Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Furious Rioja

Once upon a time Spain were the adorable scamps of European football. They always had talented players. They always went home early. They were the hipster team before hipsters existed. The cool kids in the playground would tip them for victories. In 1990, the hubbub was around Michel, ButragueƱo and co. In 1996, it was Alfonso, Guerrero and Hierro. 8 years later, it was Raul, Mendieta, Baraja and company. The sorts of people with odd beards, shift around uncomfortably in pubs drinking from dimpled glasses and ride unicycles are the sorts of people who would have adored Michel, Guti and Mendieta. If you have any sense of purpose, and any sense of joy in football, that very thought should make you reach for the stiffest drink you can find and, potentially, for your pitchfork.

Spain were the team that pundits always might win but never actually did. 
Always chock full of talent yet, somehow, always out-thought or out-fought by one of the powerhouses. Spain were the team that should win on paper but who didn't on grass. . It was a mental thing not a talent thing.  Zidane was right, well, almost when he said: 'The day Spain begin winning, they won't stop'. 

Of course, everything changed in 2008. All of a sudden they went from loveable but beatable aesthetes to loveable unbeatable ones. It looked like Zidane might be right. They weren't Spain anymore. They were unbeatable

And, whilst the team changed over the years, it didn't change that much:

The winning team that started in 2008 was: Casillas, Ramos, Puyol, Marchena, Capdevila, Senna, Iniesta, Fabregas, Xavi, Silva, Torres (The subs were Alonso for Fabregas, Cazorla for Silva, and Guiza for Torres).

The winning team two years later was: Casillas, Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila, Busquets, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, Villa (The subs were Navas for Pedro, Fabregas for Alonso, Torres for Villa)

And two years later again: Casillas, Arbeloa, Pique, Ramos, Alba, Xavi, Busquets, Alonso, Fabregas, Silva, Iniesta (The subs were Pedro for Silva, Torres for Fabregas, Mata for Iniesta)

And the team that lost to Chile: Casillas, Azpilicueta, Martinez, Ramos, Alba, Busquets, Alonso, Iniesta, Pedro, Costa, Silva. (The subs were Koke for Alonso, Cazorla for Pedro, Torres for Costa).

Whilst there has been subtle evolution there has been a level of understandable resistance to change - hell, Cazorla was a sub 6 years ago and he was a sub last night!). As they kept on winning the need to have a clear-out of players seemed unnecessary, unhelpful even. If they had lost the final in 2012 we might have seen Casillas and Xavi, amongst others, consider their futures in red. They didn't so they didn't need to do so.

Many outwith the Spanish squad simply cannot understand why Casillas has continued to be selected for the national team even though he rarely played in La Liga last season (especially when there are goalkeepers as talented as de Gea, Reina and Valdes all playing regularly). That underestimates the influence of Casillas to the team, to the Spanish squad and to Spanish football. Yes, he was dropped at Madrid but he played often in the Champions League (including in the final). This is a man who has seen it all, done it all, and won it all.

Xavi, the spiritual leader of this Spanish generation, is 34 and cannot play the vital role he was .
Those saying Chile killed off the this Spanish generation don't notice that del Bosque dropped Xavi. Maybe that was an admission that things must change? That, perhaps, was the coup de grace, the Marquis turning the sword on himself rather than choosing to fight the bull that he knew would win. Xavi used to be the man who kept the plates spinning, the man who ran the show, the man who made the carousel work. He isn't what he was and Spain could not replace him - few could, he is one of the finest players the game has ever produced - but without him at the height of his powers Spain could no longer function at the top of theirs.

As ever in football there are two opposing forces at the same time. Much of the Spanish team, and their approach to the game, seems to have been preserved in aspic - the high-pressure pressing game is still the ideal but the players are that little older, that little leggier and that means the system cannot work as it did.

At the same time as that system was preserved, the supremely gifted - though clearly not at the top of fitness - Diego Costa, newly arrived from Brazil, has found his way into the team. For years, Spanish football was all about in the system and that meant, on occasion, eschewing a forward. In trying to preserve the system, whilst shoe-horning this devilish force into the team, the system was undermined as was, to be fair to him, Costa. With hindsight this seems incongruous. Perhaps del Bosque knew that this team was on the wane and hoped that Costa, in Brazil, would drag the old boys through?

Those who came to hate the stultifying nature of Spain's football, who found tiki-taka boring, will rejoice today. They will be delighted that daring and dashing teams have found that the boa constrictors of Spain can be defeated. There will be a many an article that tiki-taka has died. Long live, erm, something else.

Of course, tiki-taka isn't dead. All that has occurred is that as Spain developed (and they have changed since 2008 in various ways) other teams have worked out how to beat them. Tiki-taka is still a clever way to win a game of football and teams playing such tactics will, in my view, continue to do well. The difference is that there is now a way to beat it as, after all, there is with all tactics.

Spain may be a laughing stock today but they will come back. Faces will merge out of the squad - Casillas, Xavi, Alonso, and Torres - whilst fresh talent will come in. There is plenty of talent at Under 21 level (Carvajal, Munian, Moreno, Isco, Deulofeu, Morata. There is plenty of talent outwith the squad - few other teams would have a fourth goalkeeper as gifted as Valdes. Others not selected for Brazl include Jesus Navas (injured), Thiago Alcantara (injured), Javi Garcia, Asier 
Illarramendi, Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, Michu and Tello. I wouldn't be surprised to see them challenging for the European Championships in two years time.

