Spainai??i??s defeat to England at Wembley has kicked up a storm. Spanish newspapers have been unanimous in ridiculing England for the manner of their victory while their English counterparts have lavished praise on their defensive triumph. But, as we move closer to the Euro, this victory throws up a lot of questions than answers for both teams.

Under Fabio Capello, England have a man who is more than capable of plotting such victories. After all, he was the man responsible for AC Milanai??i??s enviable defensive organization and their dismantling of a technically superior Johan Cruyffai??i??s Barcelona in the CL final in 1994.

This was a game in which England decided to sit deep and absorb all the pressure and rely on a moment of brilliance or fortune to win it and they did capitalize on that moment. There is hardly any doubt that Spain are the most fluent and brilliant side in world football. And playing them at their game can prove to be disastrous as you can be assured of the ball not being in your possession for the most part. So, inferior teams will prefer to sit deep, deny any space and mass all their players behind the ball to deny them a goal.

It is not the first time that technically superior teams have encountered oppositions that pack their box and allow no space in which to operate in. These teams throw the rule book out ai??i?? theyai??i??re happy without the ball and are seemingly more interested in denying others a goal than they are at scoring one.

Delving into the pages of history, we have two brilliant teams in Celtic and Ajax; who faced two defensively solid and equally brilliant teams of that era ai??i?? Inter of 1967 and 1972 respectively. So, how did they fare against them and most importantly did they manage to succeed at it?

Celtic v Inter, 1967 CL final

Helenio Herrera was the Inter manager. The father of Catenaccio had led Inter to two European triumphs and this was his chance to make it three. They were up against Jock Steinai??i??s Celtic, a team comprising individuals all born within twenty miles of their home ground, a team with a philosophy of playing exciting and attacking football embedded in them.

Inter gained the lead through a penalty early in the game and then sat deep defending. They were content thwarting Celtic attempts on goal as Celtic went all out for the goal. The Scots were unrelenting in attack as its wingers and full backs went up further and further, pushing the Inter defense deeper and deeper.

With less than 30 minutes to go, Celtic scored a brilliant goal thanks to the space found by their right-back Craig for Gemmell, who smashed the ball into the back of the net. Interai??i??s resistance was broken but Celtic were not finished. They scored another superb goal sending the Celtic fans in raptures as Jock Steinai??i??s vision paid off at European footballai??i??s grandest stage.

Celtic had an astonishing 42 shots on goal to Interai??i??s five.

Ajax v Internazionale, 1972 CL final

Ajax had Neeskens, Cruyff, Krol and Haan. Inter had Burgnich, Facchetti, Bedin and Mazzola. Interai??i??s coach, Giovanni Invernizzi, was sure that they stood no chance at beating Ajax by going for goal from the start.

With only Boninsegna upfront, Inter sat deep and defended for their lives. Ajax moved the ball incessantly, moving players all round, pushing the ball in every direction possible hoping to draw out the defenders but the ploy just did not work. They could not find any way through the fort that Inter had built. Ajax created chances but could not convert them as they hit the post a couple of times but Inter held on. As the first half ended, Interai??i??s tactics seemed to be working and Ajax inspite of dominating play and possession were level with their opposition.

Then in the second minute of second half, Ajax scored and this goal was scored in quite the non-Ajax way. The full-backs, Suurbier and Krol, relentlessly rampaged Inter down the flanks, sending in balls into the box throughout the game with the hope of breaching the Inter defense. Finally, one of Suurbierai??i??s spectacular crosses was misjudged by the Inter goal keeper who collided with his defender, and the ball fell to Johan Cruyff, who coolly slotted in to send Ajax into the lead.

Inter now decided that, they could no longer afford to remain negative and so they pushed forward but could not find a goal. Ajax nailed Inter in the 77th minute when Cruyff scored again off a Keizer free-kick to win the CL final.

So, How Can Spain Do It?

Spain needs to learn a thing or two from both these games. Patience is one virtueAi??La Furia Roja has in abundance. Their ability to move the ball at will with unbelievable precision is their strength but it will yield no trophies if the ball does not cross the goal-line. Against England, Spain had 21 shots on goal but only two on target. They suffered 18 fouls and had six corner kicks but failed to score any goal. So, how can Spain break the deadlock?

