The Beginning of the End?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Magnificent Seven

European Championship Winner 2008

World Cup Winners 2010

European Championship Winner 2012?

Iker Casillas

Sergio Ramos

Xabi Alonso

Xavi Hernandez

Andres Iniesta

Cesc Fabregas

Fernando Torres

The System Works

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

Xabi Alonso.

The Spanish Advance

Spain have progressed through the European Championships without displaying, to many observers at least, their best football. Their play has been characterised by slow, often ponderous passing, but with moments of sublime quality evident. Their rhythmic passing gradually wearing their opponent down, Pass, pass, pass. The ball goes left, it comes back again. The ball goes right, it comes back again. And all the time the opponent is chasing, a state of perpetual motion as they shut off passing corridors which the Spanish are opening up. They follow Iniesta, Silva and Fabregas so Xavi goes backwards and finds Busquets. It’s a seemingly never ending challenge for the opponent. Press the Spanish, retain the shape, prevent options opening up and throughout, ensure that when you do gain possession, you possess an attacking threat. It’s relentless pressure.

Critics have begun labelling Spain as boring even when Andre Iniesta confirms  “Clearly football is more attractive when both teams try to win. Don’t forget this style changed Spanish history”

There is complete faith in the Spanish squad about the manner and style in which they are playing. The full backs push high up the pitch and provide the width as the inverted wingers cut in field and link with the central midfielders and the striker. The striker?

Spain have successfully implemented a false 9 system at this tournament, mirroring many aspects of the Barcelona system. Given the quantity of Barcelona players in the squad, it’s not a huge surprise.

Yet the inclusion of Fabregas as the false 9 in the Spanish line up has created the most controversy from a Spanish perspective to date. His inclusion at the expense of a striker, principally Fernando Torres, has helped fill numerous column inches and been used in conjunction with the boring tag to denigrate Spain. It’s become the stick with which to beat Spain yet it’s not even fully understood by many of those critics why del Bosque is making these changes to the system.

The discussion has focussed on the wrong issues. Journalists seem to be caught in some form of revisionist haze recalling the free flowing attacking Spain of 2008 and 2010. Whilst the team of 2008 was more attacking, Spain’s domination since then delivers increasingly defensive opponents. As opponents have adapted, so too have Spain.

At the heart of the decision to select Fabregas or Torres is not about who provides the better attacking option. The decision revolves around the issue of control and how Spain can gain that control, maintain it and exercise it over their opponent.

Cesc vs Torres – The Issue of Control

Fabregas and Torres – Passes Received vs France

The chart above illustrates where Cesc and Torres received or attempted to receive passes against France in the quarter finals.

Whilst Cesc stays relatively deep in comparison to a conventional striker, Torres is moving towards the penalty area in most cases, operating off the shoulder of the last defender and always waiting for the through ball when he can utilise his pace.

Opponents of the false 9 system will point to this as further evidence of the need for a striker. Torres helped stretch the French defence and pushed them further back whereas Fabregas operated in front of the defence. Even if Torres is not performing well, his presence on the pitch forces defenders into a decision. If they push high, there is always the chance of Torres breaking free therefore, the opponent recognises this and defends deeper.

Whilst that is true, what is also important to note is the additional control which Fabregas offers. The introduction of Torres against France and a more vertical Spain resulted in possession dropping and a loss of control for a period in the match. Playing through balls to suit the natural game of Torres comes at a premium. Not all passes will be successful and the opposition then have the ball back and Spain need to press once more.

With the movement of Fabregas and his combination play, Spain dominate possession and tire the opponent out.

In the games against Italy, Croatia and France, del Bosque has made a change around the 60 minute mark, introducing pace and width to the side initially via Navas and now with Pedro.

Spain control the game, suffocating you with possession and when you are beginning to tire, they introduce an element of verticality to their play.

It’s becoming the del Bosque standard and allows the Spanish players to operate at a lower physical level during the match as they control the tempo. The players have greater recovery periods during the match whilst the opponents chase shadows. Spain rest when in possession. With greater control comes more possession. Spain can recover.. There are signs of tiredness now.

Many of the Spanish squad have played football incessantly now with little in the way of a summer break over the past 4 years.The fatigue is catching up. The false 9 system recognises this and helps address the problem.

Space Creation

We like when other teams leave out their ball players. It’s good for us when others change their system. We never change ours.”

