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 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.

Spain vs Italy: Tactical Analysis

Spain still await a competitive win over Italy after seven attempts following this 1-1 draw.

A game that lived up to expectations, the first real heavyweight clash of the 2012 European Championships certainly had plenty of talking points. Much of the pre-match discussion around the lack of width in the Spanish game and the propensity to overplay in front of their opponents were evident here. Combined with del Bosque again showing he will make changes and alter the style of play when required, if a little belatedly in this example.

Shape

Both teams adopted formations which are unlikely to be replicated by anyone else at the tournament. Moving away from the ubiquitous 4-2-3-1, Spain were their normal 4-3-3 with a false 9 in operation whereas Italy set up with a 3-5-2.

The only change from the predicted Spanish starting eleven as shown here was the inclusion of Fabregas operating, jointly, with David Silva in the false 9 role.

Spain vs Italy – Spanish Starting Line Up

Prandelli, meanwhile, a 3-5-2 despite injury meaning he was without Barzagli. Daniele De Rossi dropping between Chiellini and Bonucci to form the three man defence. Giaccherini was brought in at left wing back to make his Italian debut. Otherwise, the Italian line up was as expected.

Spain vs Italy – Italian Starting Line Up

This was a more attack orientated 3-5-2 rather than a system that becomes defensive and lapses into 5-3-2

Pressing

Italy pressed in a coordinated fashion from the outset, attempting to stop Spain building attacks from the defence. In particular, Cassano and Balotelli worked extremely hard to close down Ramos and Pique.

By contrast, Spain were disjointed here and seldom pressed in a coherent fashion. Sometimes one player would press whilst at other times, they would stand off. This provided De Rossi with ample time in possession to pick out team mates and begin the process of constructing attacks.

Spanish Full Backs vs Italian Wing Backs

A key battle on the flanks and one which the Italian wing backs gained the upper hand early in the game.

In theory, the wing backs should have been pushed back due to a combination of the Spanish full backs and wide attackers. However, with both Iniesta and Silva drifting inward, this allowed Maggio and Giaccherini to retain relatively high starting positions when the opportunity arose and move onto their direct opponents.

As a consequence, both Alba and the more conservative Arbeloa adopted less advanced positions and the Italian wing backs could make forward progress positionally as well as offering an outlet for their team mates.

With Alba and Arbeloa further back, Spain, rather predictably, became to central and struggled to make any headway at times against a well disciplined opponent. Much of their creativity arrived via Iniesta who was prepared to run and commit defenders and managed to carve out several good chances without any success.

Italian Chances

Combining the two issues above neatly summarises how Italy managed to create some excellent scoring chances during the first half and via Balotelli early in the second half.

Cassano and Balotelli both received the ball early and sought to make runs into the channels where space can exist between the Spanish central defender and his respective full back. Pique is uncomfortable when pulled wide although it was Ramos who was pressed and lost possession allowing Balotelli a clear run on goal which he squandered by dwindling on the ball.

Fabregas and Silva

It was widely expected that Silva would start this game as the false 9 with the assumption that Pedro or possibly Jesus Navas would start on the right of the attack. The inclusion of Fabregas, although not dismissed, was a little surprising. Whilst they created and scored the goal, they also made contributions to the problems Spain encountered.

Fabregas has given some of his best performances at club level for Barcelona this season when exploiting the space which Messi has vacated by dropping deep. This was clearly shown with the goal when Silva dropped slightly deeper and provided the through ball for the forward running Fabregas.

As the most vertical of the Spanish midfielders, this role is ideally suited for Fabregas. However, when Fabregas operated as the false 9, you lose this directness with Silva lacking this necessary quality in his play. Less inclined to make the forward run and more likely to take an extra touch on the ball, Silva provides more craft and guile when a more penetrative element is required.

Further, when Fabregas made the runs forward, he tended to do so from a very central position which offered Giaccherini ample space on the left.

Second Half Changes

Spain increased the tempo noticeably from the outset of the second half and, combined with the Italian’s tiring as the game wore on, began to build more attacks but still without a real cutting edge. Too often the play was focussed in front of the Italian back line with forward movement lacking from all areas of the pitch. When it did occur, Spain created opportunities.

