In today’s world of competitive football, we are in the ‘results’ business. In a world where football managers are sacked and hired quicker than you can say “Neil Warnock”, does Vicente del Bosque have the easiest job on his hands? With full due respect to del Bosque, who has proved his credentials with both Real Madrid and more recently the Spanish national team, the most ingenious of all his tactics was a simple non technical decision.
When players play for their national team after the end of a long and grueling club season, there are more than a few hurdles that need to be overcome. Can a Steven Gerrard be accommodated in a midfield with a Frank Lampard? Will a Luka Modric be able to perform as well as he does with the reliant Scott Parker with a similar Croatian midfield destroyer like Vukojevic? In other words, is a player obligated to translate his club form to his national team without fail?
Wayne Rooney has flattered to deceive at the international level in every major tournament after his heroics at Euro 2004, even at the back of scintillating success with Manchester United. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have defied logic and reason with their goal hauls at Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, but have been a shadow of themselves for their national teams. Add Eric Cantona and Ronaldinho to this list.
Spain have probably the finest set of players in the world today and there is no doubting their pedigree; so is the pedigree of the English, French and the Argentines. The only difference here is that the Spanish players have time and again reproduced their club form for their country in recent times. So what makes Spain tick? Which brings us to the single stroke of genius from Vicente del Bosque. All that the walrus-resembling mastermind had to do was stick to the simple winning formula devised by Pep Guardiola at Barcelona.
The Barcelona training academy La Masia is the real reason behind the success story of the Spain national team. Of the 11 starters in the Spain national team, more than half are Barcelona regulars – Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, Xavi, Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Villa. The only positions where the starters are non Barca players are positions where the regulars in these slots for the Catalan giants are not Spanish players. Dani Alves is Brazilian, Eric Abidal is French, Mascherano and Messi, Argentine. The goalkeeper is the one position where a non Barca player has ousted a Barca starter primarily down to the brilliance of Iker Casillas.
The tiki-taka football delicacy that has been imbibed into Barcelona’s way has found favor with the Spanish national team through this team selection. And why shouldn’t it? Is it wrong to translate a way of playing that has proved successful at the club level into international dominance at the expense of talented players who ply their club trade elsewhere?
For del Bosque the plan has not been without sacrifices. Those sacrifices in the recent past at various times have been Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and Fernando Torres; players who would walk into most line ups in the world with a definite swagger, but have been overlooked for their own national team’s starting lineup since they don’t play for Barcelona. It is no surprise that Fabregas’ induction into the Spain starting lineup in recent times has coincided with him playing his first season for his Catalan boyhood club. David Silva has also been entertained in the Euro 2012 starting line up owing to David Villa’s injury coupled with his outstanding season at City. Is it fair for competition at the world football level, when other countries are faced with the dilemma of getting players from different clubs playing together overnight, with the expectation that they will gel with each other and produce the same kind of form, with the same team chemistry as with their clubs? How can the innate understanding be developed within 3 weeks of training when compared with years of tiki-taka practice at La Masia? But why should Spain care? If they have the formula, might as well use it.
Now, can this model be adopted by other countries? Is this model even realistically possible in say, England? There would be a need for very high levels of back scratching and co-operation between the English Football Association and the Premier League teams/owners. With the likes of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, Shiekh Mansour at Manchester City, the FSG at Liverpool, the Glazers at Manchester United and others pumping in money at various English clubs, this looks very unlikely. There is the matter of wealth being more evenly distributed in England than in Spain. While Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two top dogs in Spain, England have a glut of clubs with economic might. The two Manchester clubs, 3 from London and Liverpool from Merseyside all compete for the best English talent which prevents a Barcelona-esque national presence in a single English club team. While this makes for attractive football in the Premier League and makes it arguably the most exciting football league to watch in the world, the English national team suffers.
Even if this kind of strategy is employed by the English, will it be welcomed by the English fans and media? If Liverpool were to become a hub for future English talent, which it has started to go on the lines of under the recently axed Kenny Dalglish, will the fans stand the exclusion of the brilliant Jack Wilshere in favor of promising but nowhere near as industrious Jordan Henderson, because the Arsenal lineup is dominated by non Englishmen? Stewart Downing having had a wretched season with Liverpool is already facing widespread opposition among fans and media alike, proving that such a strategy will probably not work its wonders in England. And therein is England’s (and most national teams’) weakness.
Even though English teams in the Premier League are built in a way that is conducive for a pattern to follow Spain‘s, there remains an obstacle. There is widespread belief that English players with Premier League experience are more suited to the fast and physical game play and hence, are preferred over foreigners in the Premier League. And here lies the problem that is nonexistent in Spain- the small matter of the “English tax”. With Gary Cahill’s price tag going up by 20 quid because of him being English, even the best Premier League teams have to settle for the Mertesackers and the Gallases to subsist. How then can the chemistry develop, for it to be translated onto the international stage? Part of the reason why this problem doesn’t arise in Spain is probably the financial dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid when compared to the others in La Liga. If the Premier League also had a Big Two instead of a Big Six, the Spain model could’ve been followed by England. It looks like La Liga’s mediocrity (save Barca and Real Madrid) is the key to its national team’s success.
So it remains that this is an advantage that Spain alone have. If the other countries want to catch up, they may need to bring in similar models. The Italian League too is filled with a Big Four or Five. The national team closest to replicating this sort of model currently is probably Germany. If only Bayern Munich could replace a Ribery or a Robben with an Ozil or a Goetze more often.
Written by Dushyant Sinha