DONETSK, UKRAINE - JUNE 23: In this handout image provided by UEFA, Coach Vicente del Bosque of Spain talks to the media after the UEFA EURO 2012 Quarter Final match between Spain and France on June 23, 2012 in Donetsk, Ukraine. (Photo by Handout/UEFA via Getty Images)
Vicente del Bosque has turned some of this generation's greatest players into a gaggle of unstoppable dullards, but the onus is on someone else to stop them.
Let's get this out of the way early: Spain are a really boring football team. They're a highly effective one, but they're incredibly dull to watch. If you disagree with me, I'll happily point to the string of 1-0 wins in knockout rounds, the hallmark of a side that values brutal efficiency over flair. When Xabi Alonso scored his 89th minute penalty against France on Saturday, it marked the first time Spain - the defending European and world champions, remember - had scored more than once in a knockout match since their 3-0 win against Russia four years ago.
The Spanish team we see in our minds is very different to the one implemented on paper. Whether you loved them or hated them, there's no doubting that Pep Guardiola's Barcelona played some absolutely breathtaking football at times. With Spain featuring the core of that time (sans Lionel Messi, admittedly), you'd have to imagine that they're fully capable of doing more or less the same thing, and that dream is where a lot of their support comes from.
Unfortunately, Spain as a fun team really are a figment of the world's collective imagination. Instead, they take one pillar of Guardiola's ethos - possession football as defensive football - and are using it to conquer the world.
Concede a goal against Spain and they win. Against France, Alonso's 17th minute header meant that they could spend the remainder of the match holding possession in midfield, forcing their opponents to chase mindlessly after the ball. Whenever they did win it, France were too exhausted to mount anything approaching a significant attack on Iker Casillas' goal, and their best chance (which still barely troubled Casillas) came from a well-struck set piece from Yohan Cabaye.
There are two main reasons that Vicente del Bosque's preferred playing style works so effectively in international tournaments. The first is that national teams are far, far less coordinated than their club counterparts, who are given years of training together, as opposed to a few short weeks. It's almost impossible to get the sort of understanding that teammates on club sides enjoy during the World Cup or the Euros, which is why managers love introducing partnerships of players already familiar with each other.
The second is that it's very hard to maintain a heavy press - the football term for applying continuous pressure on the ball in the hopes of forcing an error - for a full match. Only the fittest teams can manage it, and virtually nobody is at 100 percent after a nine-month club season. Since the press requires total coordination and massive amounts of fitness, nobody can do it to Spain, who are happy to pass the ball around the midfield triangle of Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Xavi Hernandez until time runs out.
And nobody has been able to stop them so far.
Sure, del Bosque could apply a Barcelona-ish system of beautiful, continuously-attacking football, but he faces the same problem all other international managers do. Attacking like Barcelona requires ludicrous coordination, and Spain simply don't have the time to develop that coordination for this tournament. Developing a more defensive strategy is easier, and having your whole strategy revolve around 'create passing triangles in midfield' makes life fairly simple.
There are problems here, of course. Spain seem to be content to let their players attack as they will, assuming that a goal will eventually come from somewhere. When this happens early, it's great. When it doesn't, like against Italy or Croatia this year, the match gets very dicey. Playing for a 1-0 win also runs the risk of a major error derailing the whole match. One mistake by Casillas could, in theory, undo all of their good work. But Spain, somehow, seem to have overcome this issue - by the time their semifinal with Portugal comes around, it'll have been six years since they've conceded a goal in a knockout round.
But until and unless someone actually gets around to either holding them to a 0-0 draw and knocking them out on penalties or takes advantage of a defensive error to snatch a goal against the run of play, del Bosque will continue to play a system whose ugly, timid looks disguise the closest thing to a ruthless killing machine in international football.
Sure, they could play better, more effective football. They could definitely play more watchable football and win as many games. But really, why bother?