This situation changed with the arrival of Jesus Navas, the one traditional winger within the Spanish squad. Holding a position on the right touch-line, Giaccherini was forced back and with Navas showing glimpses of his pace and skill, Chiellini was pulled closer towards his team mate to offer cover. The Italian back line began to be stretched.

The arrival of Torres, despite his misses, also gave Spain a more direct threat. Torres requires space to operate effectively and with Italy holding a relatively high line but now being stretched wider by Spain, there were opportunities for him to use his pace.

Overall

Cesare Prandelli, despite his post match comments that Italy “need to improve”, must be happy with both the performance and the result. They stifled Spain until relatively late in the game when the effects of their pressing became more apparent as they tired.

The deployment of the 3-5-2 system worked very well and clearly gave Italy the tactical edge over Spain. It would have been interesting had del Bosque made a change at the start of the second half, bringing on Jesus Navas at that point and pushing Italy back.

Nonetheless, that Italy were prepared to be aggressive against Spain, pressing high and adopting a more direct style of play, targeting the strikers with early passes vindicated Prandelli’s selection.

For Spain, many of the issues which were highlighted in the tournament preview remain in position. For the Ireland and Croatia games, del Bosque is likely to make some slight tweaks. He is an evolutionist, not a revolutionist. Expect Silva or Fabregas to be replaced with Navas or Pedro to open the pitch up.

Spain: Anything in Reserve?

It’s close.

The fans know it. The players know. And the manager knows it. Yet, it is still so far away. There is still so much to overcome to grasp it, obstacles both real and imaginary which must be navigated to realise it.

“Others have improved, the gap has been narrowed” they claim.

Germany have continued to grow as a team over the past few years with Joachin Low moving towards a more patient possession based game in the mould of Bayern Munich. Holland retain the physicality of Van Bommel and De Jong, even if the approach has softened slightly, with the guile and craft of Sneijder, Van Persie et al. France appear renewed under Blanc and Italy will surely not flop as they did in the World Cup 2010.

“You won’t last the pace, you have given too much already” is their next assertion.

The stalwarts of the Spanish side have played almost continuous football for club and country since winning the European Championship in 2008. A never ending succession of increasingly important matches. Copa del Rey finals, Champions League finals, World Club Championships, Confederations Cup, European Championships, World Cups. The games continued apace with no respite. Can the bulk of the squad lift themselves one more time?

Spain Euro 2008 Winners – No rest for the victors.

“Your preparations are amateurish” perfectly encapsulating the announcement of a provisional squad for two friendlies prior to Chelsea competing in the Champions League Final and the Spanish season finishing with the Copa del Rey Final between Athletic and Barcelona. A situation needlessly arising with RFEF failing to take control and reschedule the Copa del Rey Final once Barcelona’s involvement in the Champions League had ended.

Both Athletic and Barcelona were in agreement. Bring forward the final. Allow the players more recovery time. Set to be staged at the Santiago Bernabeu, a shift in date needed the consent of Real Madrid. It was not forthcoming. The final was subsequently played at the Vicente Calderon. Petty internecine rivalries between Real and Barca hindering the pursuit of history by la seleccion.

That some members of the provisional squad remained, after del Bosque announced the final squad, to complete another friendly game is, in many respects, nonsensical and highlights the lack of organisation within RFEF. Why Monreal, Benat, Soldado and Dominguez all played against South Korea when del Bosque could have been fine tuning his squad seems a little foolish. The key players in the squad benefitted with more rest, will be the counter argument. Let’s hope it is an argument which remains sound.

Those three criticisms are entirely predictable and entirely plausible.

And then it gets blurted out. The defining piece of evidence in their argument. So infallible, that it cannot be countered.

“You don’t have a Plan B”

The European Championship 2012 Part 1

The forthcoming European Championships being held in Ukraine and Poland offer Spain the opportunity to create footballing history. To become the first international side to win three major international tournaments consecutively. The obstacles in their path, as touched upon above, include the continual improvement of both Germany and Holland as genuine contenders to succeed la furia roja as European Champions. However the biggest impediments to the successful defence of their title may come from within Vicente del Bosque’s immensely talented squad – fatigue, the tactical set up deployed and the somewhat infamous Plan B.

