qualifying. Then it was Sweden. Now it was Slovakia.

We know the When, the Where and the Who but Why? That’s the question.

For so long, selecting the Spanish side took care of itself. The spine of the team arrived from Barcelona with key personnel from arch rivals Real Madrid. One or two others took the final places. The first XI took care of themselves. That Barcelona were leaned upon so heavily enabled the seamless transfer of their style of play to the national set up complemented by the likes of Xabi Alonso offering his long range passing in midfield. The building blocks were positioned. And almost permanent.

Now though, the spine of that has been removed. Not incrementally but immediately. The lynchpin and the fulcrum of the side has departed. Xavi Hernandez has retired. Add to this the loss of Xabi Alonso, Carles Puyol, David Villa and the decline of Casillas and Torres and the issue is brought sharply into focus. Yet for each of the players mntioned thus far there is an able deputy, willing to take up the vacated slot. One position remains to be filled.  There is nobody sitting in deep midfield to cajole and prompt. We are left with a plethora of central attacking midfielders shoehorned into the side at the expense of both width, and more importantly, a clear idea. For the incorporation of that Barcelona spine brought a clear ideology to la Roja, exemplified by Xavi, who sat deeper and was able to dictate play. Now Spain has plenty of possession but no clear vision of the game. They are not in control. Moments arrive on the back of individual play as opposed to the collective.

Now, we see the Spanish side drawn form a number of teams, each with their own competing ideals. The passing of Barcelona is still there, the influence of Real Madrid has reduced and we have the counter attacking, combative element from Atleti. There is no clear defining idea now. No winner amongst the competing ideologies. The mix has become wider, the style blurred. And we arrive at the central dilemma for Spain now. It’s not about the style they pursue, that much is obvious. The central tenant of play that brought them this far will remain in place but evolution is needed. Therein lies the issue. Who will be the man that leads Spain to find that revised style.

Many labelled Spain’s exit from the World Cup as the final nail in the coffin of tiki taka. An assertion that is sensationalist, lazy and wrong. You don’t overthrow your entire footballing philosophy because of a few performances. This style of play, the possession dominated short passing of Spain, has brought la roja this far. It needs further evolution and not a revolution. The style has to adapt.

Sadly, I doubt that Vicente del Bosque is that man. A loyal coach and a man who has overseen a period of unprecedented success following on from Aragones. A coach who will remain faithful to the men he trusted time and time again to deliver for Spain but he probably went too far this time. A period of adjustment was required, ideally during the qualification for this World Cup. A time for the gradual adaptation of the squad. Changes were needed but these were limited and constrained.

The inclusion of Diego Costa has been a grave error. It led to Spain beginning to abandon their style and beliefs as they tried to hit long through balls for Costa to run down. No other side at the 2014 World Cup attempted as many through balls as Spain, averaging 10 per game. It’s a convenient falsehood and lends weight to those who would support this argument. It ignores the fact that the through balls have always been a part of the Spanish game. Remember Torres running onto a pass to score in the Euro 2008 Final? Or Jordi Alba running behind Italy to latch onto another through ball in the Euro 2012 Final? At Euro 2012, Spain averaged 15 attempted through balls per game, higher than the World Cup in Brazil.

The problem is teams sit so deep against Spain that space in behind is at a premium. Costa has little room to work. The challenge for Spain is enabling Costa to find that space. The formation needs altered to help create the space for Costa to thrive in. With no dictating force in midfield, the play will inevitably be a little more direct. And chaotic. Nobody is organising. Nobody is taking control. And players all fight to occupy the centre ground.

The problems have existed for some time now and become clearer with each passing game irrespective of the final outcome. Poor opposition can be overcome through individual moments of quality but that cannot be sustained. Defeat in Slovakia was followed with a comfortable win for a young Spanish side in Luxembourg. Early promise, however, must be tempered by the quality of the opposition on this occasion.

The first decision to be made surrounds del Bosque and if he is the correct man to take Spain forward once more. Were it not for limited alternatives, I suspect he would have already departed. The second issue revolves around squad selection. Some players, irrespective of how talented they are individually, need to be removed and replaced by technically inferior players but players who can help provide the correct balance for the squad. The experiment with a team packed full of midfielders is over. It’s time to move on. The question is When?

