clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Spain's Reputation Is Now Their Greatest Enemy - But Help Is On The Way

Spain spent 2010 winning but without a sparkle. Fortunately, their new crop of players should be able to reverse that at the 2012 European Championships.

Getty Images

Spain might be world champions, but the performances from last year in South Africa were hardly indicative of an all-conquering side. Xavi Hernandez and company did not enjoy a particularly convincing tournament, winning just one game by more than a goal - their second group stage match against lowly Honduras. This, remember, is a side that boasts and array of world class talents, including the core of a Barcalona team widely regarded as the best club side to ever grace the planet. Why is it that Spain labours to Mourinho-style 1-0 wins while their domestic counterparts routinely put on a show of footballing brilliance?

It's simple, really: Spain's reputation proceeds them. The second best team at South Africa was probably Bastian Schweinsteiger's Germany, whose rebuilding process has already produced a generation of young, supremely talented players. Mesut Özil and Thomas Muller put on a show last year as the Germans crushed first England and then Argentina in beautiful displays of counterattacking football.

Exploiting the ebb and flow of the game always makes for an entertaining match, and here the Germans were successful at both winning and playing beautiful football because they were both comfortably superior to the teams they faced and able to take advantage of the fact their their opposition didn't know it. England were eviscerated 4-1 and, despite the Frank Lampard incident, deserved less. Lionel Messi's Argentina had no idea what hit them - whenever they lost possession on the attack they were faced with an immediate defensive crisis.

Meanwhile, Spain faced roughly two formations all tournament: the 9-0-1 and the Marcelo-Bielsa-magical-ride-of-fun, which I'll ignore because I don't have a footballing IQ of twenty billion. Disregarding Spain-Chile, then, a team that relies on possession football was routinely handed possession by their opponents and told to do something about it. And, for much of the tournament, they couldn't. it speaks volumes that Fernando Llorente, a fine player but not necessarily one that you'd associate with Barcelona-style football, was often used as Spain's impact substitute, a move that isn't too far off Vicente del Bosque bringing on Emile Heskey* up front and telling Xabi Alonso to lob long balls in his direction.

*Ok, Llorente can score, so it doesn't really hold up.

In other words, Spain's personnel plan A worked out pretty great for controlling the game, but not so well for actually scoring goals, especially when the opposition reacted to the threat posed by David Villa and Fernando Torres by simply shutting up shop. While Germany had space to play into, Spain had none. Their reputation ensured that they'd have no choice but to break down a well-organised defence, and they didn't really have the tools to do it.

The is the problem, of course, that Barcelona have been facing for years, and the Catalans have dealt with it just swimmingly, Inter Milan blip aside. The major difference between Barca and the national team? Pep Guardiola has Lionel Messi at his disposal, and del Bosque does not.

Messi, of course, is fully able to cut through blocks of defenders - it takes at least three (and often more) players to reliably stop the Argentinian when he's on the move, and the threat he poses results in either a breakthrough of the defensive lines wherever he attacks or a weakening of said line elsewhere. Barcelona are fully able to exploit either outcome.

If Spain want to fulfill this generation's promise as one of the great international sides, they're going to have to do more than just win - they'll have to also play legendary football in the process. In order to do that, they're going to have to find their own Lionel Messi analogue. Granted, finding a carbon copy of the world's best footballer isn't really the easiest of tasks, but fortunately for Spain, they've got some answers.

Spanish dominance thus far has been predicated on central play - their midfield is so good that even Andres Iniesta and Cesc Fabregas are often pushed wide or shuffled to the bench. Placing Iniesta, probably the world's best central attacking midfielder, on the flanks hasn't seen great results, and overall their width has been less impressive, but that's changing fast with the emergence of David Silva and Juan Mata as legitimate Premier League stars with the passing ability required to fit in to a Barcelona-style system and the individual skill and mindset to cut through defences on their own.

Against the Czech Republic last week, Spain once against faced the 9-0-1 connundrum. This time, they ripped it to shreds by fielding Mata and Silva as roving wingers. Mata's movement got him behind the defence to score a sixth-minute goal, and Silva added an assist in the first half as Spain cruised to an embarrassingly easy win - without Andres Iniesta or David Villa.

Ultimately, if Spain want to put on the footballing show they're capable of, they're going to have to field both players as wide forwards in a 4-3-3, and that means reforming that famed three-man centre. Assuming Fernando Torres gets his groove back, the selection dilemma everyone thinks that del Bosque will face in the leadup to this summer's European Championships will between the Chelsea man and David Villa, but in truth the more likely problem the manager will face revolves around the necessity of fielding both Silva Mata while still having five more world-class midfielders to accommodate.

It's not going to be an easy choice, but there are going to have to be sacrifices if Spain want to take that last step forward. Right now, they're an excellent team without a cutting edge, which also makes them a profoundly boring one. A good chunk of that comes from fielding both Busquets and Xabi Alonso in the same team - both are excellent midfielders but neither is particularly interested in bombing forwards and shaking things up.

Busquets has already shown he can operate with aplomb at the base of a 1-2 midfield triangle, and there'd be no complaints if Alonso was simply dropped and the Barcelona centre was placed straight into the national side. Substituting Iniesta for Alonso (you could also field Cesc Fabregas in a pinch) would provide the new Spain with some much-needed attacking impetus from the centre to match that of its young widemen.

Regardless of exactly how del Bosque deals with the obvious problems with his team setup, it's clear that changes need to be made. Spain have been exceptionally fortunate with a generation of superb players, and while Germany will probably eclipse them in the medium-term future, that pipeline isn't dry just yet. With Mata and especially David Silva in the fold, Spain could well light up the tournament in the way Barcelona does the Champions League.