One of the great things about Vicente del Bosque was that he never tried fancy tactical stuff, but stuck to his two or three page well known manual... until yesterday afternoon. If you haven't read my match summary already, you can find it here.
Spain begin the tournament that could represent a European record for them – three majors in a row – facing no less than Italy in the opening match of their group. The Italians, our bête noire for almost ninety years, used to represent the speculative, cynical style of play we Spaniards loved to hate, right until Cesare Prandelli took over and started to favour a more constructive approach, and more importantly, until Jose Mourinho’s success at Real Madrid’s helm generated a legion of ‘win, no matter how’ Spanish fans that used to be a rarity in previous decades, but who now understand much better the Italian way than they ever did before.
In any case, despite of Prandelli’s presence on Italy’s bench, Sunday’s encounter threatens to become maybe the most stereotyped showcase of the two different approaches to win in football. Injuries, players in poor shape and suspensions over the match-fixing scandal in Italy have left Prandelli with little to no option but go back to what the Italians do best, therefore his last three training sessions to prepare the match against Spain have focused on the defensive side of the game.
Leaving aside most of his convictions, which usually imply a 4-3-3 formation and plenty of ball possession, the Italian gaffer will very likely start with three at the back, with De Rossi as a sweeper behind Bonucci and Ogbona, after starter Barzagli picked up another injury. Prandelli conducted his training sessions with Maggio and Giaccherini in a long full back role, while Pirlo, Thiago and Marchisio should take care of the midfield. The intimidating duo of Cassano and Balotelli will try to surprise Spain’s back four with their tricks, and the classy Montolivo will have to wait for his chance on the bench.
If Italy appear determined by fate to behave like themselves, Spain’s manager Vicente del Bosque has also stuck to his guns in his 23-man selection, and will do so once more with his starting line-up for Sunday’s debut as well. Everything points at a hardly surprising starting eleven in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Casillas; Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique and Alba; Xabi Alonso and Busquets; Iniesta, Xavi and Silva; and the Player Formerly Known as Fernando Torres up front.
While any kid in Spain would be able to recite the first ten players with their eyes closed, the inclusion of the former Atletico striker in the starting line-up of Spain’s first match of the tournament would have shocked many only three weeks ago. However, once again Del Bosque opts for someone he trusts and, probably more relevant, someone the team know well, rather than taking a chance with the less familiar Alvaro Negredo or the apparently knackered Fernando Llorente.
Assuming you’ve been following this Spanish team in the last couple of years, you already know the highs and the lows of this formation: in the positive side, it’s defensively much more consistent than the Euro08 team, as Alonso and Busquets keep the side’s shape effortlessly, something the brilliant Marcos Senna had to do by himself four years ago. All five midfielders can play keep ball till their opponents die of exhaustion, get to scoring positions and find the open man with a deadly through ball. The recent addition of Jordi Alba, who not only defends tough, but goes forward as well as any left back in football, has added one more offensive weapon to Del Bosque's arsenal.
Obviously, this line-up side also have some limitations, which became painfully clear in Spain’s last friendly match against China. When you block their inside play, they suffer as none of the five midfielders nor the striker – whether VdB picks Torres or Negredo – really enjoy playing on the wings. The pitch becomes narrow, and the usually very entertaining combinations between Iniesta, Xavi and Silva lose their bite. With this starting XI, Spain’s chances to widen their offensive game depend on Alba, given that Arbeloa lacks the technical ability to threaten Italy’s defence on the right hand side of the pitch.
Prandelli, well aware of all this, will focus Italy’s offensive efforts on Spain’s left side to prevent Valencia's fullback from going forward. He’ll also try to put a decent amount of pressure on Spain’s centre-backs to disconnect the ball flow between them and creators Alonso and Xavi. The inclusion of Ramos in the place of skipper Puyol should help La Roja in a more accurate start of their plays, while could also mean less discipline and coordination at the back.
