Being one of the teams to beat in world football surely has its disadvantages: most rivals know the way you play in excruciating detail and quickly copy whatever strategy seems to work against you. This has been the case with World champions Spain in recent months, as different defensive variations that tend to harden the effectiveness of their passing game – although very rarely their monopoly of ball possession – have been implemented by various opponents, taking away a part of the tactical and positioning weapons the Spaniards have built over these last few years.
But continued success also has its advantages, and we saw an obvious one last evening, when Spain defeated France for a place in the semi-finals of Euro 2012: it’s called respect. When presented with the challenge of facing one of the world’s top sides, most coaches feel tempted to alter their usual gameplan and introduce modifications into their line-ups and formation, eventually overreacting or making their sides unrecognisable.
France’s boss Laurent Blanc decided to surprise Spain – and probably his own fans as well – with a severely altered starting XI, with two main changes from the group stages: two right backs - Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Reveillere – aiming to contain Spain’s left side – Jordi Alba and Andrés Iniesta – and Florent Malouda in the place of Samir Nasri, playing an obscure central midfield role rather than threatening Spain’s right-hand side as one would have thought when the line-up was announced.
Blanc’s ultra-defensive plan left Spain with the bulk of the possession, which is hardly news, but mainly intended to act on two of Spain’s major threats: first, most of the Spanish build-up play starts on the left, while Arbeloa’s side of the pitch becomes a secondary, crossfield option – when not an afterthought. Second, with the false nine approach, many of Spain’s plays finish in some short of central link-up combination, therefore clogging the middle – something most teams now do against the Spaniards – makes a lot of sense, at least on paper.
The fact that, without Nasri, France’s attack became almost decapitated, fully dependent on some spark of genius from Franck Ribery, didn’t seem to bother Blanc. And in the mother of all ironies, his team lost the match in an attack that contained all the elements Blanc wanted to avoid with his ‘respectful’ starting XI.
In the 19th minute, Alba broke free on the left after his marker Debuchy lost his footing, and found Xabi Alonso totally unmarked – untracked by… Malouda! – in the middle of the box. The Real Madrid player headed home and France’s whole gameplan went down the drain.
Focusing on the Spanish side of things, Del Bosque had started with his preferred false nine formation and Cesc Fabregas up front, after a whole week of tests and experiments of which only the second half cameo of Pedro Rodriguez became useful. However, the Spaniards looked like a much improved version of their recent selves, with plenty of movement and forward runs from the midfield, and a wider positioning of Silva and Iniesta.
In his 100th match for the national team, Xabi Alonso became the poster boy of Spain’s recovered dynamism, not only because of his first half goal and second half penalty kick, but also due to his constant participation in most build up plays, appearing even more often than Xavi Hernandez, a rare event when both start for Spain. However, he’s at this point Spain’s 2nd top scorer since Del Bosque took over (14 goals, levelled with Silva), so there must be something to all this two DM thing…
The second half, almost eventless, didn’t even change when both managers decided to switch formations. Blanc’s late substitutions, Nasri and Mendez, failed to make an impact on the match, while Del Bosque’s comeback to a real striker formation – Fernando Torres, ineffective again and wasteful with possession – almost made him look right in his defence of the false nine. Pity we haven’t seen much of Negredo and even less of Fernando Llorente.
Pedro Rodriguez and Santiago Cazorla, Del Bosque’s additional modifications, combined in the very last minute to win a penalty kick and finish France off. However, almost nothing of interest had happened during the previous 44 minutes. Spain were content to play keep ball and wait for France to take risks, but the French’s huge respect, one would almost say fear, for this Spanish national team prevented them from properly attacking Casillas' goal. France’s lack of combativeness, shocking at times, shows that sometimes being the favourite can be an excellent thing.
Yet another impressive stat from the Spaniards: after this match, they have held their opponents scoreless for eight consecutive knockout matches and two periods of extra time, 780 minutes in total. But there’s one last obstacle between them and the final, Portugal and a certain CR7. More on that tomorrow.