Engineering Change

“I have a commitment to make Manchester City my priority. I have a verbal agreement with them and I hope it is carried out”

 And so, one of the worst kept secrets in football, is finally confirmed. Manuel Pellegrini will be the new coach of Manchester City after agreeing a 3 year deal at the club. Actually, there’s little point discussing anything else, is there? Following the endless speculation, the conjecture and the fall out from Mancini’s dismissal, Pellegrini has eventually been confirmed as the Italian’s successor. Given the prolonged nature of this appointment, everything that needs to be said already has been said. Pellegrini failed at Real Madrid after spending over £200m, didn’t he? He’s only ever won one trophy in Europe and that was the Intertoto cup back in 2004. What “success” he enjoyed at Malaga and Villarreal was built upon the back of considerable spending. And look at the financial mess both clubs are in now. Sadly, we cannot all write for the mainstream tabloids. Some of us actually watch European football and delve a little deeper than the mere production of superficial nonsense designed to illicit a response and sell copy.

Leaving aside the appointment of Pellegrini for a moment, the critics will argue about the supposed long term plan at City. Is this really evidence of a plan? The lavish spending (thus far) of over £40million on two players? This isn’t the future that UEFA had in mind when designing Financial Fair Play. It’s just more of the same from Manchester City and nothing new. This isn’t a brave new world it’s just window dressing to cover the lack of progress the club is making. Very expensive window dressing.

Expensive Indulgence

A side in the north of England attempting to mimic a club on the coast of Spain ? This is an ego trip fuelled by the extravagance of owners whose wealth knows no bounds. This is vanity, which is how a number in the media may interpret it, poised to print the pre-written obituary of Pellegrini and others when the bricks come tumbling down. And the bricks may well come tumbling down but that should not disguise the clear strategy that Man City has and which they are following.

The comparisons with Spain (and ultimately Barcelona) are inevitable when City have appointed men like Ferran Soriano Compte and Aitor ‘Txiki’ Begiristain Mujik, both of whom are previous employees of the Catalan side. Begiristain was the man responsible for the appointment of Josep Guardiola as the new Coach of Barcelona back in 2008 when others on the Board felt Mourinho was a better fit for the side.

In attempting to construct a new philosophy at the club, it’s unavoidable to an extent that you will turn to men who had helped you in the past and who share your vision. That’s why City was interested, along with other elite sides, of appointing Guardiola as their new Coach. When it was confirmed that Guardiola would move elsewhere, City needed an alternative. Somebody who would fit with their vision for the club over the longer term and who would mould the side on the pitch accordingly. It was no surprise that Begiristain returned to La Liga nor was it that surprising that Pellegrini was his chosen candidate.

The club now aim to install a possession based, attacking game across the board. Each level of the club will follow the same model. The ultimate goal is to be both successful and to complement the first team with players developed by the club. Manual Pellegrini has been tasked with the early stages of construction. He is highly unlikely to be around once construction is complete but the stage from initial project inception to laying the foundations correctly can often be the most difficult aspect.

The Engineer

A graduate of the University of Santiago in Civil Engineering, the Chilean began his coaching career in his homeland in 1988 with spells in Ecuador and Argentina following before Villarreal came calling in 2004. Pellegrini won his first and only piece of silverware in European football during his debut season with the successful defence of the Intertoto Cup. The yellow submarine also finished 3rd in the league and progressed to the quarter finals of the UEFA Cup.

Manuel Pellegrini

Manuel Pellegrini

The following season would witness Villarreal reaching the semi final of the Champions League. Riquelme’s missed penalty late in the second leg enabled Arsenal to progress to the final via a 1-0 aggregate win. This remains the furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached.

Domestically, the high point for the Chilean arrived in 2007/08 when Villarreal finished second to Real Madrid in La Liga. Villarreal remain the last side to split the big two in Spain , an accomplishment which should not be degraded. In a country where finishing third will earn you less TV income than a side being relegated from the Premiership, the financial disparity between the big two and the remainder should not be underestimated. The gap was bridged and that too by the production of stylish football.

Yet this relative “success” was built upon the back of President Roig’s generosity. When things went bad, Pellegrini who had overseen the good timeshad long since abandoned ship. Right?

Roig’s business began encountering financial problems at the onset of the recession, with the housing crash in Spain causing particular problems. This forced Villarreal to begin following a new financial model. Pellegrini had long since gone by the time of their relegation. As for the spending, Pellegrini’s net spend at Villarreal was just £11million.

