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?

Lessons to be Learned?

It’s not like sections of the media to overreact. Is it? Yet that’s precisely what happened recently following events in Brazil. The home side took the Confederations Cup on home soil with as comprehensive a competitive win over the Spanish as there has been for many years. It left del Bosque and La Furia Roja to admit that their period of domination was coming to an end. The Spanish have had a good run. Two European Championships and a World Cup yet the prize upon which you are now seemingly judged, the Confederations Cup, has escaped their clutches twice. Its now back to the drawing board for the Spanish. They must navigate the remainder of their qualifying campaign to claim a place in Brazil next summer but their powers are on the wane already.

Why bother though. The World Cup appears to be a foregone conclusion. Spain won’t win it and it seems a few semi decent performances from Brazil has secured their name upon the trophy. The Seleção have the better of their counterparts. It was a technical and tactical triumph overseen by Scolari.

Wasn’t it?

Brazil Press High And Go Direct

The final against Brazil was notable for two reasons. The style of game that Brazil used against their opponents and the manner in which certain aspects of the Spanish system, whether it be the system itself or components within that system, were problematic.

From the outset of this game, Brazil pressed and harassed Spain high up the pitch in an effort to disrupt their game and prevent them from settling down and finding any rhythm to dictate proceedings. This worked as Spain was slow to move the ball and find space, enabling Brazil to close them down and force misplaced passes.

The question that was apparent from midway through the first half was whether Brazil could sustain the same tempo and level of intensity in their play for the entire game. If the game had been played in the stifling heat and humidity of Fortaleza, this tactic would not have worked. In the cooler, fresher surroundings of Rio, this was an entirely viable tactic.

The pressing succeeded and once Brazil had taken the lead it enabled them to drop deeper on occasion to recover and counter attack Spain. It does highlight the changing face of the Brazilian team at international level. The days of open, flowing football are now long gone. A distant memory consigned to be shown as a montage containing the best World Cup goals ever scored, most probably on BBC3 or ITV2. Primarily a counter attacking team, Brazil struggled to break down opponents who sat deep themselves. Their tactical strategy appears to revolve around getting the ball to Neymar quickly and waiting for something to happen. The midfield lacks creativity and is purely functional, a consequence of the domestic games desire to produce functional defensive midfielders. It wielded a trophy though but Scolari will have taken notice of the stodgy performances that were produced in the process.

For Spain, is the loss important? Yes, if you want to win the Confederations Cup that continues to elude them. More importantly, it provides an opportunity for del Bosque to see what must happen on and off the pitch if Spain is to march to an unprecedented fourth successive international tournament win.

Issues to Confront

This tournament has provided a welcome jolt to remind del Bosque and his players of the challenges that lie ahead in trying to defend their crown in 2014. It’s not just about what happens on the pitch that will decide the World Cup next year but also how you prepare for the tournament itself and how you adapt to the diverse climatic conditions that exist in Brazil.

The tournament will be hosted by a vast country that experiences different conditions dependent upon where you play. The problem for the qualifying sides is the ability to control factors is only partial. Acclimatising to those conditions by arriving early and preparing is within your powers to an extent. Gaining a favourable draw to avoid extensive travelling around the country is not within your powers.

The Spanish must look at the system and the players who are chosen to enable that system to function. Have some vital parts become worn and need replacing?

Does The System Still Work?

Surprisingly, despite the loss to Brazil and the relatively poor performances against Nigeria and Italy, there has been no outbreak of Plan B syndrome in the media. No cries for the ball to be launched high into the air aimlessly. Perhaps after three tournament wins, people are a little more circumspect when considering Spain.

Spain was a little more direct in this tournament. The deployment of a traditional no9 for the games aided this process. Teams have adjusted once more against Spain and now use a mid level block against La Roja in recognition that the sit deep and hope tactic was futile. It provides space behind that Spain can attack but it hinders their build up play in the midfield area. Opponents can close them down quicker in a densely packed area. Spain needed to recycle possession faster and be more direct themselves. Look for the runs in behind the opposing defence but there was a lack of supporting runs from the midfield area during this tournament. The verticality and thrust that was needed never arrived.

