Spain vs France: Tactical Analysis

Spain win 2-0 and progress to the semi final of the European Championships.

Again, this was a performance characterised by control and tactical discipline throughout although there were one or two moments in the second half when France attempted to gain a foothold in the match. Almost, but not quite.

We have been here before, haven’t we?

Line Ups

Del Bosque once more reverted to the false 9 system which is causing so much controversy with Fabregas replacing Torres.

Spain vs France – Spanish Starting Line Up

Laurent Blanc made four changes following the disappointing defeat to Sweden in the final group game.

Koscielny replaced the suspended Mexes whilst Nasri, Ben Arfa and, most surprisingly, Diarra all dropped to the bench. Cabaye and Malouda were both reintroduced in central midfield. Anthony Reveillere made his first start of the tournament. Something of a lucky omen in previous games for France, Reveillere had yet to taste defeat on the twelve occasions he had started for les bleus.

Spain vs France – French Starting Line Up

The most interesting feature of the French side though, was the deployment of both Reveillere and Debuchy on the right flank. A move clearly designed to prevent Alba and Iniesta pushing down the left side.

French Set Up

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

It’s hard to avoid the view that Blanc thought long and hard about his formation, probably too hard. He moved beyond the point of balancing his team’s aspirations and negating the Spanish, and concluded with a line up designed purely to stop Spain.

The inclusion of Debuchy almost as a right wing back with Reveillere behind was designed to combat the attacking thrust of Alba and his combination play with Iniesta. However, on the one occasion when Iniesta released Alba on the left, the resulting cross was converted by Xabi Alonso.

The move also meant France lacked any sort of attacking impetus on their right and allowed Alba to push forward.

The double full back idea has been successfully put into practise at Valencia by Jeremy Mathieu and Jordi Alba, the man who helped undo it tonight, with both players understanding their responsibilities defensively and attacking. Debuchy and Reveillere seemed unsure in the first half. Despite being the right sided midfielder, in theory, Debuchy dropped to deep from the outset, allowing Alba to position himself further up the pitch.

The inclusion of Malouda in midfield was obviously designed as a link between midfield and attack but provided neither. The manner in which Alonso ran from a stationary Malouda for his goal must have alarmed Blanc. There may have been some tactical errors within the team but the players themselves must also share a portion of the blame for something as basic as failure to track a runner.

Spanish Mobility

With the use of the false 9 system, the requirement for midfielders to make forward runs is paramount. Spain have failed to do that so far with the exception of Fabregas.

Tonight, the Spanish midfield all demonstrated their ability to move forward.

The French midfield will be sorely criticised for their performance especially Malouda but it’s probably the first time in the tournament when the Spanish midfield have all offered higher levels of movement epitomised not only by Alonso scoring the opening goal but also by Busquets pushing forward and being the most advanced played at one point in the first half. The trend continued into the second half when Xavi operated almost as a second striker at times, tucked in behind Torres.

Xabi Alonso provided his best performance of the tournament so far showcasing his passing range and operating in a slightly more advanced position:-

Alonso – Passes vs France

But does the mobility, and the improved performance of Alonso, come with a downside?

This was arguably Xavi’s weakest performance of the tournament. With Alonso more influential and Xavi moving further forward, we see the problems that were envisaged pre-tournament.

Xavi Passes vs France

Xavi made fewer passes tonight and when he was positioned slightly further forward, the incisiveness of the pass begins to fade slightly with more horizontal passing becoming prominent. Alonso and Xavi need to operate in different areas of the pitch to both be effective. If Alonso steps forward, Xavi is squeezed.

The Barcelona lynchpin remains unnervingly accurate with his passing through.

French Left vs Spanish Right

This had the potential to be a key battleground in the game yet it never quite materialised.

The French are very strong on their left side with Ribery stationed there and joined by the drifting Benzema.

Against the weak link in the Spanish defence, Arbeloa, there was the possibility of success in this flank particularly as attacks would draw Pique out from his central comfort zone. Despite some forays, the attack seldom amounted to any real orchestrated period of pressure.

In the defensive phase of the game, Ribery seldom bothered tracking back and remained high up the pitch, letting Arbeloa push forward.

Missed Opportunity?

Once again, Alvaro Arbeloa had acres of space to himself on the Spanish right with France preoccupied with Alba on the left and Ribery uninterested in backtracking.

Whereas Alba is involved in combination play with the midfield, primarily Iniesta, Arbeloa is often left isolated on the right and typically only becomes involved in the play via crossfield passes. The ball tends to be played to him as opposed to ahead of him meaning he can be closed down quickly. Arbeloa is therefore forced to turn inside or pass backwards.

Opponents are not considering Arbeloa to be a threat. Against Ireland, Croatia and now France he has been left in space.

Spain need to better utilise the space which opponents are presenting Arbeloa with.

Second Half

From an entertainment point of view, the second half was probably the dullest 45 minutes of the tournament to date.

France tried to increase the tempo of their play but struggled to find any sort of rhythm in their play, failing to register a shot on target during the second half. Spain, showing signs of tiredness, appeared content to play within themselves but just above the level of the French.

A number of substitutions in the second half offered potential to change the game yet had little effect.

The introduction of Menez and Nasri for Debuchy and Malouda offered more attacking options for the French. Del Bosque responded immediately with two substitutions, Pedro and Torres replacing Silva and Fabregas. The move provided Spain with more of a direct threat and seemed sensible with the increased likelihood of the game being stretched as les bleus pushed forward in search of the equaliser.

Pedro, rather than move to the right was positioned on the left perhaps to support Alba against the new threat from Menez and the attack minded Reveillere.

The substitutions failed to have any real effect for either side although Spain began losing an element of control. Their possession dropping from 63% in the 60th minute down to 56% in the 80th minute. Indeed, between the 60th minute and 75th minute, France had 55% possession yet throughout this period, Spain always looked secure.

The removal of M’Vila was Blanc’s last gamble in the 78th minute and it failed when Cazorla, a replacement for the tiring Iniesta, found space in front of the French defence, in the space which M’Vila had previously occupied, to thread the ball through to Pedro who was subsequently fouled for the penalty.

Cesc vs Torres – The Issue of Control

Fabregas and Torres – Passes Received vs France

The chart above illustrates where Cesc and Torres receive or attempt to receive passes.

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 helps stretch the French defence and pushed them further back whereas Fabregas operates 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 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. The Spanish players need this recovery time too. There are signs of tiredness now.

Space Creation

Against both Croatia and France, opposition substitutions have created space for Spain to attack. The removal of Vukojevic in the 81st minute allowed Fabregas space to move forward unopposed and play the pass which released Iniesta against Croatia. Against France, the removal of M’Vila after 79 minutes provided Cazorla with time and space to pass forward to Pedro under no pressure.

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.

Conclusions

There were some issues for concern for Spain tonight but perhaps not what many people expected. Spain showed glimpses of fatigue.

“I am thinking about this problem,”  admitted del Bosque

With two days less rest before they meet Portugal in the semi finals, don’t expect Spain to showcase expansive attacking football in the remainder of the competition. Although capable of it, this tournament now becomes solely about the result and the opportunity to make history.

Will this result now end the discussion around the Spanish set up? Probably not even though the players themselves appear convinced as Alonso states:-

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

Spain will not change. They will continue to play the same way they have done over these past four years with an inherent belief that what they are doing is correct. It’s proven a highly successful tactic thus far.

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?

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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”