Spain vs Portugal: Tactical Analysis – Cesc’s Moment Part 2

Spain progress to their third successive major international final and join an elite club with just two members; Germany and Brazil.

Spain will now contest their fourth European Championship final, aiming to become the first team to successfully defend their title.

This was a highly interesting game, if seldom electrifying until the conclusion, which witnessed a Portuguese team determined to attack Spain and yet failing to register a single attempt on target in 120 minutes of play.

Line Up

Del Bosque made one change to the side that had defeated France in the Quarter Finals. It was not the change that many had envisaged, that being the choice between Torres and Fabregas again.

Alvaro Negredo made his first start of the tournament in the central striking role.

Spain vs Portugal – Spanish Starting Line Up

Bento had one change enforced upon him with Hugo Almeida replacing the injured Helder Postiga otherwise Bento kept faith with his normal starting eleven.

Spain vs Portugal – Portuguese Starting Line Up

Portugal Approach

Prior to the game Bento had stated his intention not to park the bus. Portugal would attack. For the first time in the tournament, we saw a team prepared to push high up against Spain and press them all over the pitch

Throughout the game, Portugal defended well and sought to push forward and create scoring opportunities. They pressed aggressively and energetically across the whole pitch, forcing Spain to play long balls which the aerial ability of Alves and Pepe could deal with easily.

Spain were clearly unsettled by this and yet for all of the effort displayed, Portugal ultimately failed to muster a single shot on target.

Why Negredo?

“Negredo suits our needs more than Soldado. He’s better aerially and he links up more with the team”

del Bosque

The inclusion of Alvaro Negredo surprised many yet in some respects it made perfect sense. Negredo can provide the compromise solution between Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas. He offers a range of qualities most notably his powerful physical presence allied to his finishing but his ability to drop deeper than a normal striker on occasion and link with the midfield arguably helped gain him the starting slot.

The Spanish Assistant Toni Grade noted:-

“Each forward has different characteristics. Negredo is ideal today – power, athleticism & height defending corners.”

One area where Spain have struggled so far is how to use the high number of corner kicks they win. Despite having seven corners last night, Spain inevitably lose possession if the corner is played into the penalty area. Negredo, in theory, should have helped with this.

Spain Corners vs Portugal

The potential which was highlighted never came to fruition though and Negredo departed after just 52 minutes.

Alvaro Negredo – vs Portugal

Negredo had just 22 touches of the ball before he was substituted. What many had considered to be a gamble, even though it was nothing of the sort, had failed. Negredo appeared static and often isolated and whilst he much accept a portion of the criticism for this, part of the reason must also lie with his team mates. Arbeloa has the opportunity to cross to Negredo in the opening 15 minutes but delayed and lost possession. If you select Negredo, you also need to supply him.

The final part of the reason for his lacklustre performance was the manner in which Portugal performed and in particular, their midfield trio.

Portugal Midfield

The usual midfield trio lined up in the midfield for Portuguese with Veluso the deepest of the three, Meireles seeking to link defence and attack and Moutinho providing the creative spark in a more advanced role. Yet to label the three players in such a fashion does them a great disservice. The trio showed tremendous versatility as they provided triangular rotation throughout as the situation dictated.

They were able to press Spain aided by the high defensive line being held. When Spain broke through the midfield, Pepe was very quick to step forward and close down space.

The pressing though was also apparent higher up the pitch. Moutinho stealing the ball from Alba in the 29th minute to offer Ronaldo an opportunity to shoot.

The trio broadly shadowed their Spanish opponents in central midfield with Veluso given tha task of marking Xavi. This was visible in the 19th minute when Xavi, frustrated by his limited involvement, became the deepest Spanish midfielder dropping between the centre backs to collect possession where Veluso followed him.

The result of the aggressive pressing by the Portuguese was that Spain’s pass completion rate in the first half dropped to their lowest level thus far in the competition at 85.3%. Spain ended the first half with 56% possession, again a substantial drop on their normal levels.

It was obvious how much Spain had been affected by the pressing of their opponents. Spain played 29 long balls in the first half beginning at the very outset with a long ball forward to Negredo straight from kick off. The longs balls continued in the second half when Spain played 44 long balls forward.