And it’s the same critique that was levelled at Barcelona during the closing weeks of the season, primarily the lack of variation in their tactical approach which saw Real Madrid and then Chelsea claim crucial results over them which defined their season.

Barcelona and Spain are both different footballing entities. With such short time periods in which to develop a coherent game plan at international level, an international side will never be able to assimilate the philosophical and footballing philosophy of La Masia. Yet Spain do show several glimpses of the Barcelona philosophy which is completely practical given the large Barcelona contingent within the squad. Some elements of the Barcelona game though, are too difficult to develop at international levels with any real understanding. The fluidity of the back four becoming a back three is unlikely to be replicated by Spain who will remain true to the 4-3-3 formation, instigated by Luis Aragones and continued by del Bosque, and which has brought them such success over the past few years.

Miguel Delaney has covered the issue of fatigue in some depth. The salient points revolve around the continuous football played by some members of the Spain squad over the past few years most notably the Barcelona contingent. Xavi Hernandez, for example, had made an average of 66 appearances in each of the last four seasons. Such continued operation at the highest level is unsustainable in the longer term and we saw clear evidence of Xavi toiling as the season drew to a conclusion.

The performance of Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) continues to look like a collection of amateurs overseeing the organisation of one of the best leagues in the world and the best national side in the world. From the inability to schedule games properly in advance to the needlessly scheduling of endless friendly games for la seleccion following their recent triumphs, off the pitch RFEF have considerable work to undertake to match Spain on the pitch.

Factors outwith the control of del Bosque. Yet the factors within his control are arguably the most important.

Do Spain need a Plan B?

The constant speculation around this issue is actually deflecting attention away from the crux of the issue. In order to satisfy his entire squad, and also avoid criticism at home, del Bosque has packed a glittering array of talent into his first eleven.

This notion of a Plan B seems to be in vogue in the UK media currently following on from Barcelona’s elimination from the Champions League at the hands of Chelsea and their subsequent victory over Bayern Munich in the final. It was claimed in many quarters, that Barcelona, and to a lesser extent Bayern Munich, lacked a Plan B to navigate through Chelsea’s massed defence with David Pleat going so far as to label Barcelona brainless.

Quite a bold statement from one normally so reserved. Also, quite a wrong statement from one who normally contributes so thoughtfully.

What is a Plan B? A deviation from the norm and yet in the aforementioned game, Barcelona made many tactical changes to try and counter Chelsea. Ultimately, none were successful and so Barcelona were seen to have failed by those unable to see the tactical nuances of the game.

What was the alternative? What would the proponents of the Plan B support?

The mainstream conventional view is that Barcelona did not possess a tall, physically powerful striker who they could aim long balls towards in the hope that this leads to knock downs and the creation of half chances.

This must mean that when a team who play long balls then fail to break down an opponent, their Plan B is to instigate a dramatic switch in style and begin a patient passing game?

Why do we see football in such simplistic terms? Football is not a straightforward choice between two opposing ideologies. The short pass vs the long ball.

A simple approach that misses the point?

It’s worth considering footballing styles as existing on a wide spectrum. Whilst the short passing game and the long ball exist on opposing ends of the spectrum, there are multitudes of permutations in between.

Spain have a Plan B. It’s just not the stereotypical Plan B that many commentators would like them to have. A style and approach which is so radically different from their normal approach, that it can be easily identified by lazy media pundits. Del Bosque has demonstrated before that he can make small changes which have significant impact upon games. It’s just that Spain will not forsake the approach that has delivered them silverware. And nor should they.

For not only do Spain possess a Plan B, they also possess a range of players to actively enforce their alternative arrangements. It’s just that Plan B is a subtle, discreet change and not a massive switch in their interpretation of how the game should be played. Spain can utilise the pace and direct nature of Navas on the right wing, the physicality and strength of Llorente and Negredo, the attacking surges from deep by Alba, the lateral movement of Cazorla.

For in the forthcoming European Championships, the strength of the Spanish squad does not exist in the 7 or 8 players who are widely known. It is the depth of quality and versatility in the newer players and those on the fringes of the starting eleven where the strength exists.

