It seems strange to think about now, but five years ago - less than the blinking of a cosmic eye - Spain were regarded as consummate underachievers. Xavi Hernandez's name was a joke to the English press, Barcelona were a good, but by no means world-destroying side, and the idea that they'd be in position to complete their third major tournament win on the trot in Euro 2012 would have been regarded as sublimely fanciful.
And yet, here we are.
Spain have lost a lot of their luster over the past few years. While they were once an exciting new face on the block, it's easy to see their style as old, boring, and tired. That's what happens when you spend so much time at the pinnacle of the sport, after all. But it's not just overexposure that's caused Spain to slip from the pinnacle of popularity. There's been a very definite shift in terms of style since Vicente del Bosque took the reigns.
The use of possession as a defensive tool is not something that's unique to Spain. Possession-oriented teams, from Arsenal to Barcelona, attempt to use the ball to control the match. Del Bosque's side is just very good at it. What they aren't very good at, however, is breaking down a parked bus - they've scored multiple goals in the knockout stages twice in the past three tournaments - and teams have now resorted to some pretty epic bus-parking against them.
This makes the del Bosque's decision to focus on defensive players more than attacking ones very strange indeed. During Euro 2008, Luis Aragonés generally used Marcos Senna as a 'destroyer' type with Xavi Hernandez ahead of him, eventually adding a third central midfielder for the final, using a 4-3-3 with one central holder and two advanced players.
One of the issues with international football is the relatively short lifespan of players. When Del Bosque took over as Spain's manager, Marcos Senna was fading. He needed a replacement midfield, and was faced with a fascinating problem: Too many world class players. Spain are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in terms of midfield talent. Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets would all reasonably expect to start for basically every club in the world. After much mixing and matching, he ended up with Xavi, Alonso and Busquets, with the former ahead of the latter two.
It's a system that, obviously, has worked very well for Spain. They have sublime ball retention, a solid defensive base from which to play out, and Busquets' presence gives Alonso the ability to push forward when he wants to (e.g. for the opener against France in the quarterfinals). This 4-2-3-1 'double pivot' suits Alonso to a tee, and so far it hasn't failed del Bosque.
However, it strikes me as a fundamental misuse of resources. Spain has such an astonishing abundance of talent that no player, Alonso included, should be undroppable, and fitting a formation and style around him when there might be better options elsewhere seems fairly shortsighted. Simplistically, Alonso is at his best as a counterattacking player, able to play long passes to meet forward runs with the opposition defence out of position. He's competent enough at holding the ball when Spain aren't under heavy threat, but much of what he actually gives you at that point is replaceable.
Complicating the matter significantly is the fact that Sergio Busquets is arguably the most capable single holder in the world at the moment. That's how he plays in Barcelona's midfield, and that's presumably how he'd prefer to play for Spain. Rather than runs down the flank to rip open teams on the counterattack, Spain's style for much of the tournament has revolved around positional interchange for the front three, especially when Cesc Fabergas is playing as a centre not-really-forward. These two elements make the pivot an obvious second option for Spain.
Instead, del Bosque has shoehorned two deep midfielders into a team that doesn't really need them. Considering that Barcelona's central three are all Spanish and could simply be dropped into the national team without skipping a beat, it's incredibly strange that they're not taking advantage of what's essentially a ready-made system. Dropping Alonso and using Sergio Busquets behind Xavi and Iniesta gets the best out of all three players - Bsuquets is completely comfortable shielding the defence on his own, Xavi is better at dictating play when he's deeper, and Iniesta is moved into a more influential central position.
It would also allow for another attacking option to be used. Spain haven't conceded a goal in a knockout match for more than six years now, and although their central defence has had its hiccups it seems pretty clear that they're good enough at keeping the ball that they shouldn't be overly worried about being hammered by an adventurous attacking team. Nobody in the world has the temerity to try that against Spain at the moment.
Where they do have an issue, however, is breaking down a defence. Although Alonso did score against France, it's far from clear that he'd be a better answer than a true attacking player - the inclusion of a striker with Fabregas pushed left could work, as could the introduction of Juan Mata - and Spain's struggles to score goals seem to indicate that they could use more players up top rather than just switching them around like musical chairs.
There's no reason that the 4-2-3-1 can't be Spain's 'Plan B'. It's easy to imagine Alonso linking up perfectly with Jevus Navas and Fernando Llorente to pick off stretched opposition. But there's also no reason it should be part of a Plan A for a team that's build around having the ball and trying to break down the opposition.
I can't imagine that del Bosque will be happy to see the Euro 2012 final to go to penalties. Spain have won two shootouts in the past three tournaments (one against Italy), but they're the better team on paper here and forcing a 0-0 draw would be a major win for the Azzurri. Ideally, he'll make a minor gamble, dropping Alonso for a more attacking player and given that Italy back line something extra to think about.
But if the past few years of Vicente del Bosque has taught us anything, it's that he won't. The pivot is, probably, here to stay. All hail ennui.
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