There were reasons why it never worked. Fatigue was a constant issue for the side. Only against Uruguay in the opening 45minutes did Spain produce a level of football normally associated with them. Leaving that aside, Spain possesses players with the technical and tactical proficiency to ensure the system is a success.

It needs players to move quickly in midfield, recycling possession. The full backs must push high and offer themselves when the middle of the pitch becomes too congested and the attacking players must be prepared to drive in diagonally between opposing centre backs and full backs to offer the opportunity for through balls. There must be options from the second line of attack. The system is built upon control but that is precisely what Spain lacked. La Roja often looked unsure defensively and opponents able to attack their defence too easily in the central areas. The Spanish possess these qualities but failed to show them.

If the system does work, then it may be the components that need adjusting.

Succession PlanningLife After Xavi

Central to whatever del Bosque chooses will be how Spain adapt to life without Xavi. Its an issue that is vexing Barcelona right now and one to which they appear to have no credible answer.

Xavi is nearing the end of his career and if he continues to play over 60 games per season then the twilight of his career will fade quicker than necessary. Xavi can continue but only if he plays fewer games for club and country. Such a position is only a short-term solution however and Spain must look beyond Xavi and begin the process of reconstructing the midfield. As the lynchpin of the side ages and slows, his passing becomes more horizontal and safer. It lacks penetration and so opponents are safer. The runs into the opposition penalty area decrease. And his ability to track back and share defensive duties pushes his tired limbs too far. Xavi plays within the middle of the pitch. Unable to hurt opponents and unable to stop opponents hurting his team. It leaves Busquets overexposed at one of the pitch and Iniesta lacks someone to share the creative burden for the side. With Alonso to offer greater control, Spain were exposed in the central areas.

Can Xavi stay in the light?

Can Xavi stay in the light?

The maestro needs time to rest and recuperate. If he receives it, he still has a pivotal role to play for club and country. If he doesn’t then it becomes a real dilemma.

Indeed, when you consider that Iniesta is 29 and has suffered numerous injuries, Xabi Alonso is also the wrong side of 30 then Spain really need to find and identify who will step into the void for all three players. It’s not simply a case of saying “look at all the quality players Spain can choose from”. It’s identifying and saying that these are the players who can step up regularly and claim a starting berth.

Spain has extremely talented midfield players within their U21 squad. The next 12 months must see the process of integrating a few of these players into the senior side.

The Future of Spain's Midfield?

The Future of Spain’s Midfield?

The likes of Isco, Thaigo and Illarramendi must be called up to the senior squad and enjoy playing time. It will be difficult but crucial to aid their development and Spain’s during this transitional period.

Loyalty: How Far Should It Go?

How Far? One thing that del Bosque has shown time and time again is his loyalty to the players who have delivered for him previously. It could be suggested that the loyalty is partly a result of Spain lacking credible alternatives in a few key positions. The loyalty to Alvaro Arbeloa and Fernando Torres at both the World Cup and European Championships may be questioned but were there really credible alternatives at the previous tournaments?

Too loyal?

Too loyal?

Who could have replaced Arbeloa at the World Cup? Iraola would have been in the squad were it not for an unfortunate injury whilst Juanfran is more attack minded but lack defensive nous. And does Arbeloa’s more conservative nature not provide greater balance for the team? That was the argument before but the full back offered neither defensive nor attacking qualities in the final. The player’s international career should not hinge upon one poor game but his lack of technical quality on the ball is becoming an issue for Spain on the right. Too much of their thrust comes from the left and the attacking qualities are lop-sided. Is it time to remove Arbeloa from the squad? Azpilicueta is ready and what of Carlos Martinez at Real Sociedad or even Carvejal or Montoya as deputies? The options exist for a more balanced right full back who can attack whilst also providing the defensive solidity required.

