Spain win despite, rather than because of, del Bosque: As noted in their first group stage match against Italy, Spain are woefully lacking in attack when they play without a centre forward. Again del Bosque set up for this match with Fabregas playing as the notionally furthest forward of six midfielders, and again Spain were toothless. However, they are still full of excellent players, and that was enough to beat a France side who weren’t particularly interested in taking on their opponents. Spain’s approach plays into their opponent’s hands, as they become predictable, and the best way to explain why is to consider another type of football…
In the NFL, offensive plays are broken down into two categories: passing and rushing. Each team may favour one type or the other, but you never get teams devoted to only one style of play. This is because the defensive linebackers have two roles; to join the line of scrimmage on rushing plays to help stop the running back, and to drop deep on passing plays to pick up cross-field routes and make it much more difficult for the quarterback to complete passes. If the offence only passes, the linebackers can always drop back; if it only rushes, they can always push up. If the offence does both, then the linebackers don’t know which to do, and this can be taken advantage of by the offence by mixing plays and trying to fool the linebackers with different formations and fake handoffs.
Spain without a striker play like a NFL team that always rushes. The French defence pushed high up the pitch, condensing the midfield and causing Spain a lot of problems as there simply wasn’t the space for their six midfielders to create anything. France could do this, as they knew there was zero threat of anybody running in behind them, so they didn’t have to be concerned with being caught high up the pitch to a ball over the top to a pacey striker. Because del Bosque set out a team which had only one plan, France could commit to preventing Spain from making that plan work, which they did to good effect.
As if to prove the point, Spain’s goal came from the one time they managed to turn the French defence in the first half, albeit on the wing, as Iniesta played a throughball to the overlapping Alba, and Debuchy’s stumble gave him the time to pick out Xabi Alonso whose run had been abandoned by Malouda. But even with a obvious expanse of space behind the French defence, and this example to show them the threat they could cause, Spain didn’t try a similar move until the hour mark, when Fabregas was released in behind but wasn’t brave enough to stick his foot in and win a penalty off Lloris. Spain turned the French defence only twice in 65 minutes, and both times caused France serious issues, but for the rest of the match to this point they were impotent.
Finally del Bosque removed Fabregas for Torres on 65 minutes. The chalkboards suggest that Fabregas was by far the better player on the night, but even though Torres offered extremely little himself other than getting caught offside regularly, even this was enough to cause the French defence some concern. Now they had a threat in behind, they couldn’t push up the field so far, and spaces began to open for the Spanish midfield. In NFL terms, even if your running back is awful, at least the defence have to consider him and that may leave gaps for your passing game to come to the fore.
Del Bosque needs to realise this quickly if he wants to retain the title.
Blanc not as to blame as many might suggest: Although widely criticised for what many saw as a defensive team selection, it wasn’t as negative as it looked on paper. A lot was made of playing two right backs in front of each other to combat Alba’s runs forward, but it meant they could rotate, and modern full backs are used to pushing forward and providing crosses, so it wasn’t as defensive a move as it appeared. In a way this was proven as Alba created the opening goal with a forward run – it doesn’t matter if the tracking player is a right back or a right winger if he falls over. M’Vila was exceptional in the centre, while Malouda was anything but; Blanc’s biggest mistake was having him anywhere near the team. Ribery was also poor on the night.
Even if Torres is awful, he needs to be in the team to create space in midfield for Spain to utilise. If del Bosque doesn’t realise this in time for the final against Germany, Spain will struggle. They may be able to adopt this approach against Portugal and emerge victorious, by simply relying on the fact that the Spanish team has much more quality than the Portuguese, but against a relatively evenly matched opponent they will struggle. France mentally exited the tournament the moment they lost to Sweden in the final group game when qualifying as group winners (and avoiding Spain) looked a certainty. Had they played this game in a confident mindset, perhaps they could have taken advantage of del Bosque’s tactics and caused an upset, as this Spanish side looks a shadow of its 2008 self.
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