The chess match between coaches, always an important factor whenever Italy are involved, seems key to the outcome of this match, and that is why the likely inclusion of Torres in the starting line-up feels even more puzzling. The Chelsea striker thrills in open spaces and counter attacking football, exactly the opposite scenario of Spain’s debut against Italy in Gdansk. After such a long spell without playing a satisfying, full 90 minutes match, making Torres start instead of using him off the bench could have the opposite effect on both player and team than the invigorating one Del Bosque is looking for.
Despite Italy’s mounting problems, I must agree with Phil Ball’s downbeat assessment of the tournament for Spain, and this first match perfectly showcases the reasons behind our shared pessimism: at this point most teams know how to defend Spain’s one touch dynamic, and Italy are probably the most skilled of them. Only a decisive tactical change from Del Bosque, mixing out inside tiki-taka football with some wing play, would help Spain defeat their rivals not only during the tournament, but especially against tactically savvy teams such as Italy on Sunday.
In this match – and probably in a couple of others during the upcoming month – La Roja will need tons of inspiration from Silva, Iniesta et al to repeat their recent achievements, or a second half shake-up that would see Jesús Navas, Pedro and Negredo join the side to widen the pitch and threaten Italy’s centre-backs not only with through balls, but also with aerial crosses.
Four years ago, Spain defeated Italy in Vienna after 120 draining minutes of tactical patience and a nerve-wrecking penalty shootout. To many of us, that match became the tipping point that transformed this Spanish football generation from just another group of entertaining players into the squad to beat in world football. This new meeting with the Italians will demand the best of Spain’s link up play, as well as some tactical alternatives to make the side less predictable. One of the toughest tests available in world football awaits for Spain in Gdansk, so it will take much more than tiki-taka for VdB's team to start the tournament off the right foot.
Ten days ago, Vicente del Bosque announced his 23-man squad for Euro 2012. The final list openly embodied our gaffer’s steady choice for continuity, as the core group that won Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 remained almost untouched. Only age – for example, in the cases of Joan Capdevila, Carlos Marchena and Marcos Senna, players who never had a chance to repeat – or especially injuries – in the heartbreaking cases of Carles Puyol and David Villa – forced del Bosque to leave specific players out.
The quiet man from Salamanca, an example of balance, thoughtfulness and respect for others throughout his career, has only reinforced his positive perception among media and fans alike since he took over the national team, achieving guru-like status after his World Cup win.
However, his almost radical option to maintain intact the nucleus of the team – a paradoxically radical decision to be conservative – may have deprived Spain of specific tactical alternatives that could be useful once the ball starts rolling. In contrast to that old joke that defines a second marriage as the victory of hope over experience, for the happily married Vicente Del Bosque experience always defeats hope…
Let’s analyse Del Bosque’s list going from the obvious choices to the more questionable decisions:
a) No brainers: a significant part of the core group indeed deserved the nod. I’ll go through them from goalies to forwards.
1) Iker Casillas. Un-freaking-touchable. Even if you don’t support Spain, I’m pretty sure I don’t need to elaborate much on his selection, but let me give you three quick reasons: penalty shootout versus Italy in Euro08 (in my opinion, the key match for the Spanish bonanza of the last four years), saved penalty against Paraguay in WC10 (a game-changer if there was ever one), and the two magic saves to Arjen Robben in the WC final. Enough said.
2) Victor Valdés: won the Zamora award this season to the goalie that conceded fewer goals in Spain. Spectacular year. Already a part of the core group since WC10, when he accepted Iker’s leadership after his own season had been more consistent. Valdés knows Iker steps up in the big scene and respects that.
3) Pepe Reina: while some may defend De Gea’s selection as a better option for the future, Reina plays an instrumental role in the dressing room. Pepe keeps everyone on their toes and knows how to create a positive atmosphere or break the ice with his jokes, a key aspect when you deal with players from Real Madrid and Barcelona for more than a month. He’s also the team’s MC, a very important job indeed.