At centre back, is it time to remove Raul Albiol from the squad and replace him with Inigo Martinez? The youngster from Sociedad is the future whilst Albiol seldom gets playing time. Make the change now and provide Martinez with 12months to bed in before the World Cup.

Despite the depth of quality within the Spanish ranks, they arguably lack a genuine goalscorer for the No9 jersey. Negredo has had opportunities and now Soldado has been deployed yet neither truly convinces and del Bosque returns to Torres on occasion. Will Torres get playing time at Chelsea under Mourinho?

Morata - A possible solution?

Morata – A possible solution?

Is the time right to experiment with an alternative? Could Morata be granted an opportunity if he secures playing time in Madrid? This may seem ludicrous to suggest that a player with such limited playing exposure at Madrid be given a call up to the senior squad but Morata possesses the qualities that the national side lack in attack. He is very direct and moves immediately towards goal. This vertical nature is what Spain needs allied to his aerial ability. He is not some form of panacea to their attacking problems as such but must be considered a real alternative now.

The Return to Brazil

There are flaws present both within the squad and within the system. To ignore these problems would be foolish but just as foolish would be to overestimate the damage they could cause and pretend they are insurmountable.

Vicente del Bosque cannot afford to be too loyal to some of the players who have brought them this far. All great teams enjoy a period of success before their cycle comes to an end. If Spain wishes to prolong their cycle of dominance, some hard choices face the coach. He must not shirk from these but equally he must not overreact. Addressing such matters will not guarantee success next summer but it will provide Spain with the optimum opportunity to succeed but so many other factors will come into play. The Confederations Cup highlighted just how important location will be in Brazil to avoid extremely hot and humid conditions. Arriving in time and acclimatising as well as can be expected will be important.

In 2009, Spain lost to USA 2-0 in South Africa. The European Champions were humbled and their credentials were questioned. Twelve months later they returned to South Africa and claimed the World Cup.

Would you really bet against lighting striking twice?

Celtic vs Barcelona

We seen this film before, haven’t we?

We know every single exact little detail. The script has been written then read and re-read time and time again. Barcelona come up against a team who are very defensive, hold a line at the edge of the penalty area, congest the centre, counter attack and they struggle to break the opponent down.

“We did what we needed to do in these types of games, we’ve seen this on other occasions”

Vilanova

There are lies, damned lies and statistics – Barcelona “enjoyed” 84% possession, 91% pass completion, 25 shot at goal and 8 shots on target. Final score Celtic 2 Barcelona 1. Vilanova’s assessment is correct.

To the names of Inter and Chelsea, Celtic can now be added. The only consolation for Vilanova and his players is that this defeat has arisen in the group stage and not later on in the competition. There is time left to address the issues which this game has raised.

To Be Direct or Not Be Direct – Pass, Pass, Pass

There is a general view that Barcelona has become slightly more direct this season under Vilanova with the dichotomy of Xavi or Cesc being the crux of this issue.

Xavi guarantees game control via ball retention whereas Cesc, his style of play greatly influenced by both La Masia and the Premiership, plays further forward with less emphasis upon control and a focus upon creating more goal scoring opportunities.

Is it a straight choice between the styles? Which style is best?

Last night, Barcelona produced their least direct performance of the season and in doing so overwhelmingly dominated possession enjoying 84%. Their hosts, Celtic, set a new Champions League record for winning a game with the least amount of possession standing at just 16%.

As is so often the case, Barcelona continually passed the ball but against such a deep lying defence and midfield, they found openings extremely difficult to create.

A further problem for Barcelona was their lack of presence within the penalty area. There was no central focal point.

The lack of a reference point in attack is exacerbated when the players play cross balls into the box. Alves made 18 crosses into the penalty area whilst Alba made just 5. This highlighted the reliance upon the right-wing for attacking by Barcelona. Alves was also the third highest passer in the team with 122 attempted passes (93% completion rate).

The reason for this is probably due to Messi moving to the right as the game progressed to find space. From there however, Messi frequently moved inward towards the congestion.

