"Can we still play like we used to with an aging core? What happens if we can't?"
These are questions that never seemed to have been raised ahead of Spain's buildup to the 2014 World Cup. Modelled on Pep Guardiola's great Barcelona sides, Spain won three consecutive major tournaments and were one of the two favourites to lift the trophy in Brazil. Two games in and they're packing their bags.
The humiliations they endured, first at the hands of the Dutch and then against Chile, hardly need to be recounted. One goal scored (a penalty, which somehow makes it even more embarrassing), seven conceded. Bottom of Group B, behind Australia, whose main goal ahead of the World Cup was to play their opponents close. Spain haven't just been knocked out, they've been crushed in such thorough fashion that it looks like this side, in this form, will never rise again.
But the big questions remain. How? Why? Some, the participants in the great wars of football dogma that have dominated conversations since Barcelona's rise to prominence, will see this as an indictment of possession football. Some will point the finger at under-performing players. Some will blame motivation -- after winning everything and achieving everything, surely there'd be a drop in how badly the players wanted that second World Cup? -- and some will blame injuries and simple bad luck.
For me, the answer is simple enough: the spine of this team has been shattered by age.
Xabi Alonso and Xavi are 32 and 34 respectively. Carles Puyol has retired after a slew of serious injuries. Spain's core simply doesn't exist in the same form that it used to.
Age has hit the midfield particularly hard. Alonso has never been particularly mobile, and his legs are going to the point where he's barely able to move at all, and while Xavi was significantly more prone to moving up and down the pitch, his years have caught up with him and there's a reason Barcelona are letting him escape to Qatar.
There are a number of reasons this should have troubled both Vicente del Bosque and the various lookers-on, and in retrospect they seem entirely obvious. The first and most important is that Spain's favoured style, the famed rapid-passing game that's dominated world football for the better part of a decade, requires midfielders to move along with the ball. With mobile players, this isn't an issue, but when they lose their legs, they risk being caught permanently out of position whenever possession is lost.
And that leads to a more direct game. Sitting back and playing through balls means that the deeper midfielders can contribute to the attack without the risk of getting surprised when too high up the pitch, and both Alonso and Xavi are more than capable of playing those passes. It should not have been a surprise that Spain, who for the first time since 2008 have a (supposedly) elite true centre forward on the pitch, were far more direct than previous editions.
Possession can be used as both an attacking tool and a defensive one. The attacking variant is played high up the pitch and sees the team with the ball move it around, probing for a mistake and then pouncing immediately. The defensive is normally deeper, focusing on the idea that denying the opposition possession means that they can never truly hurt you.
Spain's genius came from fusing those two aspects of possession football. They were able to shield themselves from harm by keeping the ball, but they were so good technically that they could do so in an incredibly assertive way. But this leaned heavily on their midfielders, especially Xavi, and as it turns out, they could no longer play to that standard while la Furia Roja had the ball.
And it was a complete wreck when they lost possession. While Sergio Busquets, Barcelona's defensive midfielder par excellance is still at the top of his game, he essentially received zero support* from his fellow midfielders when Spain were under attack -- and they were under attack far more because they were forced to play more direct football in order to score. They'd lost that fusion of attack and defence that marked them as the world's best team.
*And the defence was horrendously exposed as a result.
It is not a coincidence that Spain's most comfortable spell came before halftime in their first game. Up 1-0 through a penalty, they were able to drop deep and keep the ball until a stunning header from Robin van Persie brought the Netherlands back into the match in the 44th minute. Forced to push forward again, Spain were vulnerable to the Dutch counterattack and were duly blown away.
Xavi was dropped for the match against Chile.
But without Xavi, it was no longer really Spain. it was just a bunch of players who happened to be wearing the Spanish shirt, an all-star collection of attacking talent rather than a group yoked to a single purpose and ethos. Spain weren't actually terrible against Chile -- after taking (you guessed it) Alonso off at halftime and replacing him in midfield with 22-year-old Koke, they could easily have grabbed the goal that got them back into the match, but they never had the level of control that used to characterize this side and terrify the opposition.
They were just a very good attacking team that found themselves in a 2-0 hole and never did enough to get out of it, despite the talent. There's nothing surprising or shocking there: this sort of thing happens all the time in football. But it would never happen to Spain at their best.
Although this World Cup will tarnish Xavi's legacy -- this will go down as the most miserable footballing performance by defending champions ever -- in truth it speaks to just how important he was to Spain's six years of success. Xavi Hernandez was the key that made tiki-taka work, perhaps the only midfielder on Earth with the combination of legs, technical ability and vision to ensure that Guardiola's vision clicked into place.
Without Xavi on top of his game, it's not even clear that Spain's style is even playable. Without that style, they're just another team, still formidable but, as Chile and the Netherlands have shown, entirely beatable.