Spain are now getting heaped with praise because they won. But I figured I would be a little bit like a Spaniard, and complain about how they won. I am ready to be called a Philistine – but I hate watching this Spanish team and found myself desperately rooting for Germany just so I wouldn’t have to watch the Spaniards play again.
Let’s be clear – Spain didn’t win because their possession after much futility finally unlocked the German defense. There was no beautiful moment. No, instead there was a committed, yet unmarked, defender scoring off a free header on a corner kick. How very German of them.
See, as a general fan of the Premier League, I have in the past been annoyed by the Spanish press and its football aficionados who complain that English teams (or those managed by Jose Morinho) don’t let Barca “play” their beautiful game. But what Spain have showed thus far in this tournament is anything but beautiful. I hate to say it, but Spain play boring uneventful soccer. Spain make it look like the objective of the game is to simply have more possession than the other team. They create few chances and play at a slow, er NBA, like pace. They bore the opponent into submission. They are the reincarnation of the famous Simpson’s take on soccer.
Spain have dominated possession in every game they have played and yet create shockingly few chances. Gary Lineker’s famous saying about football being played by 22 men running around a pitch and in the end the Germans win 1-0, could just as easily apply to Spain. The point here is that in many ways Spain are not dissimilar to the 2004 Greece team that won the European Championships or the classic organized and defensive German teams that won by sucking the life out of games and winning 1-0 on a free kick.
Now I can sense my readers disbelief (he is comparing Greece to Spain? That’s nuts). There is no question that Spain have tremendous players – by far the most technically gifted of any team – but they use their technique and skill to play a game that is as much about stifling their opponents, as it is about scoring. It is in many ways just as negative a style as those played by organized, defensive teams. Despite all the possession, Germany in fact created about as many truly threatening chances as Spain did. They defend by keeping possession. Spain simply do not take advantage of stretched defenses. On countless occasions there was an opportunity to take advantage of space that had been opened up, but no – the instinct of the Spanish players is not to push, not to risk losing the ball, it is to retain possession and to stop and pass the ball back.
So they are similar to Greece and old-Germany, in that while they used their size, strength and commitment to defensively stifle their opposition in 2004, Spain instead use their technique and skill to stifle their opponents. In this tournament, the Germans were playing beautiful fast football, and yesterday Spain killed that. Yes German tactics had something to do with it, but the game was very similar to watching Greece’s defensive masterpieces in 2004. The purists will say I don’t appreciate the artistry at work in playing a possession football – but the same could be said about Greece of 2004. Casual fans who wanted action, didn’t “appreciate” how tactically organized and disciplined Greece was and couldn’t appreciate the art of stalwart defending.
In 2008, this was not the case. Spain played played much more attacking, flowing soccer that utilized width with David Silva in place of the redundant Alonso. Now under Del Bosque Spain play with three players that are basically the same – Xavi, Iniesta, and Alonso. Yes they have their differences, but all three are central midfielders – and when Fabregas is thrown in they play with 4. They play in front of a Busquets a holding player.
The instincts of their “wide” players is always to cut inside. But by cutting inside their is absolutely no width on the left, instead there are 4 or 5 (since Pedro essentially played inside as well) other players that are basically also camped in the middle of the field. That is 6 players in the central midfield. This has made Spain exceptionally easy to defend. Since with no width, Spain’s only way of attacking at that point is to play hopeful precise through balls to Villa (which were easily dealt with – with one early exception), play 1-2s in tight space to put players through (these were easily dealt with), lay off the ball for Alonso to have a hit (why not I guess?), or hit it wide to Sergio Ramos and have him put in a cross that David Villa has no chance of winning against the German backline. That is all they got. And so despite loads of possession, Spain somehow score on a corner kick.
Just before Spain scored, there was an instructive moment, in which Iniesta was isolated on Germany’s right back Phillip Lahm just outside the 18. Lahm made a lazy lunge and Iniesta easily skipped by. Now most players would feverishly take advantage of the opening in space and push aggressively into the box and put in a cross. Well not Iniesta, and not Spain. Instead, Iniesta casually moved into the area but instead of putting in a cross he stopped and stood on the ball, allowing the covering German defender to recover and put the ball out of play.
In the final Against the Dutch, the game will be similar. Spain will control the ball, the chances will be about equal and someone will one-nil, most likely the Spanish.
Filed under: World Cup 2010