After an uninspiring qualifying campaign and more recently some poor performances in glamour friendlies, it has become blatantly obvious that Spain are in serious danger of repeating the disastrous outcome of the 2014 World Cup. The capitulation of the 2014 World Cup team should have been a wake-up call to both the players and the Spanish FA, but the higher-ups have not heeded to the writing on the wall. With almost no stylistic or tactical changes to the team, along with the fact that Del Bosque has refused to wholly integrate the Spanish youth into the team, Spain head into Euro 2016 under a cloud of uncertainty.
Stylistically, Spain have fallen prey to the shortcomings of a poorly implemented possession system. The style in which most associate La Roja with is that of heavy possession and high passing, otherwise known as ‘tiki-taka’ football. What most fail to understand is that each of those five hundred plus passes in a game all need to serve a purpose in a functional and effective possession system. Not every ball is going to shift the entire opposition defence or create a clear cut chance, but each pass should be a tool for feeling out and stretching the opposition’s players so that those off the ball can take advantage of their positional indiscipline and ultimately punish them for it.
This is the key concept of a modern possession system; much like as the one perfected by Guardiola at Barcelona. The Catalan club and its famous style has its path intertwined with the success of the Spanish national team in the sense that the core of the La Roja winning international treble was also the core of the all conquering Barcelona side. Players like Iniesta, Xavi, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique, and Sergio Busquets were all key cogs in the machine that embodied both of those historic teams. They all understood and facilitated the execution of the aforementioned principles of understanding possession with a purpose and positional discipline. This, along with the integration of players that fit into and understood the same concepts; such as Xabi Alonso and Fernando Torres, are a big part of what made Spain the footballing powerhouse it is today.
As we know however, football; like anything you care to mention, has trends. An ever increasing number of teams now choose to play a press or counter attacking style of football rather than to try and recreate the specifics of a possession-centric system. Many see this change in football style as an evolution, but it’s simply a change. An evolution would suggest that the latter is better, rather than the truth which is that it is simply different. Counter-attacking and pressing can stylistically be viewed as the antithesis of high possession and ultimately why many see it as an exposure of possession systems, but it is rather the inability to implement the true meaning and purpose of the possession model as to why it has been so consistently exposed by counter attacking or pressing. Many teams; including Spain, are holding possession and trying to achieve high passing numbers as a way of proof that they’re achieving the goal of the system. The goal of the system is not to hold the majority of possession or achieve some specific number of passes, the goal is to manipulate the opposing team into tactically advantageous positions through your own intelligent possession, with high possession and passing statistics being a by-product. Implementing this tactical understanding requires immense training and attention to detail – something that is ultimately unachievable if one doesn’t have a true understanding of how to do so even if they understand the purpose of the system.
What La Roja is calling out for is the integration of its young and talented generation. The system as whole is not one that needs to be changed. The players in the squad; along with those that deserve to be, are ones that are wholeheartedly Spanish. Emphasis on passing and technical ability is what has allowed for the Iberian nation to produce such aesthetically pleasing and effectively devastating players. The romantic in me sees my Spanish roots beautifully expressed in the style of play that has been so closely associated with Spanish football in recent years. The flamenco guitars personifying the mesmeric and intricate passing plays that amazed football fans across the world. Staying true to those ideals is essential in the path forward, but tweaking the system for the new generation is also necessary.
What worked so well for Spain in 2012 was its midfield fluidity. The final of Euro 2012 is perfect example of what can still be achieved if the right personal is deployed. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva were all highly mobile and shifted positions quite often. This positional fluidity completely destroyed the zonal marking used by Italy in the final because of their midfield’s failure to keep up with the ever shifting movements of this dynamic group. Their intricate passing, along with the width provided by the bombing forward runs of the full-backs, allowed for the positional exposure that is so synonymous with Spain. Fabregas played an integral role in this tactic as he played a false nine that shifted in and out with Iniesta and David Silva. Unfortunately for the Spaniards, Fabregas is no longer this type of player. The former Barcelona man has dropped into a deeper role, choosing to dictate the play with long balls and is a lot less mobile these days. However, this doesn’t mean the same tactic can’t be employed in this summers tournament.
In my opinion, Spain should line up in a 4-2-1-2-1 formation deploying Thiago Alcantara as the false nine. Thiago has wide range of passing and is highly mobile, making him the perfect fit for the false nine role. Isco should occupy the same role as Silva did in 2012 along with Iniesta, interchanging between the front three and incorporating the width that will be provided by Jordi Alba and Juanfran or Héctor Bellerin. It is important that Spain seek to hold their possession a little bit deeper than simply pinning the opposition into their own eighteen. Holding possession in deeper positions will allow for the opposition to be drawn out of their own half since most teams will most likely seek to press. Javi Martinez and Sergio Busquets are both very comfortable on the ball and have an astute tactical understanding of purposeful possession, these two will be key in maintaining possession in these difficult areas. One would find it difficult to find a higher recommendation than Pep Guardiola’s when it comes to possession oriented football, as he took both players under his wing and made them the focal point of his system at both Barcelona and Bayern respectively. Martinez and Busquets will also play an important role when Spain lose the ball and are exposed by the attacking tendency of their full-back options in Alba, Bellerin and Juanfran. If Spain get their spacing correct and allow for their play on the ball to encompass the entire pitch, they will see better results from the attacking width of their fullbacks. Pinning opposing teams inside their eighteen will not only cut out the tactical advantage achieved by the fullbacks, but will also expose the Spanish to counter-attacks.
This re-usage of what worked so well for La Roja in the past is something that would be easy to implement since it is already familiar with the majority of the players – it is simply a matter of incorporating the youth. Bringing along the lackadaisical Fabregas and ill-fitting Brazilian that is Diego Costa will only hamper the squad. Both players have had a poor season in London and their attitude and play style doesn’t help the advancement of the national team. Young and talented midfielders like Isco, Koké, and Sergi Roberto have incredibly bright futures for both club and country, the last thing they need are these poor role models poisoning their mindsets.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by FAISAL HAMADAH