What have we learnt from the World Cup big boys?

With the opening group games all complete we’ve come to a perfect, if still premature, juncture to assess the credentials of the so called ‘favourites’. The only place to start is with the biggest favourite providing us with the biggest question; just how did Spain lose to Switzerland?

With only one loss in their previous 48 it has been difficult to find fault with a nation so captivating in their execution of passing football. Yet they suffered an almost unanimously unexpected defeat to Switzerland yesterday. Whilst the Swiss defended well the defeat is as much down to Spain’s poor individual performances, made worse by egregious positional awareness from key players who ordinarily excel in that department.

The Swiss set up with a 4-4-1-1 with Derdiyok playing behind Nkufo up front. What did they do well? Nkufo did a good job ensuring Pique could not play the ball out of defence, their central defenders were not afraid to be pulled out of shape if it meant attacking any balls into feet for Villa or the Spanish central midfield, and the team generally played as a compact unit asking Spain to go around them i.e. down the flanks, instead of through. But this is how almost every team wanting to stifle Spain set up. A key difference yesterday was the sheer positional indiscipline of Spain’s wide men, especially David Silva.

The potency of inverted wingers (or inside forwards, if you prefer) is based on multi dimension; Iniesta and Silva can go wide if they choose but they are equally, if not more, devastating cutting inside onto their stronger foot and playing through balls between centre back and full back or creating space for direct attempts on goal. Cutting inside and interchanging positions all add new dimensions to an attack and offer options for the full backs to utilise space on the flanks. Crucially, this did not occur yesterday. Instead of stretching play Silva would invariably come so far inside the pitch that he was on the left hand side along with Iniesta. Either the two should interchange positions or they should cut in to allow an overlap – neither happened. The first rule of the Dutch influence that Spanish football has evolved so wonderfully is to make the pitch as large as possible when attacking yet they played into Swiss hands by under utilising the space on both flanks and narrowing the field of play.

A second issue is the decision of playing Busquets alongside Alonso without at least one flank being occupied by some natural width, which would have afforded the two holding players some space to operate in. The double pivot became redundant because neither Busquets nor Alonso offered thrusting runs to support Xavi/Villa and further congested the narrow tendencies of the team – but this is less their fault and more a knock-on effect of playing with no width. Alonso’s passing was still superb, and he was unfortunate with a thunderous drive that almost broke the crossbar, but by the end of the match the Swiss had marked him tightly (Yakin coming on to do so) and did not allow him the option for direct balls into Villa or Torres when the game was stretched.

Whether the Spaniards suffered a bout of complacency or if it was just a particularly bad day for the likes of Iniesta, Silva and Xavi is unfair to judge. The truth however is that though the Swiss defended very well, they did not need to be exceptional as Spain facilitated their own subpar showing. More of a worry is why del Bosque did not react quicker to the evidently narrow failings of his team; by either instructing Iniesta/Silva to stay wide or introducing Navas earlier and sacrificing Busquets (the Swiss were never going to overrun the midfield) for the patently needed direct ball-running abilities of Fabregas.

As for the rest of the big nations at the World Cup: France played with all the disunity that has been rumoured in the press and failed to impact an uneventful draw with Uruguay. England remained disjointed and Rob Green’s horrendous error masked our failure to build play patiently through the midfield. Holland suffered the same symptoms as Spain and made a break through due to an own goal. Portugal genuinely look uncertain of what they’re supposed to be achieving; if Ronaldo does not find the mark then they’re in danger of going out without scoring. Argentina showcased their plethora of attacking abilities but lacked ruthlessness. Italy stuttered and Brazil eventually won out as Robinho shone. But the best performance of any of the big nations came from a youthful Germany team who scored four and turned heads with Mesut Ozil coming onto the radar of many football fans in this country.

In general it has been a disappointing set of opening matches to the World Cup. But my hope is that this is only due to the tensions of first game pressure; everyone would rather avoid a loss at this stage. It’s still early and there’s plenty of time for the World Cup to become the spectacle we all want it to.

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Click image below to see a gallery of the Dutch babes at the World Cup