Barcelona only made two through balls in the entire game, both from Messi. If he drops deep, somebody has to move into a central position but until Villa and Cesc arrived, this was not really happening. Sanchez tried this, but he lacks confidence at the moment and is off form.

Celtic Approach

As highlighted, the problem for Barcelona was that Celtic were so deep that there was no space behind their defence to run. All the play occurred in front of Celtic who held the defensive line around the edge of the penalty area with the midfield sitting just ahead.

Having said that, Samaras remained high up the field and was supported by Miku who dropped to the left when Celtic lost possession. Celtic were defensive, but they were also forced back but attempted to retain an attacking dimension to their game.

Both full backs and wide midfielders tucked in narrowly too, moving towards their respective opponents in wide positions when the ball was played there. Pedro, Alves and Alba were positioned very wide and always had space until they received the ball.

Barcelona needed to draw Celtic forward but instead suffocated them which ultimately hindered Barcelona. The first goal in this contest would prove to be pivotal.

Critics of the zonal marking system will attack Barcelona’s concession of the opening goal. This ignores two key points.

Firstly, the delivery of the corner kick from Mulgrew was excellent. The ball was whipped in with pace. Secondly, Wanyama attacked the ball from just beyond the back post. Given the lack of height in the Barcelona team, who would have man marked Wanyama and then would they have been able to prevent him scoring? The first goal was simply Celtic using their superior physical strength over the Barcelona team. Sometimes, good goals should just be enjoyed rather than seeking defensive inadequacies.

With the opening goal going to Celtic, the rest of the game became more straightforward from a tactical perspective, and almost like a training game. Celtic simply asked Barcelona the question, can you break us down?

Despite the superiority of possession, Barcelona were unable to do so until they trailed by two goals.

Celtic were never going to compete with Barcelona in terms of possession so they attempted to control space and did so extremely effectively. Wanyama was central to Celtic’s performance. Despite making just 16 passes, he made 6 tackles and performed an essential job in the heart of midfield, closing down and disrupting the likes of Xavi. His performances will not go unnoticed either and it seems likely he will depart Celtic Park shortly for a higher profile league.

Without sounding clichéd, the Celtic players displayed the sort of characteristics which the British game is well known for. This was a performance of character, determination and strength. But add to the mix the mental qualities to complement the physical attributes. A high degree of intelligence and discipline was shown as Celtic conceded just 11 fouls.

The second goal was a simple kick out from Forster which inexplicably evaded Xavi when he had a fresh air swipe at the ball allowing it to run through to Watt who finished with aplomb.

How Important is Busquets?

Was the defining moment of this game actually the dismissal of Busquets in the 88th minute against Benfica?

The subsequent two match ban saw him miss both games against Celtic

It’s widely accepted that Messi is central to the functioning of this Barcelona team. Xavi and Iniesta are essential components too.

Why does nobody ever highlight just how effective Busquets is? Yet how can a defensive midfielder be so central to the team?

Busquets contributes defensively and offensively from his deep midfield position. His positional sense enables team mates to find him when in trouble and keep play flowing whilst his quick one touch passing allows him to recycle possession quickly. Song is adapting to life at the Camp Nou but he’s not yet at the level Barcelona require. That much was evident tonight when he somehow evaded a second yellow card and remained on the pitch for a few additional moments before Vilanova withdrew him.

Song is given a fairly restricted role in the side. He switched places with Mascherano to allow the Argentinean to bring the ball out of defence but Song so far has not pushed forward to offer anything resembling his Arsenal form in an attacking sense.

The statistics suggest that Song performed well with a 95% completion rate from his 62 attempted passes. Song also played six long balls, all of which were accurate. This was a key aspect of his play whilst at Arsenal and he should have used this more often last night. Too often the long balls were lateral rather than vertical. The real cause for concern though is the concession of three fouls.

Xavi never broke forward into the penalty area and Iniesta was also very conservative. Was this due to having Song behind them? Were there concerns over the lack of security Song offers compared to Busquets?