Spain vs Italy: Tactical Analysis

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.

Line Ups

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.

Spain vs Italy – Spanish Starting Line Up

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.

Spain vs Italy – Italian Starting Line Up

Opening

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.

Midfield Battle

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.

Xavi Hernandez

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.

Alonso and Busquets vs Italy

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:-

Xavi Final Third Passes vs Italy

 “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.

Second Half.

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.

Conclusions

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.”

Iniesta

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.”

On The Brink

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.

Italy

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

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.

Andrea Pirlo

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.

Spain vs Portugal: Tactical Analysis – Cesc’s Moment Part 2

Spain progress to their third successive major international final and join an elite club with just two members; Germany and Brazil.

Spain will now contest their fourth European Championship final, aiming to become the first team to successfully defend their title.

This was a highly interesting game, if seldom electrifying until the conclusion, which witnessed a Portuguese team determined to attack Spain and yet failing to register a single attempt on target in 120 minutes of play.

Line Up

Del Bosque made one change to the side that had defeated France in the Quarter Finals. It was not the change that many had envisaged, that being the choice between Torres and Fabregas again.

Alvaro Negredo made his first start of the tournament in the central striking role.

Spain vs Portugal – Spanish Starting Line Up

Bento had one change enforced upon him with Hugo Almeida replacing the injured Helder Postiga otherwise Bento kept faith with his normal starting eleven.

Spain vs Portugal – Portuguese Starting Line Up

Portugal Approach

Prior to the game Bento had stated his intention not to park the bus. Portugal would attack. For the first time in the tournament, we saw a team prepared to push high up against Spain and press them all over the pitch

Throughout the game, Portugal defended well and sought to push forward and create scoring opportunities. They pressed aggressively and energetically across the whole pitch, forcing Spain to play long balls which the aerial ability of Alves and Pepe could deal with easily.

Spain were clearly unsettled by this and yet for all of the effort displayed, Portugal ultimately failed to muster a single shot on target.

Why Negredo?

“Negredo suits our needs more than Soldado. He’s better aerially and he links up more with the team”

del Bosque

The inclusion of Alvaro Negredo surprised many yet in some respects it made perfect sense. Negredo can provide the compromise solution between Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas. He offers a range of qualities most notably his powerful physical presence allied to his finishing but his ability to drop deeper than a normal striker on occasion and link with the midfield arguably helped gain him the starting slot.

The Spanish Assistant Toni Grade noted:-

“Each forward has different characteristics. Negredo is ideal today – power, athleticism & height defending corners.”

One area where Spain have struggled so far is how to use the high number of corner kicks they win. Despite having seven corners last night, Spain inevitably lose possession if the corner is played into the penalty area. Negredo, in theory, should have helped with this.

Spain Corners vs Portugal

The potential which was highlighted never came to fruition though and Negredo departed after just 52 minutes.

Alvaro Negredo – vs Portugal

Negredo had just 22 touches of the ball before he was substituted. What many had considered to be a gamble, even though it was nothing of the sort, had failed. Negredo appeared static and often isolated and whilst he much accept a portion of the criticism for this, part of the reason must also lie with his team mates. Arbeloa has the opportunity to cross to Negredo in the opening 15 minutes but delayed and lost possession. If you select Negredo, you also need to supply him.

The final part of the reason for his lacklustre performance was the manner in which Portugal performed and in particular, their midfield trio.

Portugal Midfield

The usual midfield trio lined up in the midfield for Portuguese with Veluso the deepest of the three, Meireles seeking to link defence and attack and Moutinho providing the creative spark in a more advanced role. Yet to label the three players in such a fashion does them a great disservice. The trio showed tremendous versatility as they provided triangular rotation throughout as the situation dictated.

They were able to press Spain aided by the high defensive line being held. When Spain broke through the midfield, Pepe was very quick to step forward and close down space.

The pressing though was also apparent higher up the pitch. Moutinho stealing the ball from Alba in the 29th minute to offer Ronaldo an opportunity to shoot.