4) Jordi Alba: first new face when we compare the chosen squad to the WC10 list, although Jordi had already been playing as a starter in the last few months. His season, outstanding, brought us Spaniards huge relief, as the left back position had become orphan since Josep Capdevila metamorphosed into Rasheed Capdevila after Euro08. Before I forget, I need to remind you of the fact that in one of the most underrated subplots of WC10, Spain managed to win the tournament with a 250-pound left back (I might have exaggerated a tad bit in that estimate, although no more than 50 pounds) in their starting line-up. Now we have a fast, street-smart fullback who can cross the ball and gets back like a good lad. Welcome to the team, Jordi.
5) Sergio Ramos: is it remotely possible that his new haircut means that he’s ready to take on more responsibilities in the national team, or that he’ll behave in a more disciplined way on the pitch? Probably not. ‘Fashion’ seems to rank much higher than ‘Professional Duties’ in Sergio’s version of Maslow’s pyramid. In any case, this season meant much for the Andalusian, who can proudly point at a much mature behaviour in his public appearances. Speaking of which…
6) Gerard Piqué: needs to improve significantly his public perception after a convoluted season, full of arguments with and punishments from his former coach, as well as plagued with moments of joy with his media-friendly girlfriend, which will hardly gain him the respect of his dressing room mates in the national team. The good news? At least he seems back in shape. After Carles Puyol’s injury (I do feel like crying as I write this lines), Spain’s defensive performance depends on the performance of the unlikely duo Ramos – Pique. Like a Jim Carrey movie, it will be heaven or hell, with no in between.
7) Álvaro Arbeloa: Del Bosque likes to include seven defenders instead of the usual eight in his 23-man squad. This implies that he needs at least two polyvalent players at the back. Ramos and Arbeloa can play centre or full back, and in the latter’s case he can even play on the left side. Hard player, tough to beat and physically imposing, suffers when he has to go forward. Always a consistent option at the back.
8) Juanfran: very similar to Jordi Alba, a full/back – winger that should provide width against defensive opposition. After Iraola got hurt, he was the wise option.
9) Javier Martínez: a complete beast in midfield, he’s also played centre-back with Marcelo Bielsa, and therefore he becomes another joker for Del Bosque. He’s grown immensely this season.
10) Sergio Busquets: yes, yes, he dives a lot, I know, it’s unbearable. But let me tell you two things about Busy: first, Vicente del Bosque has said more than once that he’d love to have played the way Busquest plays. Second, there’s a before and an after with Busy, the tipping point being when you see him playing live in a stadium – another instance of the ‘TV sucks for DMs’ endless soap opera. He’s ALWAYS in the right place. It’s uncanny.
11) Xabi Alonso: he’ll start with Busy as our two DMs. Xabi initiates most of Spain’s offensive plays, and has clearly learned how to interact with Xavi Hernandez on the pitch. His final third of the season, including Spain’s friendly games, has been well below his usual high standards, probably because Mou made him play even the weekly ‘Single vs. Married’ matches for Real Madrid veterans during the whole season, but hey, that’s what you get when The Special One likes you.
12) David Silva: played half-injured in Euro08, and holds a mega-monster grudge because Del Bosque made him pay for the ‘broken plates’ – Spanish expression that describes our national obsession for finding one and only one guilty part when something goes wrong – when Spain lost to Switzerland in their opening match of WC10. Beware. Assuming he maintains his Man City shape, his value for this team will be humongous.
13 and 14) Xavi Hernández and Andrés Iniesta: what Laurel and Hardy were to comedy, Xavi and Iniesta are to Spanish football history. The last four years of success have a lot to do with both, plus Saint Iker and David Villa, as far as players are concerned. Neither of them have had fantastic seasons, as niggling injuries took their toll in several moments of the year. But Iniesta seem back in top form, like his 45 minutes against China proved, and Xavi has learned how to pace himself in these one-month tournaments. Somehow things look brighter when both make the starting line-up.