At Malaga , he arrived to oversee a new project being built upon Middle Eastern riches. Except the money tap was quickly switched off and Malaga endured a series of financial problems which required the offloading of numerous players whilst others waited for wages. The Engineer repaired the team to ensure progression to the quarter finals of the Champions League (the second furthest stage a team debuting in the competition has reached) and a 6th placed league finish. Pellegrini’s net spend at Malaga was just £16million. When the left back Monreal was sold to Arsenal in the winter transfer window and with the alternative left back Eliseu injured, the club acquired Antunes on loan from Pacos in Portugal . A new component for the team who fitted in seamlessly. It’s not about the money he has to spend. It’s about the qualities of the players both on and off the pitch.

“We wanted players with sufficient maturity, with human qualities as well as footballing ones that can help”

 

Pellegrini Tactically

“To be attacking, to try to tale control of the game, to take responsibility, to be attractive. There are small differences of course, depending on what players you have, but there is a footballing concept and a concept of spectacle that is non-negotiable”

Pellegrini has used a variety of tactical set ups during his time at Villarreal, Madrid and Malaga, ranging from 4-3-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. But it has been with his 4-4-2 at both Villarreal and Malaga that his sides have often produced the best football. That may sound unusual given how we are constantly told the 4-4-2 is an entirely reactive formation, not to say an almost redundant formation at the top level, yet Pellegrini has it operating in the latter stages of the Champions League. How?

At Villarreal he moved from a 4-3-1-2 capable of utilising the skills of a classic South American style playmaker such as Riquelme and latterly Matias Fernandez to a 4-4-2 using interiores. His final season at Villarreal primarily used the 4-4-2 as shown below:-

 
 

Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation Villarreal 4-4-2 Formation

Pellegrini has always used a flat back four. The defensive unit is always well marshalled by a dominant centre half. When an opponent attacks, the defensive line, which is normally high, will drop off to the edge of the penalty area before holding firm. The offside trap is used to good effect. At Villarreal the central defensive pairing of Godin and Gonzalo were physically robust and the full backs of Javi Venta and Capdevila able to move up and down the wings.

The two defensive midfield players stay deep to offer protection and to pull wide should the opposition attack behind either full back.  This provides security but is not entirely defensive. The players must also be able to build and construct play. At Villarreal, Marcos Senna was tasked with this role.

The two wide midfield players cut in centrally to form a block of four in the centre of the pitch with the full backs advancing to provide the width. They move into the interior, hence the name “interiores”. Crucially, the two wide players must return to position for defensive duties. The two forward players meanwhile are capable of pulling wide, creating space centrally which can be attacked. Pellegrini was able to use the mobility of either Giuseppe Rossi or Nihat alongside the presence of a more powerful, physical striker such as Joseba Llorente.

The key point throughout is the availability of passing triangles. From the graphic above, when players move, you can clearly see how passing channels are open via movement. A player always has passing options available to him and the side swamp the opponent in central midfield. In such a tightly congested area, the side with the greater technical proficiency will domainate as they find team mates with short, sharp passes. This will be a Pellegrini side. The positions are not fixed either. The right interiore will move across if play is stationed wide on the left (and vice versa). The team is compact and the opponent is squeezed.

A similar philosophy developed at Malaga although the formation began to shift. In defence, the commanding presence of  Demichellis took control alongside Weligton. Both full backs were comfortable moving up the pitch but this is where the dynamic began to alter. The defensive unit was sound but in the attacking third there was a great deal of fluidity offered:-

Malaga 4-4-2 Formation Malaga 4-4-2 Formation

Eliseu on the left of midfield is a converted left back and operated more like a wing back, shuttling up and down. On the right, Isco would drive in centrally allowing the full back to overlap. Together, they would combine with Joaquin who was the striker but was beginning in a deeper position.

Pellegrini is not a coach who will instruct his side to press high and chase and harass an opponent. The Villarreal side had a South American feel to it with the tempo which they played the game and the individual components of the side. The side don’t rush to attack. It is structured, cautious, with the team moving as a coherent unit. His sides can defend resolutely as the performances in Europe of both Villarreal and Malaga demonstrated when a reactive approach was favoured allowing opponents to take the initiative.

If that’s how he operated previously, how he will operate at City remains to be seen, particularly when it appears he has been charged with implementing a 4-3-3.

With his ability to utilise the creative talents of a playmaker, David Silva could find himself in a central role in the season ahead. Silva is not the quickest player in physical terms but that will not dissuade Pellegrini from constructing the side around his creative talents if necessary.