Spain may be running low on reserves of physical energy but the reserves they take to Poland and Ukraine could play a pivotal role if they wish to successfully defend their title.

The Current Position

There were few surprises when Vicente del Bosque announced the Spain squad. The expected names were all there.

Vicente del Bosque auditions for the left back slot.

Juanfran was confirmed in place of the injured Andoni Iraola. This was the perfect platform for Iraola to demonstrate why he is the best Spanish right back. It also offered Spain the option of having two excellent attacking full backs on either side. In the forward department, Soldado and Adrian were both overlooked despite recent goalscoring debuts with Alvaro Negredo joining Llorente, Torres and Pedro.

There was no place in the squad for Iker Muniain. His form shaded towards the end of the season as Athletic struggled physically and mentally.

Del Bosque will remain true to his favoured 4-3-3 formation and despite the injuries to key players, the bulk of the Spanish starting eleven can be stated with a degree of confidence. There is only likely to be a couple of positions where there is any doubt and these revolve around attacking positions. Who does del Bosque choose on the right and who starts, nominally at least, as the central striker?

Spain 2012 Euro’s – Expected Line Up

The team will broadly follow the same system as utilised successfully during the 2010 World Cup.

The back four will contain two full backs who attack but its unlikely that both will do so simultaneously with Alba more likely to push forward than Arbeloa. The left flank will be more attacking than the right, the reverse of the position in 2010 when Ramos stormed forward on the right and Capdevila was more circumspect on the left.

Busquets will sit deepest in midfield with Alonso just in front of him. A slightly lopsided double pivot. Xavi occupies a central position which is more advanced than that which he fulfills for Barcelona.

Iniesta will adopt the wide left attacking position and naturally drift diagonally inward as he does at club level.

The remaining two positions are those where there can be some movement.

The use of David Silva, previously expressing his disquiet about being overlook for la seleccion, in the false 9 role gives further credence to the flirtation with a Barcelona-esque model for the national side but there are specific differences between both primarily the choice of personnel which both teams have at their disposal. Alternatively, could Fabreagas be used here?

Assuming Silva does start as the false 9, on the right wing, it becomes a straight choice between Pedro and Navas with the man from Tenerife probably shading it.

With the startling line up and likely system confirmed, the faults within the system can be identified.

The Problems

It seems slightly ridiculous to be closely examining one of the most successful international sides ever and finding faults.

Let’s be clear. These faults are stopping Spain from fulfilling their true potential and playing at their maximum. It has so far not stopped Spain from winning, but at this Championship, Spain may need to operate at their peak. It is testament to the talent within la seleccion that a side with faults can be both the reigning European and World Champions and enter the forthcoming tournament as favourites to defend their crown.

The problems have been slow burners. Not openly seen in the 2008 European Championships because of the attacking options, they saw their birth under Luis Aragones. Coming to the forefront in the 2010 World Cup, the difficulties were overcome with del Bosque making some key substitutions such as introducing Llorente against Paraguay or bringing on Fabregas and Navas when a more vertical approach was needed.

In 2012, the problems are easily identifiable. Del Bosque sees them and yet, for whatever reasons, chooses to seemingly ignore them and push forward.

Over Indulgent Midfield?

Do Spain really need to play both Xabi Alonso and Busquets together?

This is the starting point from which the remaining issues all stem. Yet it seems inconceivable that del Bosque would remove either from the team. Del Bosque himself has stated “If I were a player, I would like to be like Busquets”.

Playing Alonso and Busquets together necessitates that Xavi plays in a more advanced position than he does for club. Xavi is the conductor of the orchestra, yet with the national side, he has both hands tied behind his back.

Xavi receives the ball from Busquets or Alonso. He needs to be able to see the full pitch, to see the options available, the darting runs of Pedro and Iniesta ahead of him, the surging runs of Alba from full back, the presence, if they play, of Llorente or Negredo centrally. Yet by starting so far upfield, receiving the ball in the opponents half, the darting runs of Iniesta and Pedro start immediately adjacent to him, the surging run of Alba occurs yet Alba is still slightly behind him. Llorente and Negredo remain a possibility but opponents mark them tightly and Xavi has few options. He is forced to return the ball to Busquets or Alonso. His creativity stifled. The opponent’s hard work achieved by Xavi’s own team.

