Spain  -  Xavi

Is This The End?

Now, who would have thought of this? Not that BrazilAi??never stood a chance against the Spanish; in fact the intimidating atmosphere at Maracana probably turned things in their favour slightly more than what their squad strength would have suggested. But even after giving that due consideration, what transpired on Sunday was, mildly put, unimaginable. Ever since rising to superpower status in International football in 2008, Spain have hardly put a foot wrong in the knockout stages of a major competition, save their rather forgetful exit from the Confederations Cup semi-finals at the hands of USA in 2009. But that can easily be discarded as an upset.

In these five years where Spain have firmly placed themselves in the annals of history, an astounding piece of statistic has emerged – they haven’t conceded a single goal in the knockout phases of the three biggest International competitions (two Euro titles and their first ever World Cup crown). They have not replicated the goal-scoring exploits of some of the past winners of these prestigious titles, mostly due to a tendency to go with the faltering David Villa and Fernando Torres; Villa has neither been the fittest nor the best of forwards post the World Cup and Fernando Torres has continued being Fernando Torres. But under Vicente Del Bosque, Spain have learnt to overcome this weakness in front of goal and more than make up for it with their incredibly effective passing game.

All this made all the sense in the world before Spain played the semi-final and final of the recently concluded edition of the Confederations Cup against Italy and Brazil respectively. While an overhit penalty kick by Leonardo Bonucci pushed them through to the finals after nearly escaping a defeat in normal time, Spain were finally annihilated by a Brazilian side that was perhaps not as organized as the Italians but way more brutal going forward and almost unforgiving when it came to taking the chances. Barcelonaai??i??s latest signing, Neymar, dropped hints of whatai??i??s in store for La Liga next season, and the strongest of those hints was passed to Real Madrid and Spainai??i??s legendary captain Iker Casillas. Brazil were stronger in every department on the pitch and they elevated the tempo of the game so high, Spain often seemed clueless with the ball ai??i?? rarest of sights in World Football.

Where exactly do teams catch Spain off the guard?

It is no secret that Barcelonaai??i??s success at the club level has seamlessly transcended to the national side as Del Bosque has never tried changing the tiki-taka approach. The difference between the two sides however, lies in their attacking strength. While Barcelonaai??i??s endless passing often ends at the feet of Lionel Messi – where after the ball can only find one destination- that has not been the case with Spain. Despite having some of the best forwards in his ranks, Del Bosque has never been able to figure out his best attacking combination ai??i?? his choice of six midfielder setup during the Euros last year further confirms his lack of confidence in his offensive brigade, which is quite perplexing actually considering the quality strikers the likes of Soldado, Llorente and Negredo are.

This tactical formation renders Spainai??i??s attacking moves useless at times as the players playing in advanced roles are profligate at converting the chances created. Their highly intricate passing game no longer intimidates their opposite numbers and teams are fine letting Spain see the better of the ball. But the moment this approach fails to yield the desired results, Spain clearly lack an alternative plan, which has now led to a stage that they are deemed too one-dimensional to dominate World Football beyond this point. There are teams who have showed greater tactical flexibility and a more physical approach to counter Spainai??i??s possession driven tactics.

Against Brazil, the pace of the game was becoming too much to deal with for Spain and their right flank made up of Xavi and Arbeola clearly lacked the legs to keep Neymar out of the game. The Spanish defence has never been the best in the world and more importantly, it has not been used to see opposite teams storm their way forward and exchange quick passes before Spain can organize themselves in their own half falling back from the generally high line that is held. Paulinho and Luiz Gustavo were both very alert on their front and never lost the sight of either of Xavi and Iniesta. With the two being stifled for space, Spain immediately run out of ideas. Busquets doesnai??i??t make those instinctive runs forward to add numbers in the opposition half and that further delimits Spainai??i??s options. It also forces the advanced players to drop a few yards back and try winning the ball but then the absence of a target man upfront comes to haunt them.

Even in the semi-finals the other night, Spain failed to press the Italians enough and this was very evident in a couple of instances where Pirlo, of all people did not hesitate venturing in the final third dispossessing Xavi and taking a shot. The Italian midfield was matching Spain at every aspect of the game and save Jesus Navas, each of the Spanish midfielders came second to Daniele De Rossi in those 120 minutes of action. Del Bosque was visibly running out of tactical cards but even an eventual, somewhat fortunate, penalty shootout win failed to give the Spanish coach enough signs of the need for change in approach. But Spainai??i??s resistance to change was the biggest gain for Brazil as they punished the World Champions on every front and punish them hard, did they!

What does Del Bosque need to do?

Vicente Del Bosque of Spain at Euro 2012

Thereai??i??s only so much any team can achieve and even those considered the greatest in footballai??i??s history have all stagnated after a point. This is the moment of reckoning for Vicente Del Bosque ai??i?? this is his time to prove he can evolve as a coach and yet continue to take Spain to even greater heights. He is at the luxury to choose from some of the worldai??i??s brightest talents who have failed to make it beyond the bench for Spain so far. And this list includes the likes of Javi Martinez, Cesc Fabregas, Roberto Soldado and Juan Mata. Alvaro Morata, Thiago Alcantara and Isco are also gearing up to claim their place in the senior side. This is a kind of selection dilemma nobody should mind having but at the same time itai??i??s important to maintain a balance between experience and exuberance.

Del Bosque still needs Xavi to marshal the midfield on the big days but he also needs to realize the Barcelona star isnai??i??t getting any younger. There are some wonderfully talented replacements whom the coach must start introducing in the scheme of things for the eventual transition to go smoothly. He might also need to make a few tactical adjustments to suit to a relatively younger generation of players but that element of variety is very essential for Spain, should they hope to continue building on this success and have a serious claim at defending the world title.

Other talking points from the tournament

  • Brazil have a fantastic squad in place but still need to address a few tactical issues, particularly in defence, before being considered as strong candidates for the next yearai??i??s World Cup.
  • Italy are making a very decent progress, much to the ignorance of the rest of the world. Their attacking department is still pretty thin and the midfield doesnai??i??t look the same in the absence of De Rossi ai??i?? These are the two pressing concerns for Cesare Prandelli.
  • Uruguay had a disappointing campaign by and large and are under some serious threat of missing out on even qualifying for the tournament next year. They might want to reconsider Diego Forlanai??i??s future with the team.
  • Despite losing all the three group games, Japan have won themselves some new fans on the global platform. Their performance against Italy was particularly a heart-winning one and although their squad isnai??i??t expected to improve much in one yearai??i??s time, they can certainly play party-poopers to a couple of bigger names in the sport. Do watch out for them.

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