Attacking full backs

Celtic and Ajax had full backs who were striking in attack. Spain seems to be lacking in this respect. They donai??i??t have an attacking full back that can strike terror into the opposition with his runs and crosses. Sergio Ramos was touted to be a potentially threatening right-back but his form has plummeted off late and with his performances growing as a centre-back for Real Madrid, the former Sevilla star looks to be the perfect replacement for the ageing Carlos Puyol in the national side.

Alvaro Arbeloa is an able replacement. But, Arbeloa is not the type of defender who you would call world class. He is efficient in defense but while attacking against teams who park the bus, he ceases to be useful. Another concern for Del Bosque is the lack of a regular left-back. After the departure of Joan Capdevilla, the coach needs to search for an able replacement and there seems to be very few options at his disposal that fit the bill of a threatening full-back.

Ironically, Real Madrid and Barcelona, the two Spanish teams responsible for the majority of the current crop of stars in the Spanish squad employ two Brazilians, Dani Alves and Marcelo as their full backs. Any Madridista or a Catalan, will emphasize the importance of the two Brazilians in the starting line-up. Both of them are quick-footed and their dribbling skills are vintage Brazilian. Their overlapping ability opens so many attacking options just like how Celtic used their full-backs against Inter.

Against England, Spain did manage to free some space on the right thanks to Iniesta, Silva and Villa who pulled the English defense to the left. But, with the limited ability of Arbeloa, they could not utilize that space effectively.

Against Italy, in the 1970 WC final, Brazil demonstrated the perfect way of opening up the space on a flank by utilizing the width on the opposite flank in one of the finest team goals scored in football history. Brazilian midfielder Clodoaldo weaved his dribbling magic taking out three Italian defenders out of the game and passed the ball to Rivelino who in turn gave the ball to Jairzinho. This entire sequence of dribbling and passing pulled the Italians towards the left flank and with Tostao making a dummy run inside the box to the left, space was opened on the right.

Jairzinho then passed the ball to Pele, whose probable shot was kept in check by three defenders. He waited for Carlos Alberto to arrive from the right and released the ball at the right moment for Alberto to smash it pass the keeper.

Another very important thing to note is the positioning of the defense when they sit deep snuffing out any pass made. When teams defend deep, the back line tends to stay compact and the space between the defenders is reduced as far as possible to prevent any through balls or the movement of a player without any hurdle.

So, in this scenario, the full backs are normally closer to the centre backs than the touchline. This easily opens space for the full backs to overlap regularly. This space is the only available space for the team attacking as the opposition realizes that itai??i??s too acute an angle for anyone to shoot at goal. But, itai??i??s an angle that could be perfect for a cross diagonally or into the box.

Another aspect where Spanish full backs need to improve is the ability to cross from the flanks. Again, this is a great concern if you play defensive teams. Ajax, against Inter, realized that they could not rely on opening up Interai??i??s defense on the basis of ball playing alone and hence resorted to crosses by their full backs which led to their first goal

IfAi?? Spain desires to become the best team in history, they need to produce or induct at least one deadly full back capable of tearing the defenses apart, capitalizing on the width and space around the oppositionai??i??s box by overlapping or timing his run to perfection.

Ai??Set Pieces

A possession-obsessed team like Spain is bound to earn a decent number of free kicks and corners. But, Spain have been poor when it comes to conversion of their free kicks and corner kicks because it does not have enough personnel who are adept at heading the ball or taking a free kick with chilling accuracy.

Only Sergio Ramos and Carlos Puyol are capable of heading the ball properly into the net. Puyolai??i??s brutally beautiful header against Germany in the 2010 World Cup proved to be the only difference between both the sides as Germany stayed deep in their half to nullify Spainai??i??s attacking threat.

Xavi may be the most accurate guy with his passes but he does not strike panic in defenses with his free kicks. Only Xabi Alonso has the ability to really trouble defenses with his free kicks.

Why doesn’t he shoot more often?

Long Rangers

Spain always strives to score a beautiful goal but sometimes long strikes can give you as much satisfaction as a wonderful move. Just ask Andres Iniesta.