If Xavi is tightly marked, Busquets may pass to Alonso who then may look for a diagonal ball, the type of pass he has hit with such precision all season for Real Madrid.

Xavi is bypassed.

Xavi Hernandez – What role in Euro 2012?

This maybe an extreme example but is it one which will play out in the coming days. Both Alonso and Xavi need the ball to function properly but only Alonso is in his correct position.

Why does del Bosque persist with his selection of Alnso and Busquets? Is it politically motivated to a certain degree, del Bosque selecting the Real Madrid man lest fielding the Barcelona trio in midfield?

With Xavi struggling from fatigue and dogged by a persistent achilles problem, is the unthinkable possible? Could Xavi’s position be under threat from the form and dynamism of Santi Cazorla?

Furthermore, the inclusion of Busquets and Alonso requires Iniesta to adopt the wide left attacking position which he sometimes occupies for Barcelona. Iniesta will drift inwards and Alba can provide width overlapping from full back. But opponents know this. Iniesta will rarely take on the full back on the outside or hug the touchline and pull the full back towards him. He moves centrally to be involved in the action.

As Iniesta moves centrally, Silva drops deep into the area which Xavi is occupying. Spain are left with no central focal point in attack and unless Alba pushes forward there is a lack of genuine width.

This will be exacerbated considerably if Spain line up without a recognised forward in their team.

How del Bosque chooses to implement his 4-3-3 system is crucial as he lacks key components within his squad to fully implement the Barcelona system. What we are left with is a hybrid which is not functioning properly as del Bosque shoe horns his best players into the starting eleven rather than focus upon selecting his best team.

The Solutions

Options

The Spanish squad is arguably the most talented in world football presently. Del Bosque has a plethora of players available who would probably make other international squads yet cannot break into la seleccion. Mikel Arteta of Arsenal is a prime example of this. A fine midfield who can play in a variety of positions, he is destined to remain with only U21 caps.

Should Spain play with a false 9 and if so, who is the best option?

If you assume that Iniesta plays wide left and Silva is a false 9, what transpires is a glut of players converging on the centre, in the same area that Xavi is, wrongly in my view, occupying. Graham Hunter referred to Xavi as the inverted sheepdog, sending his players out away from him and picking them out with passes. As the play becomes congested, the ball circulation begins to lose efficiency, the play narrows and the opponent, although deeply positioned within their own half and working extremely hard, has temporarily halted the Spanish advance.

The false 9 needs to be both creative and provide a penetrative cutting edge. Silva only fulfills one part of the bargain. He lacks the cutting edge to operate as the primary striker for Spain.

If Silva is to play for Spain, he needs to be stationed out wide, most probably on the right, but this again contributes to the central congestion and Silva will operate as an inverted winger always seeking out the opportunity to move infield and onto his favoured left foot.

The Lack of Width

The problem with having so many central midfielders, is they all want to move into the centre of the pitch irrespective of where you initially station them. And so with Spain, we see the central area of the pitch clogged by Spanish players and opponents. If the flirtation with the Barcelona model continues, we could see Spain fielding four defenders and six, predominately, central midfielders.

What we will then witness is Spain securing plentiful possession but the majority of which will be horizontal passing about 35 yards from goal as the opponent regains shape and structure.

Where is the space?

Spain must use the full width of the pitch to overcome obstinate opponents

On the flanks.

This is a genuine issue which del Bosque must address if Spain are to be successful.

How can Spain introduce more width into their game when there is a glut of creative, technical, creative central midfielders at his disposal and only one true winger, Jesus Navas, in the squad.

Spain need to find a balance and probably adopt an asymmetrical attacking formation. This is particularly true if Iniesta is used on the left, which seems highly likely, Spain cannot select a similar player on the right and have two inverted wingers. If Cazorla or even Juan Mata was stationed on the right, Spain would become far too narrow. This cannot happen. The solution on the right would be the selection of Navas or Pedro. Both offer pace and a direct approach, especially Navas, which is lacking in others.

