For the second major tournament in a row, and anticipated Brazil-Spain final has been derailed. This year, it’s Brazil bowing out early, but whereas the Seleção had only one match to navigate after Spain's elimination from the Confederations Cup, Spain is still three matches away from their first World Cup.
But the whispers that we’ve heard since the Switzerland loss have persisted through Spain’s three ensuing wins. Is Fernando Torres healthy? Is David Villa playing where he should be? Why is Spain using two deep-sitting midfielders? Why aren’t they attacking with more aggression?
Today’s match against Paraguay is coach Vincente del Bosque’s last chance to answer those questions before the semifinals, where their competition steps-up to the highest level. That assumes Spain can get past Gerardo Martino’s team, a team which, unlike Spain, has not lost in this year’s World Cup.
Spain, Going Forward: Del Bosque has moved David Villa out to the left, switching his formation from using two forwards (with Villa supporting Fernando Torres) to a lone striker and a winger. Villa has no meaningful defensive responsibilities so it can still be though of as a 4-4-2, if an asymmetrical one.
The change gives Spain a new option. Whereas before they were heavily dependent on what they were able to build through Xavi Hernández and (when healthy) Andrés Iniesta, now the Spanish can play the ball out left and let Villa try to win an individual battle against the opposing team’s right back. Should he prove himself able to do so, that forces the opposition to provide help, which could open the midfield for Hernández.
But just because Spain has additional options does not mean they are better off; in fact, the debate in Spain seems to center on the implicit question of why the team is not playing to the lofty standards set during the 2008 European Championships. The need for change itself seems to hint that something has gone awry. The question is whether the current set-up can replicate Spain’s best results and if not, can they get by without it.
Paraguay, Going Forward: Paraguay has gone 214 minutes without a goal, a difficult statistic to digest when you look at a team that features Lucas Barrios, Roque Santa Cruz, Nelson Valdez and Oscar Cardozo. The reason: a lack of midfield play, and thus no way to get through a a New Zealand team with seven defensive players or a Japan team that can control the middle of the pitch.
That is not to say Paraguay has no midfielders. Cristian Riveros, Enrique Vera, Nestor Ortigoza and the returning Victor Cáceres are fine players, but cast into a conservative approach and about to kick-off against the most talented set of midfielders in the world, a match with Spain is not the place where you’d expect a break-out from the Paraguayan midfield.
With Paraguay likely to try and stay tight at the back and try to use Switzerland and the United States’ formula to beat Spain, Vera down the right side may be Martino’s best chance of getting the ball to his talented striking core.
How The Match Turns:If Spain can limit the counterattacking chances, they should have no problem seeing Paraguay out of the competition. They would make life easier for themselves if they showed more decisiveness in the final third than they’ve shown through four matches. This gets us into the "is Fernando Torres" healthy debate; regardless, Spain can end this match early with some bravery in Parguay’s end.