For Spain, Euro 2012 is turning into its own version of a summer rerun.
La Roja defeated France in Saturday’s quarterfinal 2-0 thanks to two Xabi Alonso goals. And the formula was strikingly familiar. Dominate possession, and once the critical goal is scored, do just enough to see the game out. In fact, had Alonso not converted a stoppage-time penalty, the match would have marked the sixth consecutive game in the knockout stage of a major tournament that Spain won by a 1-0 score.
It’s gotten to the point where Spain’s play now draws shrugs where it used to inspire awe. The otherworldly has become the expected. And it’s as good an explanation as any for the endless debate over whether the team is better off playing with a false nine or with a true striker.
Yet perhaps one overlooked aspect of Vicente Del Bosque’s side is its ability to adapt to changing conditions. Spain has often been criticized for being too one-dimensional, too content to tiki-taka its way down the center of the field in an effort to walk the ball into the net. But Saturday’s victory owed itself to some highly effective flank play. This mostly manifested itself by Spain overloading the right side of the field through David Silva and Alvaro Arbeloa in a bid to make France midfielder Franck Ribery track back and defend. Yet the left side had its moments as well through Jordi Alba, and a greater number of crosses were served into the box as a result.
Of course, the big question for Spain when utilizing such an approach is would it crash the box with sufficient numbers to connect with the service from out wide, especially with Cesc Fabregas occupying the false nine role for much of the day. One such foray in the 14th minute saw Arbeloa’s low, inviting cross go begging. But that mistake wasn’t repeated five minutes later. After collecting an Andres Iniesta through ball, Alba galloped down the wing, leaving French midfielder Mathieu Debuchy in his wake, and delivered a pinpoint cross that Alonso deposited into the net with a powerful header.
And then Spain did what Spain does, enjoying most of the possession while not being in any particular hurry to add a second goal, although on this day its 55 percent possession rate was below its usual standard. This was due in part to France's pressing higher up the field in the second half. It leads you to wonder what would happen if a team tried this approach from the start. It’s an issue that semifinal opponent Portugal will no doubt ponder. But in this match, Spain’s rather underrated defense, superbly led by Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, kept France at bay. In fact, the only times goalkeeper Iker Casillas was called into action came when he had to swat away Yohan Cabeye’s first-half free kick and then grab Ribery’s low cross in the second.
Otherwise, he was largely untroubled. Such defensive stinginess is nothing new either, as Saturday’s victory marked the eight consecutive clean sheet for Spain in the knockout stages of a tournament.
So as it has so often, Spain did enough to secure a victory without ever reaching top gear. No doubt, a greater level of play will be needed to subdue a talented Portugal side whose strength also lies in its midfield. But Spain’s recent history has been that of a team that gets stronger as the tournament progresses, and the defending champion will gladly accept a repeat performance as Euro 2012 reaches its conclusion.