It should be abundantly clear why Spain play in the manner in which they do. When forced to play long balls and enter a more physical contest, the Spanish are lacking.

This tight marking and aggressive pressing by Portugal resulted in a loss of fluency in the game especially during the second half which developed into a fraught, tense affair.

Xavi Squeezed Again

Just as he had been squeezed against France, last night witnessed another performance by Xavi which is not in keeping with his normal performance level.

His starting position was once again, much higher than normal creating two key problems; he has fewer passing options ahead of him when he receives the ball and he is easier to mark by opposition players, in this instance, Miguel Veluso.

Against France, Spain coped with the performance of Xabi Alonso by as he too was pressed, te Spanish lost their fluent style and any creativity from midfield forward arrived via the driving runs of Andres Iniesta.

Portuguese Left vs Spanish Right

What was billed as being a pivotal duel in the contest never quite lived up to expectations. Much of the pre-match hype surrounded Ronaldo and his ability to cause his team mate at club level, Alvaro Arbeloa, numerous problems.

Arbeloa managed to stay high and attack early on rendering the conventional viewpoint that he would remain defensive, redundant. He linked well with David Silva whilst Ronaldo took up slightly more central positions.

As the second half progressed, Almeida looked to drift across to the left into the space vacated by Arbeloa. This resulted in Almeida having two clear shots on goal but on both occasions, his shooting was wayward.

Ronaldo Shots vs Spain

Billed as the weak link in the Spanish defence, Arbeloa proved defensively solid throughout. Indeed, both he and Pique combined successfully to nullify the threat from Ronaldo. All of Pique’s tackles coming in the right back area as he offered cover to Arbeloa.

Arbeloa did have an element of fortune in his performance through. He committed 8 fouls, the most by any player at Euro 2012 so far, yet his inevitable yellow card arrived due to a handball and not one of the more cynical fouls he committed higher up the pitch.

Arbeloa and Pique – Tackles

Extra Time

As with their other games to date, Spain gradually took control of the game as their opponents tired. The introduction of both Pedro and Navas on the wings helped stretch a tiring defence wider apart and offered the necessary space for Iniesta to have an increasing influence as the game progressed.

Jordi Alba also provided ample evidence of why Barcelona have just signed him with a number of surgng runs forward on the left as Portugal sought to contain their opponents, no longer able to maintain their pressing. Portugal dropped deeper into defence as the extra time wore on.

Penalties

“I looked for people who were confident. Cesc said he wanted to take one which could be decisive.”

del Bosque

Just as he had done on Sunday 22 June 2008, Cesc Fabregas stepped up and scored the decisive penalty kick which took Spain into the European Championship final.

The Spanish Players surround Cesc and Iker

Conclusions

Despite their exit, Bento must be happy with the performance of the Portuguese team at these finals considering the opposition they faced in their initial group.

That Portugal were able to stick with Spain for so long, only really showing visible signs of tiredness as extra time began is a testament to both the tactical system employed by Bento and the ability of his players to implement it.

For Spain, the performance will not do anything to alleviate the critics of the team but at this stage those critics are highly unlikely to change their viewpoint and arguably fail to understand how and why the team is functioning as it is.

For all the talk of teams knowing how to stop Spain, they have still to meet a team who can achieve that objective.

Spain now stand on the cusp of footballing history.

Advertisements

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 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?

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.

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?

Athletic Bilbao vs Barcelona: Tactical Analysis

And so, in his 247th game in charge, Guardiola secured his 179th win as manager of Barcelona. In doing so, Barcelona won the 110th final of the Copa del Rey and collected their 14th trophy in four remarkable seasons under the stewardship of Guardiola.

The Copa del Rey final between Atheltic Bilbao and Barcelona lived up to the hype surrounding the game with a thrilling, if somewhat one sided at times, game which was ultimately over after an explosive first 30 minutes.