 

The win should secure Celtic’s place in the knockout stages which probably surpasses their initial expectations in the group.

This game will give renewed hope to those teams who advocate adopting an ultra defensive approach against the Catalans but it must be remembered that when such a gameplan succeeds, it is the exception and not the rule.

Barcelona will still qualify as group winners for the knockout stage but it’s a timely reminder to Vilanova that when teams “park the bus” Barcelona are vulnerable especially when too many of their players have a drop in their level of performance.

Spain vs Italy: Tactical Analysis

Spain retain the European Championship with an emphatic display against the Azzuri and in doing so, break yet more records.

Away from the record breaking achievements, this was a result which provided a resounding answer to those critics who had wrongly claimed Spain were boring during this tournament. This was a performance marked by supreme technical quality, pace and above all, an aggressive streak which had been missing from Spain. From the outset of this match, Spain went for Italy.

Line Ups

Spain began the match with the same starting eleven that had faced Italy in their opening group game. In doing so, Spain created their first piece of history as no previous finalist had used the same eleven in the final and their first group game.

The Negredo experiment had failed and Cesc Fabregas returned to the starting line up as the false 9. Despite suggestions that Navas or Pedro would start, David Silva retained his place.

Spain vs Italy – Spanish Starting Line Up

Cesare Prandelli had more to consider but resisted the temptation to revert to a 3-5-2 as he had done in the group match against Spain. One change was made, Balzaretti being replaced by Abate at right back.

Spain vs Italy – Italian Starting Line Up

Opening

Italy broadly lined up in their 4-4-2 diamond which has served them so well in recent game but with a couple of interesting features. As against Germany, Chiellini looked to get forward as much as possible from the left back position when Italy had possession. At this junction, the team shifted to something along the lines of 3-5-2. With Chiellini pushing very high, De Rossi dropped into a central defensive position to form a back three. This also provided Italy with an alternative option for passing should the midfield area become congested.

The opening minutes saw Italy try to establish a foothold in the match, similar to the approach adopted by Portuguese against Spain in the semi final, with pressing high up but Spain responded and took over. The passage of play around the 10th minute showcased all of the Spanish attributes. The quick passing and movement coupled with the aggressive intent. Xavi and Iniesta both had shots blocked before Xavi shot just over from 20 yards. Spain had moved up a gear from anything else they had produced in previous performances in the tournament.

Despite his wide position in attacking phase, Chiellini tucked in when defending yet Iniesta was able to thread a pass through to the on running Fabregas, himself making the sort of run typical of a striker, and the subsequent cross was converted by Silva.

Despite falling a goal down, Italy responded well and enjoyed their best period of the match. The Italian midfield worked extremely hard to close down their opponents and build attacks. For all of the praise of Spain, this was a period when they lacked control. They were unable to dictate the tempo of the match.

Midfield Battle

The Italian midfield was able to gain temporary superiority over their counterparts from midway through the first half.

There were two main reasons for this.

Chiellini had received plenty of space early on with Arbeloa his only direct opponent. Silva, deployed on the left for the opening few minutes, was tucking in far too much. The Italian left was strengthened through adversity when Chiellini was forced to go off injured after 20 minutes. Balzaretti replaced him and continued to enjoy space on the left. A much more adventurous left back, Balzaretti linked well with Cassano during Italy’s best period of the game.

The space was granted due to concerns surrounding the potential for Pirlo to have an effect on the game. Both Iniesta and Silva were tucking in far too centrally. The Italian outball, as it had been against Germany, was on the left.

Pirlo was closed down quickly primarily by Xavi but also by whichever midfield player was closest to him during that particular phase of play. The result of which was Pirlo being forced to pass quickly to team mates whilst being pressed. He was seldom able to lift his head and pick out a pass. Italy missed the opportunity to go long towards Balotelli and turn the Spanish backline.

The second goal arriving just before half time changed the dynamic of the game once more. It was the result of two elements. Xavi Hernandez and Spain’s increasing vertical play. From Casillas kick out, it took just 14 seconds until Alba scored.

