DONETSK, Ukraine -- Spain arrived in Donetsk ahead of its quarterfinal matchup with France for what -- judging by the number of billboard posters around the city -- might rank as the third-biggest happening of the year, behind Wednesday’s semifinal and German rockers the Scorpions, who roll into town with their Final Sting Tour.
Donetsk at first seems a crude industrial backdrop for Spain’s mesmerizing passing game to take root. The Rose City is a hard-featured town in which the warm wind smells flammable and the Euro venue, Donbass Arena, sits like a futuristic cereal bowl amongst the mountainous coal slag heaps that ring the fringes of the area.
But when you sit in a Spanish news conference and sample the mood around the team, it quickly becomes clear there is something different about this Euro campaign. Hard though it may be to believe, as the Spaniards lead the tournament in almost every statistical category imaginable – scoring the most goals while conceding the least, and even firing off the most shots – there is a sense of uncertainty that nags at their campaign. Despite winning its group, this team still does not know its best formation.
In a candid news conference last night, coach Vicente Del Bosque broached the issues of doubt, his unsettled side and his methodology for maintaining a collective sense of mission during a tournament campaign, admitting he was still unsure exactly which players would take the field against France. “There are still doubts about the starting lineup, but doubts can be a good thing,” he confessed, hinting at forthcoming changes. “I have always had 23 great players [in the squad], all of whom are important to their clubs and it would be great to use all of them. That is why the doubts are a good thing.”
Spain is attempting to do the unimaginable – win back-to-back Euro titles, having triumphed at the World Cup in between. It has played its paper-cut passing game with such success for so long – only the United States and Switzerland have beaten Spain in that period – that its rivals have had the opportunity to evolve their game plans, as evidenced by the episodic success of the Italian counter and Croatia’s aggressive creativity in the group stage.
As a result, the Spanish are tweaking their own formula accordingly, seeking to recalibrate their balance between scoring goals and preventing them. This reconfiguration has triggered two tactical dilemmas for Del Bosque. In attack, he has flip-flopped between a radical striker-less formation, loading the team with pass-happy midfielders, including Cesc Fabregas, and inserting the mercurial Fernando Torres to lead the line. As a result, neither player seems happy or secure.
Fabregas has played with an admirable and effective fury whenever he has taken the field, and Del Bosque seemed genuinely torn when discussing him. “He is a great player. Flexible enough to play different positions as he does for Barca. I am just trying to use all our players who are on top form.”
Del Bosque’s second dilemma revolves around his use of the “double pivot” of employing two midfield players, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, in a deep-lying positions. Del Bosque’s critics have suggested this commitment is overly cautious, blunting Spain’s edge against Italy by devoting too many resources to preventing goals rather than scoring them. Referring to the pivot in an interview with Spanish newspaper AS, Del Bosque literally went on the offensive: “I don’t think it’s a defensive formation. Both [Alonso and Busquets] are talented and creative players, they’re not cavemen.”
It takes a master of man management to massage such a delicate situation. No other team has won so much with players who all rank among football’s finest, yet Del Bosque has thus far been able to keep them focused on the collective goal and willing to make sacrifices. When asked about his authority, his stated approach is simple. “I have to be friendly and share as much as I can with them,” Del Bosque explained. “I talk to them and explain what is best for the team. Transparency is the most important thing.”
In that regard, Del Bosque snorted when asked if the reported disharmony in the French camp may weaken its play. “No team’s relationships are idyllic,” he said knowingly. "It takes work to make them good. It won’t influence the match at all.”
Del Bosque predicted the game will be a hard-fought battle for possession. “They have playmakers who can take initiative,” he said. “They won’t just sit there and wait for us to do something.”
Before wrapping up the news conference, Del Bosque was dismissive of recent history, even while he talked about making it. The Spanish coach put no stock in France’s dour performance in its 2-0 shock defeat to Sweden, preferring to measure his opponent via the medium view.
“They had not lost for a long time before this match, and they will want to win,” Del Bosque said. Then he pointed to France’s superior competitive head-to-head record – the French are unbeaten (3-0-1) in four major tournament meetings, most recently at the round of 16 in the 2006 World Cup. “You have evidence there that France has always been better,” Del Bosque said, adding with a modest smile: “We will see tomorrow if we can change history and if we can think only of the present not the past.”
Roger Bennett is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter @rogbennett.