Barcelona claimed their 26th win in the competition whilst Athletic remain stuck on 23 wins. For Athletic, the wait for a trophy continues and it will shortly be 29 years since their last trophy. Opportunities have been missed in this game and the recent Europa League final against Atletico. But in truth, Athletic nerve had a chance against a reinvigorated Barcelona which played the sort of intensive, attacking football which was their hallmark throughout the Guardiola era.

As Sid Lowe stated prior to the game, the Copa final was the culmination of a journey for Guardiola. From his meeting with Bielsa which inspired him to become a manager, to beating Athletic in the Copa del Rey final in 2009 to win his first trophy as Barcelona manager to the present day. Facing Athletic, again, in the Copa del Rey final in his last game in charge. An Athletic side guided by Bielsa. The journey ended with Guardiola winning. Again.

Despite all the trophies, Pep still enjoys being thrown around

Starting Line Ups

In Guardiola’s last game in charge, the starting eleven had to contend with a couple of injuries.

Barcelona Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

The most notable omission from the Barcelona team line was of course, that of Puyol, sidelined following an operation on his knee. Pique was the replacement here. Alves failed to recover from injury and so Martin Montoya started at right back.

Pinto was in goal as is normal in Copa del Rey games. Up front, Pedro and Sanchez supported Messi from the flanks.

Fabregas was only on the bench which surprised some however he inevitably drifts into a central position on the pitch. Barcelona needed two wide players who were fast, direct and would stretch the game whilst also offering workrate to compete on both attacking and defensive fronts against Athletic’s full backs. Sanchez and Pedro were easy choices in that respect.

The Athletic line up contained two notable omissions. Iturraspe and Ander Herrara both overlooked due to illness although Herrara made the bench.

The neccessitated a minor reshuffle of personnel with Ekiza and Amorebieta forming the central defence allowing Martinez to push into midfield.

Further forward, Ibai Gomez took the left wing berth with Muniain adopting a more central position from the outset. Ibai offers a more vertical approach on the left than Muniain who tends to drift laterally.

Athletic Starting Line Up – Copa del Rey Final 2012

Despite the changes in personnel, it initially appeared that Athletic would utilise the same 4-3-3 system which has been their mainstay since early October as outlined here. However, they altered this to form more of a 4-2-3-1 with Muniain in a much more advanced position and the wingers slightly more reserved than normal.

As the game unfolded, it seemed that Bielsa was preoccupied with denying Messi space to the extent that the remainder of the team’s structure suffered. This will be examined in the themes below.

Pressing

The game started at a frantic pace with both sides pressing aggressively.

Twice in the opening five minutes, Athletic pressed Pinto and twice this resulted in them securing possession higher up the pitch as Pinto failed to find team mates with his clearances.

It is well known that Pinto is not as accompolished as Valdes with his distribution yet Athletic did not grasp this opportunity as the match progressed.

Pinto – Almost as mad as Bielsa. But not quite.

Their pressing was muted. Llorente would attempt to split the centre backs as normal but De Marcos was deeper in midfield alongside Martinez and they offered no support to Llorente. Ibai and Susaeta were isolated on the flanks.

Pressing in such a half hearted fashion allowed Barcelona to pass their way around Athletic. Was this a deliberate tactic by Bielsa? This was the 63rd game of the season for Athletic and their first choice players have all played more than 50 times. Markel Susaeta has played in every game. Was this a case of one step too far for them?

Barcelona, by way of contrast, pressed in a coordinated fashion early on and the mood was set for the remainder of the game as a consequence. When Barcelona’s pressing dropped off, the Athletic players continued to react in the same fashion as if they were being pressed. Used to being pressed quickly and simply clearing the ball, despite now having slightly more time in possession, the same reaction occurs. Amorebieta’s poor clearance prior to the second goal being the perfect illustration of this.

The pressing of Barcelona was reminiscent of their early success under Guardiola. Intensive pressing around the pitch with the front players working hard to close down opposition defenders quickly.

Barcelona had rediscovered their intensity which was missing for large parts of the season. Allied to their intensity was a ruthlessness not seen often enough either.

Athletic Loose vs Barcelona Compact

Athletic were extremely stretched in the first half with large spaces between the lines which Barcelona continually exploited especially through the movement and probing passing of Xavi and Iniesta.