Xavi Hernandez

This has been a tricky tournament for Xavi. He has rarely hit top form in what could be his last major competition. If that is to be the case, last night provided him with the opportunity to display his talents once more. Again, he started in an advanced position but this time he was surrounded by movement. He had options to pass to. There were forward runs on the flanks, Fabregas was moving in behind the defence and Busquets and Alonso were positioned slightly deeper.

Alonso and Busquets vs Italy

The midfield was Xavi’s and he took hold of the game.

The first half goal’s altered the dynamic of the game considerably. The Italian’s were never going to park the bus but space opened up as Italy sought a way back into the game. Xavi was able to thrive.

Prior to the final Xavi had noted his concerns over his contribution to the team. Against France, Alonso was too advanced and Xavi was squeezed. Too often there has been no runners against deep lying defences. Now he had space from his own team mates and the opponents:-

Xavi Final Third Passes vs Italy

 “We played a full game, our best of the tournament. It helped to go ahead early, we had possession and could use the space.”

The provision of two assists in the final was just reward for his endeavors at this tournament and the architect of Barcelona’s play confirmed as much:-

“today I felt comfortable on the pitch”

Spain’s Vertical Play

As he began to demonstrate as the tournament progressed, Jordi Alba provided Spain with pace and width on the left. Perhaps what was more impressive in this game however, and what had been lacking in others was a slightly deeper starting position. With Italy trying to push high, Alba was positioned further back than he had been in earlier games.

A high starting position is not always conducive to success

The deeper point with which Alba began provided him with the perfect platform to burst forward, that moment of explosiveness which is lacking when you start so high up the pitch. His goal was the perfect example. A driving run from a deep position showcased his ability and gave Spain the verticality which they have often been criticised for lacking.

What had slowly surfaced in the group games and culminated against the Portuguese in extra time, continued from the outset here. Alba’s repeated drives forward are now key components of the Spanish system.

It must be remembered though that Spain’s effectiveness in the first half was aided by the Italian’s pressing.  Such pressing requires a high line and Spain took advantage of this.

Second Half.

Prandelli brought on Di Natale for Cassano at half time and the Udinese frontman had an impact for the first 15 minutes of the second half until the unfortunate injury to Thiago Motta.

With Italy trying to increase the tempo of the game, it became increasingly stretched and at one point Gerard Pique led a breakaway for Spain. This initailly favoured Italy more than Spain and Di Natale was presented with an excellent chance to bring Italy back into the game, being denied by a great save from Casillas. Di Natale made a number of runs in behind Spain, offering a different problem for Pique and Ramos from that which Cassano had presented.

When Motta left the pitch with a hamstring injury, so to did any scant hope which Italy possessed to claw a way back into this game. As the second half wore on, Spain refused to ease up, introducing Torres, Pedro and finally Mata to stretch the rapidly tiring Italians further. Spain remained aggressive until the end.

Conclusions

In many respects, Prandelli and Italy were undeserving of the final outcome and yet, it did not flatter Spain. The game as a contest was almost certainly over before Motta was stretched off after 60 minutes.

Criticism of Prandelli for making the third and final substitution so early in the second half are wrong. Montolivo was tired and Italy needed fresh impetus to try and press Spain high up. Motta was the obvious choice.

Despite this setback, the Azzuri must retain faith in Prandelli as these are the first steps, albeit vastly significant ones, on the route back towards success. The ghost of the 2010 World Cup has been exorcised.

 “We gave our best performance in the last game. This is something unrepeatable.”

Iniesta

Spain produced their best performance of the tournament and deservedly walk away with the European Championship, entering the history books in the process.

Unlike previous teams who had succumb to the narrow Italian midfield, Spain made some slight adjustments and prospered.

No superlatives can adequately capture what Spain have achieved or in the manner in which they have done so.

A quote from Spanish television though, comes close:-

“People of the world, football is still ours.”

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

Xavi & Pirlo – The Romantics Final

Xavi and Pirlo meet once more on Sunday