Wednesday, 7 July 2010

The Spanish Conundrum

This is my first post that I have been compelled to write during this World Cup.  After my predictions were so wrong I thought I should just sit back and enjoy the games.  However after watching the Spain Germany Semi-Final I have decided to write a blog on some of the very interesting tactical decisions that Del Bosque is going to have to make for the Final. 

What makes these tactical possibilities so interesting is the fact that they revolve around changing only one player in the whole team (Pedro or Alonso) and both of those players played brilliantly against Germany.  Most teams will change personnel and formations but with Spain  I believe that the one change could have a dramatic effect on the way that Spain approach a game.  I will now outline what I think are the main possibilities for Del Bosque and will try to explore their strengths and weaknesses.

Villa As Lone Front Man

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The diagram above is the team that Spain selected in the Germany match.  They line up in a lose 4-1-2-3 but this changes at will and in all honesty formation names for Spain are pretty redundant.  In last night's match they often became 3-4-3 with Busquets dropping into the hole between Pique and Puyol with Pique operating as an auxiliary Sweeper and Ramos and Capdevilla joining Alonso and Xavi as a midfield four.  It was a joy to watch with Pique rapidly becoming my favourite footballer in the world. 

If you substitute Pedro with Silva this was also the team selected to play against Switzerland.  The difference between the first and last games played by Spain was undoubtedly Pedro, who last night (apart from his epic selfishness) was brilliant: dynamic, quick and very very sharp.  Something not as easily said about Silva in this competition.   

In this system you have Iniesta coming inside and making a 4 in the centre of the park.  This means that teams simply cannot get the ball.  Even Germany, a side who have loved keeping the ball in the middle, failed to cope with the superior passing and movement of those four.  This ensures that it many ways Spain's approach, whilst positive and wonderful on the eye, is actually the ultimate defensive system. 

I believe that Del Bosque has turned Spain's strengths, seen as attacking in Euro 2008, into a system that prevents other teams playing.  As a lover of defensive football I am overjoyed by this change of tact - when it works, like in the Semi, it is akin to watching something in a dream: fluid and sumptuous and it perfectly encapsulates Jonathan Wilson's contention that sometimes goals are not everything in a football match. 

However, like with all systems, there is a flaw and that is David Villa.  Against both Switzerland and Germany Villa had his quietest games in that he failed to score in both and looked less dangerous than previously.  This is because he has to do donkey work and is often marked by two large centre-backs.  Villa has looked best when he is able to get on the ball from the left and cut in.  This means he is usually looked after by one of the full-backs, which is normally a lot less labour intensive. 

I believe that Del Bosque will use this same team for the final because overall it was easily their most impressive perfomance of the tournament so far.  However it does not get the best out of Villa, who has been their star attacking threat in all the other games, and that must be a worry that any manager would look to try to sort out. 

Villa Left, Torres Up Top 

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This formation see Torres replacing Pedro and playing down the middle, which allows Villa to drift wide left.  The benefits of this system is that Villa has looked unstoppable cutting in from the left.  Some of his goals and performances have been brilliant and he has looked, alongside Forlan, as the best attacking player in the 2010 World Cup. 

The midfield defensive system is not really affected as Iniesta is still there to make that impenetrable midfield four.  The major change is now the lack of real width and pace down the flanks.  Iniesta is a wonderful player, a personal favourite, but he loves to cut inside and dribble thorough the middle.  He is also not electrically paced. 

In this system Spain look as good on the ball but lack a real outlet for pace.  However with Torres taking up the flak from the centre-backs this means that Villa is poised to float about and pick the ball up in dangerous, often unmarked, positions. 

The main problem is that Torres has been woeful this tournament and looks tired and out of form.  He does not bring much to the party other than allowing Villa to play - and in every game he has started so far Spain have looked far better when he has been taken off.  I think after seeing the performance of Pedro against Germany Torres will be lucky to get picked as a starter in the Final.  The question for Del Bosque is should he sacrifice Villa's performance for that of the team or should he bring a player in who can help his star striker score the goals to win it?