Yet it was not just the Barcelona midfield duo who were at their imperious best. Montoya started high and regularly forced Ibai Gomez, a very direct player, onto the back foot.

A central tenant of Athletic’s play this season as been the quick combinations between two or three players near the opponents penalty area with the full backs, particularly Iraola, pushing on. Yet here, neither Iraola or Aurtenxte were seen in the Barcelona half of the pitch during the opening 30 minutes. There were no combinations due to Barcelona pressing high.

Athletic were open with too much space between players, an immediate impact of their desire to be direct with the resulting loss of possession. There were few combinations and each pass became difficult to achieve given the distance between the players.

This was rectified somewhat after the half time break as Athletic switched to a more structured 4-5-1 with coherent pressing. They quickly regained they shape too when required. The damge however, had already been done. Barcelona, although under slightly more pressure on occasion, still possessed an attacking threat but the damage had been inflicted.

Amorebieta

The Venezuelan International, who endured a torrid evening against Falcao in the Europa League Final, had a similar experience against Barcelona.

From the outset, Amoebieta appeared to be man marking Messi, often following him around the pitch but on some occasions letting him go free. Amorebieta followed Messi to the halfay line in the 1st minute with Barcelona exploiting the resulting space to create an opportunity.

The decision to employ a tall, physical centre half in a man marking role on Messi was wrong. A more nimble, mobile player should have been utilised.

Amorebieta’s misplaced clearance in the 19th minute, despite being under no immediate pressure, led to Barcelona’s second goal.

Amorebieta was dragged down the pitch by Messi vacating space which Xavi looked to move into during the first half. This aggressive, forwarding running by Xavi provided the assist for the 3rd Barcelona goal, laying the ball off to Pedro on the edge of the Athletic penalty area.

When Amorebieta followed Messi, Athletic required to reshuffle to compensate. They achieved this by tucking their full backs in to provide a narrow three. This in turn meant the full backs were deep and unable to support the wingers. The end result of this was that Athletic struggled to get higher up the pitch.

The player who should have been used to man mark Messi was Iturraspe.

The Midfield Battle

With Martinez and De Marcos in midfield facing up against Iniesta and Xavi, the midfield battle seemed perfectly poised. Barcelona, however, consistently had better options in this area due to their intelligent movement against a somewhat static Athletic.

With Athletic not pressing coherently as outlined above, Pique and Mascherano were faced only by Llorente. Both are comfortable in possession and were happy to take on Llorente and step into midfield. As soon as Llorente was passed, either Martinez or De Marcos had a decision to make. Challenge the man in possession or stay with their direct opponent. There was no consistent strategy here. When Athletic closed down the man in possession, Xavi or Iniesta would make forward runs or drift into space.

Athletic were very linear with clear space between the defensive and midfield lines. Exactly the area which Iturraspe would have occupied had he been fit. However, with Muniain playing higher up, Martinez was forced to stay alongside De Marcos to provide support.

The introduction of Herrara at half time provided more composure to the Athletic midfield and assisted their ball retention. The direct nature of their play in the first half was tempered with a little more guile.

Conclusions

A tremendous performance from Barcelona provided Guardiola with the ideal send off – his 14th trophy as manager in just 4 seasons. A sensational achievement and one which is unlikely to replicated for some considerable time, if at all.

Xavi Hernandez. Small man, big trophy

A performance of quality in possesion matched by hunger without possession was simply too much for Athletic.

For Athletic, a crucial period is almost upon them. With an average age of just 24 years old, the potential within the squad to build and develop is consdierable. Whether the squad remains intact is the first issue. Intertwined with this is whether Bielsa continues with the project at Athletic remains to be seen.

Perhaps Bielsa, encapsulated the level of perforamnce from Barcelona perfectly: – “comparing players rarely serves to eulogise the chosen one, rather to belittle the other one”.

We seek faults within the Athletic performance instead of marveling at the display from Barcelona perhaps because we expect it from them. Last night, in Guardiola’s final game, they produced a truly great performance.