Welcome to the knockout stages of Euro12! No, I’m not getting carried away by Spain’s 4-0 thrashing of the proud & singing Irish – by the way, I’m starting to believe that they only make the effort to classify for these tournaments for their fans to sing before a wider audience…
In these type of competitions, and unless you’ve won your first two matches and the remaining results have gone your way, you usually need a positive result in the last game of the group stage or else you’re done. Knockout stages indeed. Spain find themselves in this exact situation: a defeat against the quite competent Croatians could send the current World Champions home, assuming Italy beat the Singing Boys in Green, which sounds like a more than plausible possibility.
For this do or die match against Croatia, some questions about Spain’s starting line-up remain unanswered, and most have to do with what goes through the head of the national team’s manager, Vicente del Bosque. False nine? Pure striker? Rest yellow-carded players? Play with only one defensive midfielder?
Before I tackle those questions with Sergio Ramosesque enthusiasm, we need to understand the quiet man from Salamanca a bit better, given that some of his reactions and comments during this Euro12 started have surprised more than a few. Wasn’t this a calm, composed, methodical manager, keen to play offensively and open to listen to the rest of the world’s opinions?
Based on years watching the 1st Marquis of Del Bosque coach his teams, either with Real Madrid or Spain, we can make three statements about this victorious, but often misunderstood manager:
1) You need to have a simple set of tactical options to succeed: back in the late seventies / early eighties, Del Bosque played for Real Madrid under a set of managers – Miljan Miljanic and Vujadin Boskov, for instance – that taught him the importance of having a short, pre-defined array of tactical options and players to apply, rather than improvise depending on who tonight’s rival is.
For Del Bosque, the ideal situation includes three and only three formations: a) one to start the match: a steady group of 12/13 players that monopolise most of the playing time in more or less the same tactical disposition – the classic team that kids learn to recite by heart; b) one when you trail and need to comeback: more risks and one or two players to change your team’s pace coming off the bench; c) one when you have a large lead: tests younger players and more adventurous formations.
Even if options b) and c) do exist, Del Bosque would be happy playing 95% of the time with option a). His school of thought defends that when a starting XI play enough time together, it creates a series of automatic moves offensive and defensively that differentiate the team and put them in a different level of synchronisation. For instance, I can still remember Real Madrid’s most frequent starting XI under Del Bosque: always a 4-2-3-1 with names that evolved over the seasons, but that were pretty much the same within each of those seasons.
Obviously those three formations should be applied differently if you manage a club than if you manage a national team in a tournament like Euro12. In the latter case, you can use your a) formation against tough rivals in the group phase or in the knockout stages (if you get there), and the b) formation against a weaker rival in your group. If you’ve followed me thus far, you can probably guess that at this point I believe that Del Bosque’s a) formation is the false nine one, whereas the pure striker has sadly become his b).
This is quite surprising, having in mind that he had not tested this approach for more than half an hour during Euro’s qualifying stage, and that, according to Cesc, they hadn’t trained in that tactical disposition before kickoff of their debut against Italy. However, and judging by Del Bosque’s public statements, it looks as though his choice has been made, and we’ll see plenty of minutes without a real striker… at least on Monday’s match.
2) You have to stick to your guns and be loyal to your ideas. Changing every five minutes won’t get you anywhere. The good thing about this? You get continuity – an obvious corollary to the previous point. The bad thing? At times you may sound quite stubborn, just like we’ve witnessed these last few days.
You all remember WC10, when most of the media insisted on playing with one DM only. Nothing happened. Similar events occurred with one or other player during his tenure as head coach of Real Madrid, with the same lack of results. If Del Bosque decides that the approach is one, it’ll be hard for him to change.
3) Manners matter, regardless of who you’re dealing with. Even if that ‘who’ is Jose Mourinho. As a player, Vicente del Bosque grew in a version of Real Madrid that few would recognise today, despite the current president’s efforts to link his style of command and leadership to that of Santiago Bernabeu. On and off the pitch behaviour was key not only to play, but more importantly to secure a place in the club. ‘Cuando pierde, da la mano’ – when defeated, shakes hands – one of the verses of Real Madrid’s hymn, is a sign of their identity.
Del Bosque belongs to a generation of players that later would become coaches and that took this low profile, well-mannered approach to the teams they managed. This doesn’t exclude to answer firmly to critics, but always with a huge sense of respect for your rivals, and of course never arguing with others through the media. The Marquis of Del Bosque that we saw on Monday and Tuesday sending messages to Mourinho and Aragonés in his public statements was simply unrecognisable to me, and we saw his more usual, composed behaviour the following days – ‘I am not going to defend myself criticising others’, which he stated on Thursday, perfectly defines his views on this. He probably isn’t proud of those two almost reckless days for his own standards, and I bet we won’t see him like that again, even if Spain got eliminated and he bears the weight of the critics. It’s just not his style.
He therefore looks for people who behave like this. You will never hear his right hand Toni Grande pulling a Vilanova or a Karanka in the media, low-profile is the rule. In a related decision, Roberto Soldado lost his spot not because he’s slower or less accurate than Álvaro Negredo, but because he gets carded regularly and also kept arguing with his coach Unai Emery at the tail end of the season, and those things count from Del Bosque’s point of view.
This same rationale lies behind his decision of rejecting Perez’s prize for his career with Real Madrid: manners do matter, and what happened with Florentino in the past came down to a question of poor manners from the President. Once you lose Del Bosque because you broke some of the unwritten rules of ethical behaviour, you never win him back again.
Now that Del Bosque has just signed an extension until 2014, it’s good to keep all this in mind. Mark my words: Spain will play without a real striker on Monday against Croatia. Let’s hope it works out.