If del Bosque was truly radical, he could utilise both Alba and Juanfran to push forward as attacking full backs. Both are converted wingers themselves and could play with inverted wingers ahead of them, overlapping to provide options and stretch the opponent defensively. This seems a step too far unless Arbeloa is struggling for form, injured or Spain are trailing and need to push on. Juanfran is inexperienced at this level and suspect defensively.

Alba will go on the outside of Iniesta and if Navas or Pedro play on the right and stay wide, there will be space between the opponents full back, pulling wide, and his centre back which the likes of Xavi, Silva, Cazorla etc can exploit.

If further evidence of the need for width was needed, Fifa’s technical report on the 2010 World Cup  said: “In modern football, it is very difficult to get behind the opposition defence as teams are often very compact with eight or nine players behind the ball”

“That is why teams now need outstanding individual players who can make their mark one-on-one, particularly down the wings where they can create space that often does not exist down the centre.”

Combating Defensive Opponents

If the inclusion of more width is one method of overcoming opponents, what other methods can Spain employ?

With their belief in tiki taka, the short, sharp passing and constant movement, Spain will enjoy more possession than their opponents in their games. With the similarities to Barcelona, it will not be unusual for opponents to utilise increasingly defensive formations against them.

It is well known that del Bosque prefers to play two midfielders in defensive positions. Alonso’s lack of mobility means he is poorly equipped to singularly perform a defensive midfield position. Indeed, he is more of a deep lying regista, knitting play together with his short and long range passing technique. A change in this aspect of the system is unlikely.

Perhaps Spain need to consider the beliefs of Andre Villa Boas when teams use a low defensive block against them.  The provocation of the opponent utilising the ball as bait to bring them out. Typically with continuous circulation of the ball.
 
The superb Ajax team of the 1990’s under Louis Van Gaal recycled the ball at increasing speed, pulling opponents from side to side waiting for the right moment when the opening appeared in the opponents defence which could be exploited. Van Gaal also instructed his players, even the most technically gifted, to seek the pass rather than commit an opponent to help retain possession. For an ultra low block, this will not work and the provocation needs to be the mixture of ball circulation combined with penetration via driving runs etc to create the space for exploitation.

It was the failure of Barcelona to address this key point which contributed to their failure against Chelsea. Too many Barcelona players adopted very high starting positions and, as a result, there was no explosive movement, no driving runs from deep to overlap the full back. All the play took place in front of the Chelsea block with horizontal recycling of possession. Retaining possession but Chelsea controlled the space and controlled the game.

There are already articles asking if Spain can be overcome the Chelsea way.

Spain need to learn from this.

If Croatia or the Republic of Ireland set out defensive formations, Spain cannot simply push forward and camp in the opponents half of the pitch. There needs to be space for the driving run, for that explosive moment.

Chaos Theory

What about someone bringing disorder to the tactical structure of the Spanish set up?

Someone who brings a more vertical approach to the patient probing play of the Spanish. Could Cesc Fabregas prove instrumental from the bench for the Spanish?

Cesc Fabregas – The bringer of chaos?

This is the player who Barcelona’s technical staff claimed was causing “anarchy” when he joined from Arsenal such was his perceived lack of tactical discipline. Yet this “indiscipline” can also be a positive. The ability to do something different and almost un-Spanish, such as a forward driving run and shot from distance, whilst retaining the technique to make short, sharp passes on route.

By far the most vertical of Spain’s central midfielders, Fabregas brings a different mentality to the team, one which should be harnessed to provide an alternative approach. If the space exists in the opponents defensive line, exploit it. Fabregas will attempt this.

He has also played as a false 9 on occasion for Barcelona this season and although his form declined as the season progressed, he can harness the discipline required as part of the team with the “anarchy” needed to provide something different.

Mobile vs Static. Or both.

Spain have two players in the squad who can offer something different from the small technical players we have come to expect from Spain and which is helping to forge an almost stereotypical view of the average Spanish player now.

Alvaro Negredo and Fernando Llorente are both physically strong and robust players. Although they are both mobile, they offer a central focal point for attacks and can be utilised in such a way. Both are also proven goalscorers.