Another Option: Dropping Alonso

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The only other option, in my opinion, is to drop one of the four four centre midfielders.  Many people would call for that person to be Busquets but I believe he has been impeccable so far and offers the simple, easy option.  He is no nonsense and often performs a brilliant shackling role on a playmaker like he did against Oezil last night. 

Iniesta and Xavi are undroppable and as such in this suggestion Xabi Alonso is the fall guy.  I am a huge fan of Alonso and think he is one of the World's best midfielders but I do think it is arguable that he is suplus to requirements in this Spanish side due to their quality in the middle. 

In this system Spain would play with a system and team very similar to that which played in Euro 2008.  The main changes would be Busquets for Senna and Pedro for Silva.  As we saw in the Euro's this is a brilliant attacking team with goals all over the pitch.  There is pace available, a buffer to keep the centre-backs busy, and Villa is able to drift in from his left-hand side position. 

There is of course a draw back to this system, which I think Del Bosque identified in the Confederations Cup loss against the USA.  If you have a team who are direct and quick there is a possibility that the midfield three will not have the same control over a game as the midfield four seen in the other formations.  Del Bosque obviously decided that playing just one holding midfielder left him isloated and meant that teams could cause damage.  He in effect left this formation and set up behind in South Africa in 2009.  There is also the fact that none of the midfield four deserve to be dropped.     


Del Bosque has clearly decided to select a team which is nominally protected by two defensive players in Alonso and Busquets.  This means that the first two options will almost certainly be at the forefront of his mind leading up to the final.  The wild card, whilst very effective in Euro 2008, might be seen as too attacking and perhaps open to domination, or at least parity, with the 5 in the middle in Holland's 4-2-3-1.

In some ways I am drawn to the last of these formations as I feel at times against Germany Spain looked like they could do with a man less in midfield and a more physical outlet upfront who allows Villa to play at his best.  However seeing how the game developed and Spain's constant belief that they can score regardless of the minute on the clock I am pretty sure that the first two options are best for the current team.  Keeping the ball has never been so much fun. 



  1. Del Bosque won't drop Alonso. Noticed how he's started with the same - essentially - back eight each match? That'll be the same. The other options you don't mention are starting with Cesc instead of Torres/Pedro (fitness dependant), or starting with Llorente instead (unlikely, I admit, though he was impressive against Paraguay.)

  2. Let's start by not forgetting that Alonso is also an attacking midfielder, not just defensive. In addition, I think Del Bosque replaced Torres with Pedro to keep Lahm occupied without Villa having to do a lot of work tracking back - you may have noticed Lahm rarely attacked up the wing as he normally does.

    As for formation, Spain have shown during last 3-4 years that they can play with either 1 or 2 strikers. It is a debate that has been in the Spanish press for while and general concensus is that they play best with 1 striker due to stability offered by extra midfielder. However, this could be Cesc Fabregas, if fit, rather than Pedro.

    As for the final, with Holland having 2 wide men (Robben and Kuyt) even if Kuyt is more of worker, may mean that Del Bosque prefers extra midfielder again.

    Riazor Blue

  3. @the first poster - I was not suggesting he drops Alonso. I was merely speculating about it as an option. I know he will not do it but that doesn't mean I cannot suggest it! Also I could have done a team with Cesc (not Llorente as that would have been the same as the Torres one) but in essence I was arguing that Spain are to centre-mid heavy. Adding Cesc would further compound that.

    @Riazor - I agree that Alonso offers more than just being defensive, which is why I rate him so highly. But he does sit deep alongside the other two with Iniesta just ahead of them. Perhaps this is too much in the middle was my question.

    I think the Pedro decision could be as you suggested except for Pedro tended to come up against Boateng who was the German leftback - he caused him all sorts of problems. However his all round performance means I think he will get the nod against Holland.

    I think that picking Cesc from the start a) won't happen and b) will be a very bad move. If Spain have a weakness it is that they are far too centre midfield heavy. If they pick Cesc instead of Torres that means 5 cente-midfielder's...far too much. If they pick him in stead of Pedro it also means 5 plus no out and out pace.

    My suggestion is that Del Bosque will pick one of the first two teams but that it would not hurt to look at the more traditional 4-3-3 that they played with at the Euro's as it worked wonders.