Xavi Hernandez

Too often, teams are altering their system before playing Spain. Clearly, given the talent within the Spanish team, changes must be considered and implemented but a balance must be struck. You cannot change your team so drastically to tackle Spain that you negate your own attacking possibilities.

Against both Croatia and France, opposition substitutions have created space for Spain to attack.  Croatia set out defensively but as they required a win to progress to the quarter final stage, Bilic was forced to make alterations as the game meandered towards a 0-0 stalemate. The final throw of the dice for Bilic was the removal of Vukojevic in the 81st minute. One change which immediately created new openings for Spain. The removal of Vukojevic allowed Fabregas space to move forward unopposed and play the pass which released Iniesta against Croatia. Navas subsequently walked the ball into the net.

Similarly, against France, Blanc was forced to make positive changes to his team as les bleus trailed 1-0. The removal of M’Vila after 79 minutes provided France with a new attacking threat in Giroud but it also created the space for Spain to function more efficiently. Santi Cazorla found time and space to pass forward to Pedro under no pressure. Why was there no pressure? M’Vila had been removed and France lacked any defensive midfield presence.

Teams set out defensive formations against Spain but the loss of a goal alters the paradigm of the match. The opposition coach must react, typically, by removing a defensive payer and replacing him with an attacking player. But so far this has not yielded results and only offered Spain more room to create attacks and ultimately, score goals.

“morir con las botas puestas

Die with your boots on. At least possess the courage to have a go and if you suffer defeat, experience it on your own terms rather than abandoning your footballing principles for a defend at all costs mentality.

Spanish Right vs Portuguese Left

“Ronaldo is one of the world’s best and has incredible qualities but it’s not an individual duel; it’s collective. The key is to control the game. If we have the ball, he’ll participate less and cause us fewer problems.”

It’s an interesting situation. Portugal’s strength is attacking from the left but the achilles heel is the poor defensive performance here. All four goals they have conceded have been via their left.

One of the most interesting features about Portugal is the positioning of Ronaldo on the left wing, That in itself is not unusual nor is the fact that he remains high up the pitch and does not track back.

The question must be why Portugal persist with using a central striker in Helder Postiga (although due to injury, he will be probably be replaced by Hugo Almeida) rather than place Ronaldo in the central striking position.

This would enable the left winger to track back and offer support for Flavio Coentrao. Portugal have conceded four goals in the tournament to date and all of which have originated down their own left side.

As del Bosque trusts his payers, so too does Paulo Bento. Players are played in the position in which they operate at their clubs. Ronaldo is used an inverted left winger with Real Madrid and so performs the same role with Portugal.

Ronaldo will face up against club mate Alvaro Arbeloa. Maligned since the outset of the tournament, Arbeloa offers defensive stability but lacks an attacking threat.

Arbeloa will be supported by a team mate when Ronaldo is about to receive the ball most probably Busquets. Once Ronaldo has possession and has turned towards goal, problems emerge which are infinitely more difficult to solve. Spain will double up on him and deal with him collectively as Pique implies.

Whether his Portuguese team mates can take advantage of the additional space they receive as a consequence of the focus being on Ronaldo, remains to be seen.

The Portugal Challenge

“I think they will sit back and wait. Their midfield is strong and tough. If we’re not right, they can manage the game.”

Andres Iniesta

The question which Paulo Bento must ask is whether he changes tact or does have he have the same level of faith is his players which del Bosque shows in the Spanish?

Portugal are content to cede possession to the opponent and counter attack benefitting from the physical prowess of Ronaldo. With an average of just 46% possession in the games so far, it is unlikely to cause Bento and his charges too much trouble if they see less of the ball.

The midfield trio of Moutinho, Meireles and Veluso combine workrate with flair. Miguel Veluso is normally the deepest of the three but it’s likely that Moutinho will operate slightly deeper than normally. Meireles will look to push forward more often if the opportunity arises.

Nani will need to demonstrate the work ethic he has shown at Man Utd and adequately support Perreira at right back against the surging runs of Alba and the trickery of Iniesta. Alba has settled well into the left back position and from tentative beginnings has developed as the tournament progresses. With Arbeloa likely to hold back, there will be an increasing onus upon Alba to provide real width.

The false 9 system will present a new challenge for Bruno Alves and Pepe at the heart of the defence. Who do they mark? Do they hold if Fabregas drifts deep ir does one stay and one mark?

What of del Bosque and Spain, how will they react? With the same system as before.

The system works.

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.