They are not strikers who you aimlessly lump high balls towards. They can both offer mobility, Negredo more so and from a deeper starting position, and they both link play well and can hold the ball up. But they will not drop deep, the way in which Silva operating as a false 9 would. By remaining in the penalty area, they present the opposition with a constant problem. Opposition defenders now have both a static and mobile problem to contend with. Llorente has demonstrated how effective he can be this season providing one two’s for midfield runners for Athletic Bilbao, something which Spain could harness and reap reward from.

Fernando Torres – Out of form at club level, does the Euro’s offer redemption?

They can provide a quality which Torres, out of form for such a prolonged period now, cannot. With deep defences likely, there is no space for Torres to accelerate into. He cannot link play as well either. Torres seemed resigned to beginning this tournament stationed on the substitutes bench, awaiting a moment of inspiration which can help reignite his stalled career. Can the Euro’s offer that moment?

He is the most experienced striker in the squad. Surely he will get his opportunity and sooner rather than later?

The European Championships 2012 Part 2

Which brings us to the European Championship.

Drawn in a group containing Italy, Ireland and Croatia, Spain will be expected to progress comfortably.

Against Italy, expect Spain to look for control of the game. This is not the moment to be radical. Silva will likely start as the false 9 and Torres will be benched.

Republic of Ireland will likely adopt a narrow, reactive 4-4-2 against Spain. A similar formation to that chosen by the USA and Switzerland when they delivered competitive defeats to Spain in the Confederations Cup 2009 and World Cup 2010. The long balls and aerial ability of the Irish could cause Spain some unsettling moments.

If they secure two wins, the final group game against Croatia allows Spain some breathing space to rotate and also, the opportunity to play an opponent who, whilst possessing a number of attacking options, is weak defensively. With a muddled build up prior to the tournament, this is the game for experimentation and rotation.

Beyond the group stage, it becomes slightly more fraught with dangerous opponents lying in wait. At the quarter final stage France or England are likely to lie in wait. To retain the Championship, Spain will most probably need to navigate past Holland and Germany.

This is when del Bosque will earn his corn.

The others have improved but if Spain perform to their maximum, they were and still are the best side in international football.

Rotation in the group games can help keep key players fresh whilst also ensuring that all players in the squad feel they have made their contribution however few minutes they receive on the pitch. In tournament football, players within the squad who see little or no time on the pitch can often be as important as players on the pitch. Maintaining team morale within the camp cannot be underestimated.

Perhaps this one of the reason’s why Soldado did not travel. Prior to Emery’s departure from Valencia there were suggestions he was losing the dressing room and Soldado openly questioned Emery in the media. Perhaps with little playing time in the pipeline, Soldado could have adversely affected morale?

A footballer on the sidelines seeing no playing time can become frustrated and detrimental to the squad.

For so long the nearly men of international football, to the current European and World Champions. This is the era of Spain and of tiki taka, the phrase wonderfully crafted with scorn by Javier Clemente which now stands as a monument to their technical superiority and the success of a patient short passing game.

If Spain are to retain the European Championships, the players who arrive in Poland and Ukraine and who were considered squad players, albeit supremely talented squad players, maybe the very players who help deliver the Championship for Spain. In future years will the names of Navas, Pedro and Alba be mentioned alongside Puyol, Xavi and Villa?

Barcelona vs Chelsea – 3 Short Observations

Three short observations on the Barcelona vs Chelsea game last night:-

Chelsea‘s Organisation

The two goals Barcelona scored both occurred when Chelsea lost their shape and Barcelona were able to exploit it.

Firstly, the corner kick which led to Busquets goal was cleared but too many Chelsea players lost their discipline and tried to charge Dani Alves when he collected the ball about thirty yards out. The ball was slipped to Cuenca and Barcelona were in behind Chelsea.

Secondly, following a Chelsea attack, the players did not retreat quickly enough and tried to press too high. Once Messi received the ball and broke through the midfield, he was able to run directly at the back four before playing in Iniesta for the goal.

Two moments in the game when Chelsea lost their organisation temporarily and were punished. However, it also demonstrated how difficult Barcelona were finding it to break down the Chelsea defence.

With a mass of bodies,Chelsea prevented Barcelona from going around them and made Barcelona attempt to play through them. Chelsea retained their shape even when down to 10 men with a back four and five in midfield, Drogba switched to playing as an auxiliary left back in the second half.

