Spain’s system review and a look at the importance of Robin van Persie
Getting right down to it, Del Bosque has stuck with a one-man striker system which makes sense given their objectives to dominate possession. This equates to flooding the midfield and playing one in attack. This remained constant throughout the campaign thus far and will definitely be the case this Sunday against the Netherlands.
Against Switzerland, without Torres due to his recovery from injury, Villa played up-front and David Silva came into the starting line-up and they played a more traditional 4-2-3-1 system. They encountered a strong Swiss defence who knew how to shut off areas of the pitch that Spain are so good at exploiting, especially the gap between midfield and defence). The narrowness of their play did not help as the Spanish failed to use all areas of the pitch to move a narrow defence about and find gaps between full-backs and centre-backs. Eventually Switzerland muscled their way through the Spanish defence and scrambled home a winner after much huffing and puffing from Spain but the discipline of the Swiss defence prevailed and they encountered a loss in their first game of the tournament.
Following this defeat they faced Honduras and Del Bosque seemed to learn the lesson of being too narrow and sent out a side with a 4-3-3 system where Jesus Navas would provide natural width, as well as an obvious out-ball for them to use when the midfield was congested. They won 2-0, however Navas lacked quality with the final ball and they were not able to score as many as one would have expected. He received the ball 68 times throughout the match, the joint equal in the game and was largely disappointing. For the spaces he found himself in, he should have provided Villa with more goalscoring opportunities than he did.
Against Portugal, Paraguay and Chile they changed to a narrow midfield with Ramos providing width on the right from full-back position. Villa on the left and Torres up-front by himself.
Against Chile they struggled in the first twenty minutes with Chile pressing hard and in packs, not allowing Spain time on the ball and to settle into their hypnotic rhythm in midfield. The sending off of Marco Estrada made the game more comfortable for Spain that it possibly would have been with eleven men on the pitch.
That win against Chile led to a Second Round game against Portugal, where Spain eventually broke the deadlock after Portugal had until then the best of chances until David Villa scored after a fantastic move involving a Xavi backheel and clever passing from Andres Iniesta. There on in, the game was characterised by Portuguese lack of ambition going forward and the game eventually petered out without much to shout about.
The Quarter Final against Paraguay was Spain’s most entertaining game of the tournament, not for the quality of football displayed but rather for the calamitous three minutes where Oscar Cordozo missed a penalty and then straight away David Villa went down after a challenge from Alcaraz. Xabi Alonso stepped up and scored the penalty only to be ordered to re-spot and take again. It was one of those moments in one of those games where you know he was going to miss or have it saved – and it happened, Villar saved it. This was not to end here as from the follow up, Villar clearly took out the legs of Fabregas but the referee denied Spain of the penalty. It was left to David Villa to win it again for Spain after Pedro hit the post after a delightful shimmy from Iniesta through the Paraguay midfield.
This is when Del Bosque realised something was wrong and something or somebody had to give, unfortunately for Fernando Torres, it was him. Del Bosque (pictured here)had persisted in playing him throughout the tournament, when it was obvious he was short of form and match fitness. The rest of the team and David Villa in particularly had carried him through the tournament without him having one stand-out game to draw hope from.
As a (long) aside, it has to be noted that Fernando Torres’ style of play may not be suited to the way Spain play or the way teams set-up to play against them. With expectations so high and so much talk about Spain being the World’s best, it’s natural for teams to get numbers behind the ball and defend deep. This does not fit well with Torres’ strength of running beyond defences and exploiting gaps left in defences as against an organised defence, there aren’t any. He lacks the first touch and close control of the ‘Barcelona’ midfield, reliant on his power and strength to score goals and David Villa is much more complete striker in that sense. He is seemingly incompatible with the Spanish style of play.
In the end, the Spanish press and Sid Lowe were stating that Fernando Torres was the Spanish equivalent of Emile Heskey and his presence in the side was to create space and gaps for David Villa to exploit, whilst not being of much danger himself. This justification for his inclusion is one that doesn’t sit well with myself, as it that Fernando Llorente seems to worry defenders more and is able to hold the ball up much better than Torres. However, his continuous selection could have been justified if his finishing was up to his usual best but when he’s not scoring chances whilst not contributing to the building of moves, it’s hard to continue to include him in the starting XI.
Against Germany in the semi-final, Del Bosque couldn’t risk another poor game from Torres, introducing Pedro to the starting line-up who apart from one bout of awful decision-making made an impression. It was Spain’s most impressive game to date, they firmly had control over the game’s proceedings, controlling and dominating midfield, able to weave passes together in close quarters in strange ways and play their constant ‘give and go’ game.
In a way, this was when it all came together for Spain, this was the game where they showed off their talents. The midfield was strong yet creative and their defensive was solid yet expansive and Germany had no answer to Spain’s high-pressing and ball retention skills. Within ten minutes Spain were playing the game ‘their way’, with Germany firmly camped inside their own third, dropping deep and staying narrow. The Spanish way of playing has two effects (1) the opposition don’t have the ball, they can’t do anything with it, stopping them scoring (which is obvious) and (2) the way to stop Spain scoring is to drop deep and pull back in numbers, restricting the opportunity for your team to direct the game and your attack is blunt and often lacking in numbers.
Then, when you do get the ball, you are immediately harassed by the Spanish, chomping at your heels and restricting the space around you. It must be difficult to be without the ball for such a long amount of time, concentrating on defending and not going out of position and then change mentality suddenly to attack Spain when you gain possession. You know that for each time you waste an opportunity, your chances of scoring reduce drastically, as it takes a lot to gather the ball back again and then for you to create a chance.
The Final itself
Against the Netherlands this Sunday, if Spain can replicate this high-pressing game that left Germany bereft of answers, it has been shown that opponents struggle to score. Denmark provided us with an example of a team that pressed high and closed down all space in midfield and this provided the Netherlands problems. However, this high-pressing game and high line could provide Spain with a few problems defensively if one man in particular can perform.
Van Persie has a significant role in Sunday’s game, as he is the one who can change the amount of space the Netherlands have to work with in possession. As argued by many writers, he is the archetypal ‘false-nine’, he loves to drop deep forcing centre-backs out of position and causing confusion within the opponent’s midfield. If the Netherlands are going to penetrate Spain, van Persie needs to think about his positioning and his movement off the ball as well as finding his immaculate first touch and agility to turn instantly.
By playing a high-line, Spain leave plenty of space behind their defence, this is justified as they press hard too, restricting time available to opponents to play a ball over the top and into the space. Problems occur if the discipline falls and the pressing stops in important areas of the pitch. The Spanish defence and midfield need to maintain as focused defensively as they do on the ball.
By dropping deep and forcing Pique and Puyol out, there is plenty of space for Robben in particular to run into beyond the defensive line. The chances that this can be turned into a goalscoring chance is dependent on van Bommel and Sneijder to assist van Persie and offer options. If Kuyt can stay wide like he did against Uruguay, he will be able to keep Ramos wide and leave a gap between Ramos and Pique.
This gap is made for Sneijder, who can either pass over the top for Robben to run into or run into the space himself. Busquets has to be vigil and attentive and not get moved out of position by Sneijder, he needs to really anchor and close down the space Van Persie has in between midfield and defence to prevent this scenario happening. Casillas has also looked shaky coming off his line, often going in feet first and leaving his goal exposed and this could be a plan that the Netherlands look to exploit on Sunday.