15) Jesús Navas: finished the season in his best form in ages. Has recovered his speed and improved his crossing, a key feature for Del Bosque (will elaborate on this in one of my next posts). Will enjoy decent playing time, probably becoming the first option off the bench.
16) Juan Antonio Mata: over-hyped by my own ESPN colleagues, probably because he won the Champions League title this season, Del Bosque also shares their fondness for Mata’s silky left foot. However, the fact that Spain’s gaffer enjoys seeing Mata play does not necessarily mean that the Chelsea player will figure prominently in Spain’s line-ups. Our midfield is loaded. Another great option off the bench.
17) Santiago Cazorla: an injury prevented him from participating in WC10, but he belongs to this generation since Euro08, and his impressive end of the season with Malaga earned him a well deserved call up. A rare case of ambidexterity, he plays well in between lines and showcases the embarrassment of riches that Spain’s midfield has become. Won’t play that much, but would start in 90% of the participating teams.
18) Fernando Llorente: with 29 goals in 42 matches, this season Llorente played the best and most effective football of his career under Marcelo Bielsa. His commendable effort to adapt to the Argentinean’s style brought him one extra benefit: now he does the link up play routine as well as the target man one, which makes him extremely dangerous in a squad that can play both.
B) Kind of questionable: reasons in favour and against the following players make their selection subject to discussion, but eventually understandable. In all cases, Del Bosque chose to take players that relate well with the group regardless of their current shape.
1) Raúl Albiol: hasn’t played at all since 2011. We’ve already mentioned that when the Special One likes you, you get to the end of the season completely knackered (see #A10). But when he doesn’t, you barely remember that, as a professional, Sundays used to imply that you were supposed to play football before a full house. Even though he’s only an option off the bench, taking Albiol to Poland completely out of match shape seems a bit risky. And I have to add that Albiol in his top form always made me feel uncomfortable, especially when he had the ball.
2) Álvaro Negredo: in his favour, he finished the season in decent form, and knows how to play with Jesus Navas. Additionally, Del Bosque believes that Negredo is able to get involved in build-up plays with our magnificent midfield better than other strikers. Even if I disagree, I’ll have to admit that Mr Delbosky has some track record and probably understands more of these build-up things than I do.
3) Pedro: terrible season for the Canario. Injuries, low performance, scarce minutes from Guardiola… He does have some things going for him, such as the fact that he finished the year on a high with a brace in the Copa del Rey final, or that he plays well in the wings – something Del Bosque values highly. Borderline case between understandable and…
C) Did he really choose them? I could be listening to his reasons for weeks and wouldn’t agree.
1) Fernando Torres: his passionate defenders – and when you argue with these ‘Torresistas’, passion not only overcomes reason, but devastates it – will say that he finished well the season. Not really. He scored against Barcelona after losing three balls that could have cost Chelsea the Champions League final. He also ran up his stats against a couple of those Premier League teams that defend him like he was a 50 year old. He was never that skilled with the ball – believe me, I have seen him train at least 20 times, and in short spaces he’s a total liability when compared to David Villa – but at least he had pace and strength. Now he’s lost that extra step, so he hardly overpowers defenders anymore. Del Bosque made this same mistake in the WC10, and we all saw Torres’ pathetic display in those nerve-wrecking final minutes of extra time in the final. The most impressive about Torres' call-up? At this point he seems bound to start on Sunday…
2) Cesc Fabregas: started off the season brilliantly, with 9 goals in the first months of La Liga… and ended the tournament with those same 9 goals. Fábregas’ 2nd half of the season disappointed most Barcelonistas, as his seamless integration with Xavi, Iniesta and Messi disappeared overnight. Injuries didn’t help either, and the doubts over his physical shape have remained alive until yesterday, when he passed a physical test. How in shape you really are when you have to go through a physical days before your team starts a top-level tournament? I enjoy Cesc’s style as much as anyone possibly can, and know that when he's fully fit he can play fantastically well in this squad, but he’s quite far from his best now.
