Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Espana, que paso!?!?

Congratulations, of course, to the United States. My prediction was right in every aspect but the result. Much like the Spanish, who dominated every part of the pitch except the scoreboard. The most important facet, of course.

So hats off to a wonderful U.S. side who dealt with Spain's pressure, controlled the tempo of the midfield and game generally, and made the most of their opportunities. My cohorts at this blog have and will do a wonderful job extolling the U.S.'s virtues in what was nothing less than a historic and magnificent victory. My allegiances, however, work out like this: Chile, Spain, and the United States. Mostly in that order. And I did want to see a Brazil-Spain final. But the truth is that the Americans played a perfect game, and the Spanish played a very flawed one.

Make no mistake, Spain is still a favorite for next year's World Cup, but some serious flaws have been exposed in these team at the Confederations Cup. Flaws that this defeat, if a positive is to be drawn form it, should help remedy. The Spanish are lamenting the absences of Iniesta and Silva, but the fact is that even without those two, the Spanish were and are more talented at every position and still lost.

First, terrible defending all around by the Spanish side. Sergio Ramos culminated an off year with the inexcusable error in his assist to Dempsey on the second goal. Pique may have been the only Spanish defender who acquitted himself. Puyol played decently, but there remain questions to be asked of the Catalan's ability to be a starter in one year's time. He's not getting any faster, and was sorely exposed at times by a young American frontline. Capdevilla was woeful as well, pushing up ineptly, and defending poorly as well. Casillas remains the best in the world, but like the Spanish team as a whole, was bested by Howard in the American goal.

Second, the Spanish strikers were both off form. Judging by Spain's record going into the game, this hadn't happened very often. Both Torres and Villa mishit several shots that usually go to the back of the net. Neither striker could muster up a good first touch, and the American defenders took care of the rest.

Finally, and I've saved the most worrisome trend for last, Del Bosque's tactics failed miserably and played directly into the hands of the United States. The Spanish came out looking rushed. The appeared to want to score quickly and get the game over with. They may have been looking past the U.S. and towards Brazil. Indeed, with the euphoria that has surrounded the Spanish side recently it would come as no surprise if some of the players started buying their own hype. The Spanish press has a way of being positive bordering on arrogant, or negative bordering on suicidal. In the 2006 World Cup Spain was considered too young to do anything, and not very good. A 4-0 win over the Ukraine and they were favorites. Neither was true. But I digress.

By the end of the game it was clear the Spanish looked rushed (not quick, but antsy) because they didn't quite understand how they were supposed to play. You see, the Spanish have dubbed their style of play "tiqui-taca." It's a name that represents the quick, pass-oriented style that the Spanish have become famous for in the past two years. But this style always focused on interior passing with the wings largely a support and outlet rather than a primary point of attack. Spain, like Barcelona (whose players form the crux of this Spanish side), possesses, possesses, possesses waiting for the right time to attack. Today, Spain barely maintained possession, instead barrelling towards the goal in waves of oftentimes mindless attacks. But why?

It appears that despite the success of tiqui-taca, Vicente Del Bosque is a man who like to play on the wings. Which is fine, and I find aesthetically pleasing. Indeed, Del Bosque himself said that Aragones had left him the "toy with the batteries" after the Euro. Then why is Del Bosque changing the style? Riera, on the wing pushed up incessantly. Sergio Ramos and Capdevilla also pushed up on the wings, to the detriment of the defense. Meanwhile, Xavi was unrecognizable in the midfield. Some credit must be give to Bradley, and Xavi was certainly off, but this is likely due to the fact that he was reduced to feeding the balls to the wing. How is it that Cesc, Xavi and Xabi Alonso at no time were able to string four passes together through the middle of the field? Or maintain possession for an extended period of time on the edge of the box? That's a strategic decision by Del Bosque - push up on the wings.

So they looked rushed. Their defenders were out of position early and often. Their key players on the interior of the midfield - who thrive and grow with the ball at their feet - were reduced to opening the game up to the wings. And, for shame, what was the major advantage the U.S. defense had against the Spanish? Height in the defense. So those crooses from the wing - not so helpful. And finally, as if to prove his point, just as Spain was pouring the pressure on looking for the equalizer - Cesc comes off. For who? Cazorla, who is great, but is a winger. Why? Did Del Bosque believe the field of play, already completely open, could have opened more? Spain would have been better served sticking to their style and possessing the ball and trying to beat the U.S. with sharp interior passing using the wings more sparingly. It worked for Barcelona against Chelsea.

So Casillas has said that of these games Spain wins 9 out of 10. And he's right. Del Bosque said they were unlucky in front of goal. Also true. Xabi Alonso said that as the streak continued, defeat always grew closer. Why not. But none of these things, nor the bad defending, the lack of touch and precision are necessarily lethal to Spain. They'll move on, qualify for the World Cup, and in all likelihood do better than the U.S. in that, the most important of tournaments. But if Del Bosque doesn't learn, and quickly, that you don't change a winning formula, Spain could quickly squander their golden generation, a loss for fans and football alike.

1 comment:

  1. I think part of the reason Spain played through the wings so much wasn't just Del Bosque's tactics, but Bob Bradley's. He got his tactics right for this game, which was tighten and clog the middle, force Spain to play the wings and let the bigger, stronger US centerbacks clean everything up that's sent their way from the wings. Bradley and the US players have said that was the plan in post-game interviews.

    It's also a tactic that suits the US team well because they have size in the middle and the wingers can pinch in and work through the middle both attacking and defending. In fact, the US has not played a true winger in either victory - Donovan is a forward/center mid, Dempsey is really a forward, Feilhaber is a center mid. The US player's fitness level allows this to happen, in particular Donovan's unmatched fitness (the man can run for ever), allows them to defend wide and in the middle, and then when transitioning to the attack, to work from the middle back out to the wings (which is somewhat of a necessity when the two center mids are not the most naturally creative, such as Clark and Bradley).