False nine Fabregas shows his importance, and more
Many were bewildered by Spain’s starting eleven against Italy due to the exclusion of a natural striker; it appeared that Cesc Fabregas would be deployed as a false 9 in between David Silva and Andres Iniesta, although some inaccurately compared it to the 4-6-0 played by Scotland under Craig Levein. In truth, it wasn’t all that different to how Barcelona line up – of course Cesc Fabregas isn’t a traditional striker, but neither is Lionel Messi, and you usually see Messi roaming free with other Barca players acting as the focal point as he wanders about looking for the ball.
This was exactly what we saw Spain do, with Iniesta and Silva taking turns to move into a central position when Fabregas went looking for space – although admittedly he’s not at Messi’s level so doesn’t quite command the freedom his club-mate does. However, this switching of positions utterly confounds a man-marking system, as players trying to follow their opposite numbers around the pitch would be dragged all over the place, and this fluidity and flexibility is what makes Spain, and Barcelona, so good.
It’s not just senseless roaming though – the idea behind Spain’s game is that when one player moves into another ‘zone’ of the pitch, the player currently in that zone switches positions with his team-mate. This is the basic idea behind Total Football, which was brought to Barcelona by Rinus Michels.
However, Italy defended resolutely and in numbers to deny Spain, who seemed to be lacking a plan B – it was suggested by some that they use the wide areas a little more, but when Italy sat deep, they had a five-man defence, with the two wing-backs dropping back into more reserved roles to deny Spain any space in behind, and also at times came inside to suffocate Spain and send them out wide where the starting eleven were less comfortable.
Spain, however, believe the best form of defence is attack; they try to restrict the opposition by monopolising the possession – the motto is that if the other team don’t have the ball, they can’t score. On top of their metronomic passing, another way Spain try to limit the other team’s possession is by pressing intensely and harassing the players on the ball, trying to cut off any options and win the ball back as soon as possible.
However, while this works against a lot of teams in La Liga for Barcelona, Italy were less susceptible to this intense pressing – Andrea Pirlo in particular never panicked, and consistently managed to out-manoeuvre his Spanish adversaries. On top of that, the Italians were sure to pass quickly so that Spain didn’t have time to hound them on the ball and cut off their options.
Italy eventually went ahead, having missed a few good opportunities previously in the game – thanks in part to Iker Casillas being on fine form – when Pirlo danced past Sergio Busquets and sent a magnificent ball past the Spanish defence to meet the well-timed run of Antonio di Natale, who finished expertly.
Rather than reverting to a plan B immediately, Spain were more patient, and instead of throwing on Fernando Llorente – or Pedro for more direct penetration, as we’ve come to expect from Spain and Barcelona – they simply upped the ante, and kept doing what they had been doing, only at a more frantic pace. This paid off; David Silva managed to thread the ball through delightfully for Fabregas to knock past Buffon first time.
This goal showed the value of the false 9 role – Silva had gone into the space vacated by Fabregas, and as Silva dropped slightly deeper to receive the ball, Fabregas made a superb run from deep which surprised the Italy back line, and he was able to steal in to grab an equaliser.
So Spain had eventually barged the door down having politely rung the doorbell for 60 minutes, and you could argue that it was Italy’s goal that jolted the Spaniards into life. Until then, the likes of Xavi and Iniesta had been more than happy to play tiki-taka around Marchisio, Motta and co, patiently waiting for an opening to appear. Indeed, it was Fabregas and Silva, the two players who have played in England, who took a more direct approach, and that summed up the variety that they bring having played in the more intense, direct Premier League for a combined 8 years.
Del Bosque then opted to bring on Jesus Navas – oddly for David Silva, the provider of the assist, and later Fernando Torres for the scorer Fabregas. The game was far more suited to Torres late on, as Italy came searching for a winner, which saw the game open up more – this game him opportunities on the counter attack to race clear on goal, although he didn’t manage to convert any of the half-chances afforded to him.
Neither team could find a winner though, and it finished 1-1 after an interesting game – as well as Spain’s false 9 and various other strategies, Italy played a classically Italian three man defence with a libero and wing backs, while Andrea Pirlo showed Europe once again that he’s no slouch; up against Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and more no less.