Have Spain been forced to compromise their ideals?

Vicente Del Bosque warned of the influence that Inter Milan’s victory against Barcelona in this year’s Champions League semi final would have for his own players at the World Cup. His own admission has become a reality and, four games in, Spain have been forced to alter their style and – more worryingly – the team’s best XI is still unknown at this moment. Del Bosque said nearly two months ago:

“It’s a reflection of what can happen to us (Spain) and what football is all about. A team that is technically superior…a team absolutely dominating the situation [but] that is incapable of winning. I think these warnings come at the right time and we cannot ignore them. He who doesn’t want to see this is living outside of reality.”

I would not say that Del Bosque failed to recognise the extent of the threat against Spain’s possession play but more that he expected his team to simply overcome it. Switzerland proved one thing that many, myself included, had overlooked; sometimes teams just don’t perform. As disciplined as the Swiss were it was not a new or spectacularly executed tactical plan; instead the Spaniards facilitated their own decline by Silva and Iniesta’s determination to play without width and the knock on effects such narrow, congested play had on Alonso, Busquets, Xavi and Villa’s output.

Against Honduras Del Bosque fielded both Torres and Villa and introduced more width with Navas. Many commented how Spain played much better but a few noticed that, despite scoring two, there was much less control of the game when in the lead; a tenet inextricably linked to Spanish football ideals. Their style is particularly potent when leading a match because, without the ball, the opposition cannot score and become increasingly tired trying to regain possession. I don’t feel this to be too much of a worry purely because the altitude that the Honduras match was played at has been seriously underplayed. Del Bosque was forced to reduce the training load and the players – a group supremely fit even for the high standards of footballers – were visibly tiring in Johannesburg (2,000m above sea level, and also where their next match takes place).

The team Del Bosque started against Portugal must be his idea of the best XI. And a massive concern is that they still do not look to be a cohesive unit. The number of able players at his disposal has led to almost too many options in addressing the problems the team have faced. The main issue for fans in Spain is the use of both Busquets and Alonso in a rough 4-2-3-1ish formation (the lack of conviction in Torres’ performances have compounded the matter). Before, in Marcos Senna, one player would destroy and distribute. Now though, Del Bosque has been forced to field two players who do what Senna used to do on his own for the national team. Villa’s move out wide to the left has shown just how devastating his penetration, movement and finishing is – but there is an evident over reliance on him. And Llorente’s introduction definitely changed the game in favour of Spain. This is all still forgetting that Fabregas is sitting on the bench. A final point that Del Bosque alluded to back in May is also being faced by the Spanish team in South Africa:

“In football you can’t stick by what you did yesterday, you must always have intentions [to improve] and always be ready for difficulties.”

The change in formation and the directness that Torres and Llorente has brought to the team is certainly a credit to Del Bosque’s thought process for a plan B. But, and here is the main point, what should be a plan B has fast become the plan A for Spain. They still place more emphasis on possession than probably any other team at the World Cup yet the match against Portugal needed over an hour and a little bit of luck (Villa was ever so slightly offside) for the goal. Portugal weren’t hanging on, they were comfortably surviving. There remains a marked lack of width in the lopsided midfield shape as Villa is the only outlet (and even he is most dangerous cutting in). Xavi has yet to be accommodated into his best position for the team, Iniesta hasn’t found anything like his best form, and Busquets/Alonso haven’t struck a balance between sitting deep and making forward runs to compliment attack. Against Brazil’s highly energised and incisive counter attacks for example, the midfield quartet may struggle.

I think that Del Bosque admitting he felt his side played better in their 1-0 defeat to Switzerland than their 2-0 victory over Honduras is a telling sign of where his ideology and allegiances lie. But a direct approach has now become the default for his men. I don’t think their ideals have been compromised just yet – the goal against Portugal was deft and intricate – and I hope they manage to maintain their style as well as the necessary wins in this tournament.

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