Spain seem to have lost their joy
On one hand, it’s refreshing to see Spain stick to their principles. When faced with stubborn defences, rather than reverting to an entirely different Plan B by, for example, using Fernando Llorente as a target man, they continue to bombard the opposition with their tiki-taka patterns. They up the intensity. They might bring on Cesc Fabregas, Pedro Rodriguez or Jesus Navas for something a little more direct. More often than not, they find a way through, confounding those who demand that they ‘get it in the mixer’.
It’s rarely enjoyable to watch teams set up pragmatically against Spain. Teams do so usually out of necessity, because they fear that if they come at Spain, and try to take them on at their own game, they’ll get picked off with ease. No team can match their incredible comfort on the ball, and they outpass and outmanouvre any team. With opposition sides pretty much conceding that Spain will dominate possession, it becomes something of a monopoly – Spain relentlessly trying to break down the stubborn wall like a game of attack versus defence in a training session.
But at the same time, there’s become an odd whiff of pragmatism about Spain. Lauded for their free flowing attacking football, the thing that earnt them plaudits is rarely seen anymore. It seems as if they do the absolute minimum – they exploited France with ease in the first 20 minutes in last night’s quarter final, but having gone in front, they eased off and Spanish bombardments became somewhat rare. Possession is Spain’s defence mechanism – if the other team can’t get the ball, they can’t score.
It’s understandable – preserving a lead is natural, especially in tournament format, because if you get caught out then you might be going out. But it’s not fun is it? Spain seem to prefer winning 1-0 than winning in style. Of course, they won 2-0 yesterday, but the second goal came from a rare foray into France’s box.
It seems as if Spain abandon their principles for the sake of winning. When they go in front, they immediately go into lead preservation mode, rather than looking to extend their lead. It works. But it’s not fun. It seems as if Germany and Spain have swapped roles – Spain are now the ones who are robotically efficient, while die Mannschaft are relentless in their search for goals and free-flowing football even when ahead.
Of course, it’s impossible to sustain a high level of intensity through-out a game – although Barcelona are pretty good at that – but Spain didn’t just lower their intensity, but there was practically none at all after Xabi Alonso’s goal. If when Spain are in search of a goal it’s like a game of attack versus defence in training, when they’re in front it’s basically like a game of keep-ball.
It’s disappointing seeing Spain do the bare minimum to succeed, only turning on the style when it suits them. It may be a successful tactic, but should success come at all costs? It had previously seemed as if Spain stood for everything that’s right about football, but just because they keep the ball doesn’t make that true. Keep-ball when 1-0 up is, it has to be said, an incredibly negative tactic. It may not be as brutal as ‘parking the bus’, but it’s in the same area of cynical pragmatism.
Spain are usually best to watch when they need a goal. That’s the only time when there’s intensity in their game. Look at the game against Italy. Until Antonio di Natale’s goal, they had been content to poke and prod at Italy with their intricate passing – and that passing must be admired on a technical level – but suddenly when behind they awoke from their stupor and equalised in a flash.
The question has to be asked: why couldn’t they have done that earlier? It seems as if to score against Spain is to swat at a swarm of wasps – it only infuriates them and causes them to up the ante. This may explain why teams don’t set up proactively against them – they fear that scoring against Spain will just result in the intensity being heightened.
What disappoints most is that we haven’t seen Spain at their best very often in the tournament. They have an abundance of magnificent technical players – Juan Mata is yet to take to the pitch – and yet they’ve scored just once in half of their games and if not for a late (but fair) penalty against France would have done so again. Against the Republic of Ireland they put four past them, but still didn’t break much of a sweat in doing so.
Spain give the impression that they don’t think they need to go into a higher gear against a lot of teams, which to be blunt stinks of arrogance. It would be thoroughly refreshing to see a country of equal ability go toe-to-toe with them, as Spain might come out of their shells for a full 90 minutes. It appears that a final against Germany is their destiny, but it would be foolish to write the Spanish off based on their showings in the tournament so far. They’re capable of far, far more than they’ve shown just yet.
Which is probably my main gripe with Spain. Some often preach that the Spanish are the true exhibitors of attacking football, that they play football the right way. Not really. Spain only play like that when they feel the need to.