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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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?

Xabi Alonso – 100 Caps for La Seleccion

Alonso opens the scoring against France