And yet many in Spain will be cursing their luck. If, ah that horrible little word, David Silva had put away his chance against the Dutch they would, likely, have won that game comfortably. They would have gone into the break 2-0 up and the second half would have been the ever so familiar - Spain keeping the ball as the Dutch ran after it endlessly (NB: If there is a nation that Spain should be thankful for to for their success over the last few years it is the Dutch). There are any number of moments in footballing history where a club will say 'if only'. If Silva had scored my guess is that Spain would be in the second round of this tournament. The beautiful Silva has a lot to answer for.

Instead of that, Daley Blind then ruthlessly exposed the high defensive line with two fantastic passes that have been entirely overlooked largely because of the genius of the two finishes. As Spain chased that game the Dutch picked them off with ruthless efficiency.

Without their majestic conductor, last night Spain were playing all the right notes but in the wrong tune. Of all the teams in world football that Spain could play yesterday, Chile - their speed on the break, their approach to attack - surely would have been one they wanted to avoid.

But, an era looks to have ended. If the Spanish do well at the next tournament it will be a different Spain with some similar players - it will be another version, it won't be part of this beautiful vintage. Rarely has a team dominated high-level football so completely for so long. Perhaps changing manager between 2012 and 2014 would have meant more shuffling of the pack. Perhaps del Bosque should have been more ruthless, a little braver yet it is difficult to be ruthless to men who have delivered you the Earth. Perhaps he shouldn't have gambled on the old warhorses. Perhaps, if de Gea hadn't been injured del Bosque would have been (after all he did drop Pique and Xavi so is the thought of dropping San Iker so out there?). And then, perhaps to develop, Spain needed to lose. This jarring jolt may be the moment that wakes them up and makes them rebuild. There will be catharsis, recrimination and retribution yet. I wouldn't like my team to face Spain when they decide to cut loose.

This is Spain as they used to be. Players that we love. Players who, for their clubs, rule the roost. Players who don't win. That isn't Spain over these last few years. I'd wager it won't be Spain for very long. You can tell your kids you saw this team. You've been lucky.



dearieme said...

It's not just Spain that needs to retire its war-horses.

Metatone said...

It's been interesting to watch England fall between two stools, generationally, at this World Cup.

Shaw was not judged ready to play (fair enough) but Baines couldn't live up to the defensive standards of his overlooked predecessor.

Gerrard has made a number of glaring mistakes this season, you can't help but think that age has caught up with him. But who was younger and ready?

Likewise, our young attackers will perhaps be more clinical and incisive in a couple of years time...

dearieme said...

Two problems.

(i) The players available to Hodgson have lacked skill at the level of their opponents, individually and collectively.

(ii) The players probably care too much, and get too anxious. This might explain why they performed more poorly against Uruguay than against Italy.

On t'other hand: this squad, shorn of its OAPs, might well qualify for Euro '16, and do not too badly when they get there.

On t'third hand, they're not actually out yet.

Rob Marrs said...

Indeed - I think Lampard and Gerrard will probably both retire after the World Cup (whether they go out in the group stages or somehow squeak through).

The only other players who will likely go before 2016 are Jagielka (probably through selection), Lambert (who is a later arrival anyway), and Johnson (who is still only 29... but who isn't quite there).

I'll post on this properly tonight but England seem to have some fine attacking players but the talent elsewhere isn't nearly so strong. Jones may well step up but I'm unconvinced by Smalling. Stones, perhaps, will also make it into the full squad soon enough.

There doesn't seem to be an obvious central midfielder other than Henderson and Wilshere. Barkley is a little more attacking (and good for him).

Ultimately, Cole not being selected looks like folly.


dearieme said...

"Ultimately, Cole not being selected looks like folly."

Too strong; an error, perhaps, but not folly.

Metatone said...

Well, that's that.

It does occur that Italy were drained by their Manaus outing, but that would be a disservice to Costa Rica who did what Roy thought of doing, but really did it - pressured Italy and Pirlo. (Of course it helped that Balotelli just didn't have it today...)

Also the evidence of the tournament so far is largely that the Rest of the World teams all look more energetic than the European ones. Even Holland, who looked physically strong against Spain looked a lot leggier against Australia...

Look forward to the England post - I think the defence is weaker than at any point in my lifetime, which is kind of hard to get my head around, I much more used to being deficient in the other direction...

dearieme said...

What should Roy do for the Costa Rica match? Use it as a development game for the Euros? [Presumably yes]

Give anyone who hasn't started a start?[No]

Try different tactics e.g. a three-man defence? A 4-3-3? [Presumably no: he'll surely want time to reflect on the lessons of the World Cup, for England and other teams, before he tried that.]

Metatone said...


Obviously RH is a conservative character, so he'll probably put out the same team with a couple of tweaks - after all I see the press who aren't calling for his head demanding a show of pride and a galvanising performance against Costa Rica.

(I don't see any logic there, CR will not be at full throttle, and we're already out, so I think development has to be more important than the result.)

My own preference is that he does start some (ideally many) who haven't started yet, because anyone who is likely to be too old for the Euros shouldn't start. I'd also argue there are players who we have nothing left to learn about who shouldn't start either.

Formation I'm less fussed about at this stage, as the lesson I see from the tournament so far is that formation needs to fit your personnel.

So I'd be looking to pick from this pool primarily:

Forster, Shaw, Cahill, Smalling, Jones, Wilshere, Henderson, Ox, Sterling, Lallana, Barkley, Wellbeck, Sturridge.

That could make for some actual development...