The discipline, organisation and workrate shown by Chelsea was very impressive and ultimately, very successful.

Why won’t Barcelona shoot?

As it says on the tin.

Barcelona very seldom shoot from about 25 yards, preferring to continue passing to create an opening. But when that opening does not arrive they need to shoot from distance more often. Mascherano had two shots from outside the penalty area and Messi shot from the edge of the area which struck the post after a slight touch from Cech.

Why does nobody want to shoot?

This was an area that I had assumed Fabregas would help resolve following his arrival from Arsenal. As the most attacking of the midfielders at the Gunners, Fabregas frequently shot at goal in and around the area.

When he joined Barcelona, Fabregas was criticised by some of the coaches for his direct style and there was talk of him bringing “anarchy” to the team due to his English “indiscipline”. Perhaps Barcelona could have used some of that anarchy last night.

Where is the Plan B?

In the second half especially (although somewhat understandable given that they were only playing with 10 men),Chelsea were camped around their own penalty area.Barcelona had 82% possession yet could not break them down.

Does it sound familiar?

Have the lessons from Inter not been learned? Do they need a Plan B?

True, Barcelona were only a refereeing decision away from knocking Inter out (Bojan perhaps unfairly penalised for handball before he scored) and last night had Messi not missed a penalty or Ivanovic blocked the shot from Iniesta, Barcelona would have progressed.

However, the similarities between before games in terms of Barcelona being faced by a wall and unable to break it down were abundantly clear.

There will be countless arguments now over why Barcelona need a Plan B. In typical tabloid fashion this will be the big target man i.e. Llorente.

Llorente may well add something to this Barcelona team but now is not the time for the club to panic.

Let’s place it in context.

Chelsea had 4 shots on target in 180 minutes of football and scored 3 times. That is quite remarkable. Over both games,Barcelona had 47 attempts at goal to Chelsea’s 11.

Do Barcelona actually need to change anything? Surely the statistics prove who the better team is?

But, in cliched football parlance, at the end of the day it is the result that matters.

Or is it?

A decent footballer once said “There is no greater prize than being acclaimed for your style”

And that is why Barcelona cannot and must not deviate from their current methods. They must remain true to the style of football installed by Cryuff and refined and improved under Guardiola.

When questioned after the game about what he would tell a child who has cried forBarcelonafor the first time after the exit to Chelsea, Guardiola calmly responded “Welcome to the club. You will cry more times”

Barcelona vs AC Milan: 3 short observations

Three short observations on the Barcelona vs AC Milan game last night.

3 Man Defence

Guardiola has used a 3 man defence on occasion at home this season particularly against weaker opposition but this was the first time they have used it against a strong opponent. It allowed an additional man to play in the midfield area which is important against a narrow Milan side who strength lies in the central midfield area and gave Alves the freedom to start very high up on the right.

The 3 man defence still provided Barca with a spare man against the Milan front two of Robinho and Zlatan.

Guardiola talked at the press conference afterwards about the flexibility of Alves and how this assist’s the team.

Width

Both Alves but especially Cuenca played high and wide, staying on the touchline to stretch their opponents. In the first game at the San Siro, Barca were far too narrow probably a combination of line up and pitch quality (remember Arsenal had also struggled to gain any width at the San Siro).

Cuenca had little influence on the game but by being permanently stationed on the touchline it pulled Milan’s back 4 across the full width of the 18 yard box. The success that Milan enjoyed at the San Siro had been forcing Barca narrow.

With the back 4 stretched, the midfield dropped deeper to prevent Barca exploiting the gaps in the defensive line.

Fabregas

Recalled to the starting eleven after injury, Cesc alternated between playing in and around Messi often moving beyond him on occasion but also dropped deeper than Messi to collect the ball. This led to Messi being isolated on occasion with Alves and Cuenca very wide. This was the exact problem Barca faced in the clasico last season early on when the role of Cesc was confused and he strayed too far from Messi but too close to Xavi.

Perhaps there is still a little bit more work required on the training pitch to iron out the small problems on how Messi and Fabregas should link against better opposition.