The trio broadly shadowed their Spanish opponents in central midfield with Veluso given tha task of marking Xavi. This was visible in the 19th minute when Xavi, frustrated by his limited involvement, became the deepest Spanish midfielder dropping between the centre backs to collect possession where Veluso followed him.

The result of the aggressive pressing by the Portuguese was that Spain’s pass completion rate in the first half dropped to their lowest level thus far in the competition at 85.3%. Spain ended the first half with 56% possession, again a substantial drop on their normal levels.

It was obvious how much Spain had been affected by the pressing of their opponents. Spain played 29 long balls in the first half beginning at the very outset with a long ball forward to Negredo straight from kick off. The longs balls continued in the second half when Spain played 44 long balls forward.

It should be abundantly clear why Spain play in the manner in which they do. When forced to play long balls and enter a more physical contest, the Spanish are lacking.

This tight marking and aggressive pressing by Portugal resulted in a loss of fluency in the game especially during the second half which developed into a fraught, tense affair.

Xavi Squeezed Again

Just as he had been squeezed against France, last night witnessed another performance by Xavi which is not in keeping with his normal performance level.

His starting position was once again, much higher than normal creating two key problems; he has fewer passing options ahead of him when he receives the ball and he is easier to mark by opposition players, in this instance, Miguel Veluso.

Against France, Spain coped with the performance of Xabi Alonso by as he too was pressed, te Spanish lost their fluent style and any creativity from midfield forward arrived via the driving runs of Andres Iniesta.

Portuguese Left vs Spanish Right

What was billed as being a pivotal duel in the contest never quite lived up to expectations. Much of the pre-match hype surrounded Ronaldo and his ability to cause his team mate at club level, Alvaro Arbeloa, numerous problems.

Arbeloa managed to stay high and attack early on rendering the conventional viewpoint that he would remain defensive, redundant. He linked well with David Silva whilst Ronaldo took up slightly more central positions.

As the second half progressed, Almeida looked to drift across to the left into the space vacated by Arbeloa. This resulted in Almeida having two clear shots on goal but on both occasions, his shooting was wayward.

Ronaldo Shots vs Spain

Billed as the weak link in the Spanish defence, Arbeloa proved defensively solid throughout. Indeed, both he and Pique combined successfully to nullify the threat from Ronaldo. All of Pique’s tackles coming in the right back area as he offered cover to Arbeloa.

Arbeloa did have an element of fortune in his performance through. He committed 8 fouls, the most by any player at Euro 2012 so far, yet his inevitable yellow card arrived due to a handball and not one of the more cynical fouls he committed higher up the pitch.

Arbeloa and Pique – Tackles

Extra Time

As with their other games to date, Spain gradually took control of the game as their opponents tired. The introduction of both Pedro and Navas on the wings helped stretch a tiring defence wider apart and offered the necessary space for Iniesta to have an increasing influence as the game progressed.

Jordi Alba also provided ample evidence of why Barcelona have just signed him with a number of surgng runs forward on the left as Portugal sought to contain their opponents, no longer able to maintain their pressing. Portugal dropped deeper into defence as the extra time wore on.

Penalties

“I looked for people who were confident. Cesc said he wanted to take one which could be decisive.”

del Bosque

Just as he had done on Sunday 22 June 2008, Cesc Fabregas stepped up and scored the decisive penalty kick which took Spain into the European Championship final.

The Spanish Players surround Cesc and Iker

Conclusions

Despite their exit, Bento must be happy with the performance of the Portuguese team at these finals considering the opposition they faced in their initial group.

That Portugal were able to stick with Spain for so long, only really showing visible signs of tiredness as extra time began is a testament to both the tactical system employed by Bento and the ability of his players to implement it.

For Spain, the performance will not do anything to alleviate the critics of the team but at this stage those critics are highly unlikely to change their viewpoint and arguably fail to understand how and why the team is functioning as it is.

For all the talk of teams knowing how to stop Spain, they have still to meet a team who can achieve that objective.

Spain now stand on the cusp of footballing history.

Cesc Fabregas – Moments

The moment when emotions pause

And then clicks into place.

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.