People close to the team tell me that Del Bosque had a very difficult couple of days as the deadline to publish his list was approaching. He intended to make the fairest decision possible, and knew that Adrian (Atletico de Madrid), Soldado (Valencia) and Iker Muniain (Athletic) had done as much as anyone else to deserve the call up. But with a 23-man squad, why not take a gamble with one or two new faces?
In any case, Led Bronsque’s decision has been made, one that privileged continuity over risk, even negative experiences over hope. That recipe has reaped benefits in the past, that’s why one can’t blame our manager-come-guru for going down that road. But the choices do seem excessively conservative. One only hopes Spain don’t regret those three or four selections based only on trust once the tournament starts.
Exactly four years ago, this space gave me the unexpected chance to start a writing career. At some point in the early noughties, I had developed the questionable habit – for a Spaniard, at least – of reading a foreigner’s opinion about Spanish football. During a two-year spell living in London, I started to devour Phil Ball's captivating articles every Monday morning, which made me a regular visitor of ESPNsoccernet.com. I quickly discovered other great writers to kill some (actually, quite a bit of) time between meetings at the office, just like many of you are doing at this exact moment.
A few weeks before Euro 08, while I was looking for some stuff to read about the tournament, I saw the banner that has already become a classic, ('Soccernet needs you!') and decided to give it a go. A couple of days later I sent my 250 words about Spain with a tiny glimmer of hope. Could I really be ESPNsoccernet's correspondent for my own team during the tournament? Sounded fantastic, but quite far-fetched indeed.
I've re-read those 250 words a number of times since 2008, and I still can't understand why some charitable editor in Hammersmith picked me. My choice of topic was boring (the Spanish FA's poor job in a number of dimensions, hardly entertaining), my writing sat somewhere between the baroque and the flamboyant, and in fact I emailed 300 words instead of the requested 250, anticipating my ever-present struggle to be concise.
In any case, it all worked out just fine. I got the nod and somehow managed to capitalise on my main advantage over any other correspondent: I was physically in Austria and Switzerland, invited by an extremely close childhood friend who works for one of the main sponsors of the Spanish national team, and therefore watching every single training session and match live, travelling with the bunch of journos whom I had always heard / read since I was a kid and in general having an incredible time.
My lucky streak didn’t end up there. After 44 years behaving like the 1588’s Armada, Spain finally clicked in a top-level tournament and won the whole thing, which meant that, rather than posting for three matches and go home, I kept writing for a solid month. One thing led to another, and even though I had to go back to reality when Euro 08 finished, a few months later Phil decided to take a sabbatical and Soccernet asked me to cover for him. The rest is history.
In any case, I do have to say that even though I enjoy writing traditional weekly columns, a bizarre mixture of informality and superstition makes me relish that time in the summer when a big tournament comes up and I get Soccernet's invitation to write Spain’s blog. The format allows me to behave a tad bit more irreverent than usual, and the fact that Spain have won the two tournaments in which I blogged (Euro08 and WC10) and miserably botched the one in which I wrote proper columns (Confed Cup 09) feels as though the formula to guarantee my country’s success is in my own hands.
It won’t be an easy tournament. Not only other teams seem to be peaking at the right time, but also Spain will have to deliver without David Villa, the goal scorer who took us to the semi-finals of both Euro08 and WC10, and Carles Puyol, our beloved skipper and, more importantly, the link between Madridistas and Barcelonistas in the national team. Now we Spaniards have to throw in the hesitant legs of the Player Formerly Known as Fernando Torres if we want to expect something big come July, which could be compared to marrying your high school sweetheart… only you dated her 25 years ago, had several other much better-looking girlfriends in between, and now her 50-pound overweight version is your only option to avoid bachelorhood for life. Not exactly exciting.
Before the beginning of the tournament for Spain, an extremely dangerous debut match against Italy on the 10th of June, we shall have plenty of time to discuss Spain’s squad, Del Bosque’s tactical options, the Spanish national anthem and the remaining array of usual topics that obsess me during football tournaments. Very glad to be back to my writing roots. Stay tuned.