Using full backs for width is something which City have done to date. It’s also something that has become something of an Achilles heel for them with teams exploiting the space on transitions particularly given Barry’s immobility and reluctance to be pulled wide to cover.  This is an area which must be tackled. Using two defensive midfield players will assist this but possibly not Yaya Toure. Indeed, how the Ivorian fits into the system will be a crucial element. Does he have the discipline to operate in a purely defensive fashion? Does that suit his talent best?

The defence should be straightforward with Kompany the ideal individual to use as the central starting block. Alongside him may be Nastasic with Zabaleta and Clichy as full backs. In midfield, the three could be Fernandinho, Toure and Silva. City continue to be linked with Isco from Malaga and it’s not inconceivable to field an attacking trio of Isco, Silva and Navas behind Aguero as the central striker.

Such a set up would provide an asymetrical formation with width on the right against narrow approach on the left and it would also need to combat the lack of defensive cover that Navas offers. Whatever formation is utilised, expect City to be more resolute defensively and more fluid in the attacking third. There will be a clear template to use when defending and flexibility when attacking.

Questions will remain over the long term futures of the likes of Milner, Barry, Sinclair, Rodwell, Tevez and Dzeko. An already small English core may be depleted further. Actually, it is a real possiblity that the only Englishman that City will field on a regular basis next season will be Joe Hart in goal. Such a scenario is not City’ s problem in the short term at least, but it again raises questions over the technical and tactical profiency of English players.

The More Things Change

“No one ever asked me anything about how to create a team capable of playing the kind of football I wanted to play”

The manner in which Mancini departed to be replaced by Pellegrini would be very familiar to the Chilean. A little too familiar perhaps. Similar circumstances prevailed back in 2010 when Pellegrini departed Real Madrid after just one season to be replaced by Jose Mourinho.

Pellegrini spent one season at Madrid when he spent a small fortune and achieved the princely sum of zero. Or so the story goes. Scratch a little deeper than your average tabloid journalist and you’ll find the real story.

When Pellegrini arrived at Madrid , over £200m was already spent and in some respects he was already living on borrowed time. He had no say in the players that were acquired by the club. What he did have a say in was the players he would like to retain and build his side around. Players such as Arjen Robben and Welsey Sneijder. Two players who were subsequently sold within days of Pellegrini arriving against his will.

It was clear for Pelleginri where the problems lay:-

“I can’t get anything out of an orchestra if I have the 10 best guitarists but I don’t have a pianist or a drummer”

The squad was unbalanced for the tasks ahead yet his viewpoint was ignored.

And for those who would argue if he had won trophies, he would not have been dismissed, consider exhibit A; Vicente del Bosque. Sacked after delivering two La Liga titles and two Champions Leagues in just three seasons. Pellegrini was the choice of the former Sporting Director, Jorge Valdano, a man who has clear identity when it comes to football. According to Valdano, Pellegrini was a “protagonist; he seeks to dominate possession and always attack”. Perez simply wanted a manager who would win and Pellegrini was not a “winner” but nor was Perez either. He had overseen the collection of zero trophies during his reign as President. Pellegrini was not Perez choice and favoured some players acquired by the previous President. It really was that petty at times.

Madrid spent £258 million prior to Pellegrini arriving with President Perez noting “We have to do in one year what we would normally do in three“, an idea that is at odds with the philosophy of the then incumbent in the managerial hot seat. Despite noting that he had begun laying the foundation for success which included dealing with the heavyweights in the dressing room in the shape of Guti and Raul, the Chilean was axed.

Pellegrini may only have managed Real Madrid for 48 games but he had a win percentage of 75%, which is 3% higher than a certain Chelsea manager.

“I’d like to congratulate Real Madrid , fantastic opponents and without whom we would never have reached 99 points. Pellegrini and his players have dignified our professions”

The words of Guardiola after his Barcelona side claimed the La Liga title on the final day of the season over their arch rivals.  Sentiments which were not shared by those inside the Madrid boardroom.

The Engineer Who Constructs

“To be able to build up a club, this is as important as going to an institution where you will be able to win things”

When you hear Pellegrini speak, the same themes appear consistently. The need to build, to construct a long term solution and to play aesthetically, but ultimately successful, football in the process. This is not necessarily all out attacking football. It’s considered, it’s patient but it is football with a clear personality.

