We all thought we understood what plans Spain manager Vicente Del Bosque was cooking up prior to his side's crucial semifinal against neighbor Portugal. I mean, it's not like Spain has been a hard team to understand over the past few seasons; any random person, even someone who had never watched a second of soccer in their entire life, could tell you exactly what Spain does on offense-and on defense.
Hold on to the ball.
But then, Vicente decided to shake things up.
In previous matches, we'd seen players like Fernando Torres and Cesc Fabregas occupy the "Center Forward" role for Spain-and I say "Center Forward" with quotation marks because while the player is nominally lined up there, he is not expected to play the way a traditional CF does.
Spain, as many others have noted, has pushed offensive soccer to its' modern extreme: they have recognized that offense, unlike defense, is based on the free interchange of attacking ideas, of players moving freely through space, combining and separating in ways that find, eliminate and then, ultimately, create space. To talk of a single Spanish player as having a "position" fundamentally undermines what the Spanish attack has accomplished: they have eliminated positions. Sure, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso tend to combine in space slightly behind the quartet of Xavi, Iniesta, David Silva and striker of the day. But these are loose interpretations of guidelines, suggestions rather than rules. At any give moment, any Spanish player can score.
Basically, the role of the traditional central forward -- or even of the "forward" generally -- doesn't really exist on this Spanish team. You're just as likely to see Fernando Torres (or Pedro, for that matter) streaking down a wing, or dropping back to recover a ball, as you are to see them scoring on a cross into the area. In fact, I'd argue that you're more likely to see them dropping back to help than streaking into the area to head in a cross.
All of this -- which has been talked about, yelled about, fought over, and any other action verb-ed about for years --made the choice of Sevilla center forward (yes, a real, traditional one) Álvaro Negredo on Wednesday against Portugal particularly puzzling. Why would Del Bosque suddenly change course and alter Spain's game plan so fundamentally in such an important match?
There are three important things for me to make clear before I proceed: (1) I'm not sure I totally agree with Vicente's decision (2) but, after a few hours thinking about it, I decided that it makes some sense, and (3) in order for it to make sense, Del Bosque has to be more in tune with his team than I thought he was.
Here's my contention: Spain is fundamentally flawed, and Del Bosque knows it. His choice, followed by the game against Portugal -- where Spain was soundly outplayed for the first 90 minutes -- proves it. His choice of Negredo, while perhaps misguided, was based on the same logic that has been being whispered around Spain for the past few months. If this team's offense is Barcelona-lite (it's important to remember that Barcelona is the team it is because of a certain Argentinian genius), and Barcelona struggled with some particular situations this year -- namely, they had trouble with teams that either (a) played a three-quarter press while defending diagonal runs and counterattacking quickly (Real Madrid), or (b) stoically defended their area with large-bodied players capable of cutting off space while stuffing the midfield (Chelsea, among others) -- then it follows that Spain would have trouble with similar tactics.
Against Portugal, a team that, aside from Löw's Germany, plays most like Real Madrid, Vicente knew that he would have trouble with counter-attacks, balls in the air to Hugo Almeida (6'3) and Cristiano Ronaldo and set pieces where Pepe (6'2) and company could exert control of the air. Seeing this, he wagered that he could change the Barcelona plan slightly to combat the Portuguese tactics: the blaugrana haven't had a target man up front since Ibrahimovic left (no, David Villa is not a target man, neither is Cesc nor Aléxis Sánchez), and while this has allowed them to make huge strides in ball control, it has left them without an aerial attack (or a strong aerial defense).
So, why Negredo? Well, two reasons: first, he's excellent in the air (at 6'1, he's one of the tallest on the team ... no joke), and second, he has a strong motor, a quickness to recover on balls lost. Actually there's a third reason, but it doesn't have to do with Negredo: Vicente del Bosque doesn't like Fernando Llorente, who at 6'5 would have provided similar attributes, but he doesn't have quite the same pace as Negredo, and he lacks some of the fiery vallecano's defensive chops.
Basically (and like I said earlier, I'm not sure I agree with the decision), Vicente del Bosque chose Alvaro Negredo because he brings an important depth to the team, on offense and on defense.
It's rare that you hear about a traditional center forward coming on as a defensive tactic. But then, Spain isn't exactly a traditional tactical team: on the first Portuguese corner of the match (and all the subsequent ones) Negredo was given the difficult task of defending Pepe, a pest in the area and dynamite in the air. And he did a good job.
Unfortunately for Vicente, the Negredo decision failed to help on the offensive end, where Spain looked out of touch, flabbergasted by Portugal's straight-out-of-Mourinho's-playbook 3/4 press and counter style. Negredo rarely touched the ball, wasn't an effective addition as a back-to-goal center forward (partially, at least, because Spain almost never plays with someone like that), and couldn't find anything in the air. I understand why all of that went wrong for Spain; but I also understand why Del Bosque decided to risk it.
Playing against Italy, however, might very well prove a very different match. In the group stages, Italy flooded the midfield with a 3-5-2, a fascinating formation, and was widely regarded as the more impressive side. Del Bosque's false nine failed against the flooded midfield because it was exactly the opposite of what was needed -- in that case, things only got better for Spain when Fernando Torres came on and started running behind De Rossi in the back line (read Aidan's excellent article for more on this).
So, will Del Bosque look to Negredo or -- gasp! -- Llorente against Italy? To be honest, probably not. Spain does a couple of things better than anyone else in the world, and those things have brought the team unparalleled success. Why try to change that? I'd imagine that Pedro could get a start against Italy, as he brings a David Villa-esque presence that Spain has been sorely lacking, but that hardly seems like a blockbuster change of tactics.
But would I be shocked if I wake up on Sunday and see that Negredo or Llorente is starting?
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