Spain have won an unprecedented third consecutive major championship and with it, have cemented their place in the pantheon of some of the greatest teams ever. What is far from cemented though, is their reputation of being an entertaining team always wanting to please the crowd during the course of their annihilation of opponents. The big question that started doing the rounds during the Euros was, are Spain boring?
Its sort of a redundant question. You watch a game they play. If you get bored while watching it, then no matter how much explanation is given or how many articles are written, nothing will change the fact that you found it boring. Its an opinion, and everybody is entitled to theirs. But the broad sentiment behind the question can be understood. On simply following the ball while watching the match, its natural to find all the passing completely fruitless. The general perception grew that it passing was mostly sideways, and almost always pointless.
That’s the perception I’m going to try and evaluate. The thing is, every pass is calculated, every movement is predetermined, and every sideways pass is inching them closer to their goal. Then they give it to Iniesta who’ll do something magical.
Vicente del Bosque sprung a surprise at the Euros by playing Cesc Fabregas in the striker’s position, popularly called the ‘false 9’. The expression comes from the norm of yesteryear wherein the man wearing the number 9 jersey was generally the lead striker who would trouble the opposition’s centre backs, and was burdened with most of the scoring responsibility of the team. A ‘false 9’ is basically one who would pretend to be a striker so that the defenders knew whom to mark, but once picked up by a defender, would move deep towards his own midfield to drag the him out of position. This would effectively create space for his team mates to exploit. That’s the broad idea anyway.
When considered at its most basic level, it seemed quite a logical decision to play without a striker in the proper sense of the word. Torres was not having a great season and Fernando Llorente was injured, and as Fabregas had played a similar role for his club this past season, he seemed the natural choice to take up the responsibility. Del Bosque recently said that if David Villa had played the tournament, he would’ve played on the left, as he so often does for Barcelona, rather than as a centre forward. With the game evolving rapidly and coaches of national teams having lesser and lesser time to work with their teams, its only natural to settle for a trade-off between idealism and pragmatism.
This seems to be what VdB had reconciled to, but the manner of conceding some of their idealism was unique. Since the beginning of the World Cup in South Africa, Spain had started to face more teams that had decided that the only way to stop them, was to forget about the ball, and try to frustrate them with resolute defending. This is similar to what possession based teams at club level face against most opposition. However, this not a tactic that works often enough for it to be justified. Furthermore, at club level, the team and coaches are working together on a daily basis and that makes it far easier to setup a system which is based on defensive shape and co-ordination. At international level, as England showed, there just isn’t enough time to develop that level of synchronization.
Spain are a team where most players play together most of the time and more importantly, have done so almost all their lives. That is why its fascinating to watch them. There are subtle intricacies to their game which need to be noticed in the context of their play to be truly appreciated. The entire team moves as a living breathing organism. At earlier tournaments, they held the ball and passed more directly. When in possession, the centre backs would split wide, and the full backs would move up field to support the conveyor belt passing. As soon as they lost the ball, you could see them shrink the field of play to squeeze out the opposition. Like a pricking a balloon they would suck the air and space out of the game. The two centre backs who’d drifted deep and wide, rush together and forward while the full backs join them to form a high offside line, while the mid field stars hound the man in possession, off the ball so that he panics and gives it straight back. The ball is their property. Trespassers are treated with disdain.
So eventually teams figured out it was fruitless to even try to win the battle. Which is what we saw a lot of at the Euros and the World Cup. Teams coming out solely with the objective of not letting Spain score. In the few moments of possession they had, they would try and get their goal, but never commit too many men forward. Scoring became a secondary objective. Which is probably why a lot of Spain’s games became one-sided affairs in terms of possession or even as a contest. Like a boxing match where one boxer put his guard up and looked to land just one knockout punch while the other kept battering his defenses but got no points.
Spain got used to keeping possession without being challenged, and that inertia or lethargy probably led to them having a lot of trouble against Portugal in the semi finals. The Portugese were the first team after Italy, to make Spain actually make an effort to keep the ball and win it back. They only just scraped through that scare.
But in general, Spain responded to parked busses quite well. Especially at the Euros, where they simply refused to give the ball up, always making only the 100% pass. Always looking for the safest option instead of the one that could cause most danger for the defense. That’s probably why they slowed down considerably. This was their form of defending. If you have the ball, your opponents can’t score. The other thing it did, was tire the opposition out. Running around during the game is tiring enough, but chasing shadows and barely ever having sight of goal can cause physical as well as mental fatigue not to mention trauma. While spain had the ball, they rested, while their opponents suffered. This led to lapses in concentration at the back, and lack of energy while going forward. The longer they chased the ball, the less capable they became of launching swift counter attacks. The boxers defenses were battered and he just didn’t have the energy to land the knock out punch. This formed a trend of Spain scoring late goals, clinching a 1-0 win which looks much closer than it actually was because they’d spent the whole game leading up to exactly that move.
Its hard to have a concrete, definitive answer to such a subjective question but maybe it lies in a bit of a grey area. Spain’s games might have been boring for certain periods, but does that make Spain boring or their opposition? They in fact tried to find the least boring way to defend against a counter-attacking side, considering the fact that they didn’t have one of their first choice centre back, and consequently, right back (with Sergio Ramos moving into the place vacated by Carles Puyol). To realize how they actually make it work, you need to look at the off the ball intricacies, of how David Silva attracted defenders towards himself, Alba stretched defenses wide, and Busquets and Xabi Alonso provided outlets for the ball with their positioning, and how Xavi saw a teammate’s run even before he had made it. In the final, we saw a different Spain to the one in the previous games. They were quick and direct. It was far more fun to watch, but we shouldn’t forget Italy’s contribution to making it the spectacle that it was. They were helpless, but they didn’t setup the way most others did. Like in the first game, they weren’t afraid to challenge Spain’s dominance of the ball. This showed as Spain finished the first half with less than 50% of the possession for the first time in a long long time.
We need to recognize, that the game is played between two teams, and the quality of the game will therefore be the result of both teams’ willingness to attack. Overall, Spain’s play during the tournament in Poland and Ukraine can probably best be described as an acquired taste where the beauty lies in the details.