Upon taking control of Malaga , he noted:-

 “I’m not interested in external ego but internal satisfaction. I’m not interested just in easy glory but in constructing something….together we are trying to build a project that is not just short term”

And that really encapsulates his overarching footballing philosophy. Why buy to acquire success if it’s short lived or unsustainable? The creation of a lengthy period of dominance fuelled by both acquisitions and the promotion of youth players from within the club must be the ideal goal. This is what the neighbours from across the city achieved under Ferguson . Players from within being promoted to the first team and supplementing quality acquisitions and it led, after a slow start, to a period of dominance which is arguably unparalleled in the English game.

Pellegrini seeks to bring footballers with human qualities to his sides and he too displays the very same qualities he desires in others. Urbane, likeable and fairly laidback, he won’t make great copy for journalists at press conferences as he acts with a professionalism and dignity that doesn’t make headlines. The manner in which he handled the constant sniping and undermining at Real Madrid is testimony to his character, as is the manner in which he has refused to be drawn in ever since whenever his Malaga side has faced los blancos.

And now, as he heads for Manchester , Pellegrini retains the same desire to continue building, acknowledging the need for a solution both on and off the pitch. The manner in which some sections of the media questioned City for claiming the need for a “holistic” solution when terminating Mancini’s contract will start to look more questionable by the day. The club have a manager who shares the ideals being espoused at boardroom level.

Upon his appointment, he noted:-

“The club has a clear vision for success both on and off the pitch and I am committed to making a significant contribution.”

Departures All Round?

It’s been plain to see where the problems lie in the Manchester City side over the past few seasons. Mancini favoured a very central approach with both wide attacking players operating as inverted wingers. This relied upon the full backs to provide width. The acquisition of Jesus Navas from Sevilla represents a departure from this viewpoint and provides a much needed tactical variation in the side’s attacking play.

And just as there have been critics of Pellegrini, there are those who are rushing to criticise Navas. Let’s be clear, the player does have his flaws. He didn’t score a single goal for Sevilla last season and his shooting has always been very poor. But that’s not why you acquire someone like Navas. You acquire him for his blistering pace and very direct nature. His repeated desire to attack the opposition full back on the outside is why you buy him. To stretch opponents defences. His presence on the touchline forces the full back out and creates gaps in a back four. The sort of gaps that a player such as David Silva can exploit.

Jesus Navas

Jesus Navas

Yet, just as Navas marks a departure for Man City and the players they have acquired, it also represents a change for Pellegrini who has rarely used wingers until he arrived at Malaga and found Joaquin. Once the golden boy of Spanish football, its fair comment to state that Joaquin never reached the heights he should have. Yet under Pellegrini in Andalusia , the winger has been reinvented as a central striker who can pull wide. And Joaquin now plays with the same smile and level of infectiousness last seen during his early days at Real Betis.

Joaquin began to operate as the second striker, cutting in from the right with a slightly deeper starting position (as shown on the diagram above) and able to drive at opponents. Freed from the shackles of defensive responsibility that comes with being a right winger, Joaquin prospered. Yet he cites Pellegrini for his both his tactical and non tactical work:-
“Everyone knows Pellegrini’s philosophy and his history but he’s a guy who gives you so much confidence, who acts with so much humility that, somehow, he always gets the best out of every player: he is the central piece in this jigsaw”

How Pellegrini uses a player such as Navas will be pivotal if City is to confront their problems from last season and present opponents with new questions.

Season 2013/14 Engineering City

Of course, none of this means Pellegrini will storm the Premiership and help City regain the title from Man Utd. His appointment simply means that the hierarchy have employed an individual who shares their visions and ideals. Progress may not be immediately obvious nor will it be solely assessed by results. Clearly, a disastrous season would have repercussions, but a trophyless season may not. Projects as ambitious as this take time.

The club have begun with the acquisitions of Navas and the Brazilian midfielder, Fernandinho. Although Begiristain will be overseeing transfer dealings, Pellegrini will have an input there too as the club build a squad capable of playing the 4-3-3 formation that they have chosen as their default.

The plans have been drawn up and the various appointments have been made. It’s time for the Engineer to start building.

Spain vs Croatia: Tactical Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

Line Ups

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

Spain vs Croatia – Spanish Starting Line Up

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

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

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

Spain vs Croatia – Croatian Starting Line Up

The Italian Job – Part 2?

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

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

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

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

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

Pass, pass, pass etc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Croatian Set Pieces

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

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

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

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

Substitutions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spain vs Croatia – Spain with and without Jesus Navas

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

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

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

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

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

Jesus Navas Goal

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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?