Tiki-Taka involves movement of the ball to the safest yet effective player thereby increasing your chances for goal rather than taking a risk. If Celtic had played tiki-taka for the entire 90 minutes against Inter, they may not have scored any goal. Sometimes, you need to try different things to stifle the opposition.

The two goals which Celtic scored were sent rocketing past the keeper in ruthless fashion and unfortunately Spain does not have enough personnel in its ranks to conjure up a goal of that sort. Such goals are generally scored by defenders or midfielders who charge into open space with the ball at their mercy.

Again, Alonso and Iniesta are the only guys capable of scoring such goals regularly.

A #9 is better than a false #9

Against England, Del Bosque used David Silva as a false 9 to draw the defenders out of their zone but Jagielka and Lescott held their positions firm as Scott Parker followed Silva to keep him in check. Silva failed to fulfill his purpose of a false #9.

In such a scenario, it would have been practical to use Fernando Llorente in place of Silva as the tall Spaniard provides the muscle and also has the ability to hold up play when required. And his proven heading abilities will help defenders looking to send in a cross into the box and he will come handy in any set-piece situations.

High Tempo

Spain play a very patient game and at a comfortable tempo. But, ultra-defensive teams do not really get disturbed by such teams. When you play at a slower tempo, the defense always has the time to react and think while intercepting a particular move.

Celtic, against Inter, decided to increase the tempo of their attacksAi?? by charging against the defense, repeatedly. Spain, in their ranks, have superior technical players capable of playing at a high tempo without losing the ball. And, when a team starts playing at a high tempo at selected intervals, it usually gives the defense less time to react and can spread panic luring them into a mistake.

Epilogue

This Spanish side has managed to win every major trophy but if they want to go down in history as one of the greatest national teams, they need to retain those major trophies and vanquish even the most defensive of opponents Ai??and for that to happen, the players need to reinvent themselves and get ready for what could potentially be a major overhaul.

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3 Responses to “Dear Spain, Here’s How You Do It! Lessons From Celtic And Ajax”

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  1. JM says:

    First – tiki taka needs intensity & focus, you don’t expect that in friendlies and Spain has been poor in all recent friendlies.
    2nd – they have been dominant in last 4 years, So already they are one of greatest and has got nothing prove. So there is this complacency factor
    Let see how they play in Euro

  2. Jayant says:

    Frankly, too much has been made of the game against England. It was a friendly and should be treated as one. Like the above post reads, tiki-taka needs focus and intensity which Spain haven’t really shown in recent friendlies till they’ve not gone down a goal or two and have to chase the game. It was clear when Spain picked up the pace in the last 25 mins or so that England were struggling to keep up. If Fabregas and Villa had taken their chances, it would’ve been the English fans and media berating their team for a dour performance at home rather than praising them for a good defensive effort.
    This is not to say that England didn’t put in a great defensive performance but honestly answer this, if this was a competitive game with England allowed 3 subs, would they have been able to close down Spain the way they did? I don’ think so. England made 6 subs and the fresh legs helped them keep the Spanish in check and even then Spain were able to pick gaps in the English defense by the end of the game when they picked up the pace.
    Also keep in mind that this is almost the same Spain team that scored a boatload of goals at the Euros in 2008. The only difference was that then they had this guy called Torres playing fairly well and this is where Del Bosque has to make up his mind. He took Torres to the WC and he lucked out coz Villa and Pedro covered up for Torres but on current form, Soldado and Llorente should be ahead of Torres in the pecking order. If either of those guys were playing against England, Spain would’ve had a much better shots to goal ratio.
    That said, you are spot on about the RB situation. Arbeloa will not cut it at this level and Spain need to find someone to fill that spot, if not for the Euros then definitely for the WC in 2014. In Jordi Alba, Spain have a potentially great LB. He’s been excellent for Valencia this season and I don’t see why he can’t replicate the same form for Spain. Then there is Monreal and Angel as well.
    All in all, the friendlies shouldn’t be taken as seriously as some sections of the media and the fans have taken them. The Spanish press and the fans in general weren’t really worried about the result and I don’t see a reason to be worried yet. Its just that Del Bosque has to start picking the right personnel and Spain should be fine.

  3. amouria says:

    I wish you write a piece on Germany and its chances in euro 2012 especially the tactics of its coach. Thanks…