The other Guardian publication came out with this article a couple of weeks ago about 6 great teams that never won the world cup. It’s a good read and it got me thinking about other great teams, club and country that had it all but couldn’t capture the big prize. Most recently Barcelona came to mind in this years Champions League. They were an incredible team but couldn’t get it together nor break through Mourinho’s well orchestrated defensive tactics and lost over two legs in the semis.
Spain are a fantastic team. As of now they are the favorite amongst most pundits and bookies to hoist the cup on July 11th. They won Euro 2008 beating holders Greece, Italy and Russia en route to a 1-0 final against Germany. Between the end of 2006 and the summer of 2009, Spain went unbeaten in 35 international matches until they lost to the US in the semis of the Confederations Cup. Since that 2-0 loss in South Africa they have won their last 9 games. That is 1 loss in 45 games!!! This is a great team and a great team that will not win the world cup in 2010.
Spain has always been a very good team. They were also notorious for under performing. As far as I can remember they have entered the European Championships or the World Cups as potential favorites, if not a semi final team yet with the exception of Euro 2008 had never progressed beyond the quarters (They did win the Euros back in 1964 but that was many moons before I was born).
Whether it was poor coaching, dubious refereeing, nerves or under-achieving, Spain could never bring it together to mount a serious challenge to win the trophy and typically bowed out to “lesser” opposition. Then in 2008 seeded 12th and 16 matches into their undefeated streak, they finally shed their “couldn’t win the big tournament” moniker and were deserved European Champions.
The Spanish team don’t really have a weakness. They are very well coached by Vicente del Bosque who was a multiple Primera and Champions league winner with Real Madrid. Their three keepers could all start on most national teams and Iker Casillas is one of the top 2 keepers this past decade.
The midfield is a showcase of class, skill and is so potent that Arsenals best player, Cesc Fabregas has trouble cementing a place in the starting 11. Torres and Villa lead the line and both are the cream of the crop when it comes to world class strikers.
Off the bench, they can bring on more world class striking firepower should they need it or defensive midfield help if they need to hold onto a lead. Their second team could beat most national teams.
Under-rated due to their exquisite attacking prowess is their defense which is well marshaled by Barcelona duo Pique and Puyol. If they have a weakness at all, its at the wing backs with Real’s Arbeloa and Ramos often foregoing their defensive duties in order to join in on the fun up-field.
All in all Spain is a well oiled perfectly constructed football team that has dominated world and to an extent club football for the better part of 3 years. So why won’t they win?
Spain are very much like Barcelona. They play the beautiful game and they play it well. They are relentless going forward but also possess top notch defenders to quell any counter the other team might offer. Parking the bus against the likes of Barcelona and Spain doesn’t work either, as their midfielders will find a way to penetrate and their quick strikers can score with both feet and head. In this manner they are in a way, very one dimensional.
Against Inter Milan, Barcelona repeatedly tried to break through by trying to pass the sexy through ball to the likes of Messi, Pedro, Ibra etc… Time and time again the Inter defense would close the gaps as it was obvious what was going to happen. Barcelona don’t surprise anyone and neither do Spain. You know they’re going to maintain the majority of possession, control the midfield, lure you out and then strike with deadly precision. They know they are better then you and its just a matter of time until they score their first goal. After which their opposition needs to go forward leaving more gaps and space for the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso etc… to exploit. Floodgates opened!
What Jose did in both legs of the semis was to let Barcelona control parts of the pitch that he didn’t care about. He let them bring the ball to them and then shut their channels and passes down. He also included three forwards (most teams keep a solitary striker up top), so the Barca defense had to be on their toes and watch out for a counter. The key was that those forwards were back shutting down Xavi and Co and when they did go forward they came at the Catalans in a quick wave of attacking football. If it didn’t work they quickly defended but let Barcelona come at them versus chasing them all over the pitch.
Inadvertently, the US did the same thing against Spain at the Confed Cup. Spain did themselves no favors by taking the US for granted and didn’t really get into the game until the second half when it was already too late. They just kept trying and trying to lob or pass through or around the US defenders and they could never draw them out. The US didn’t break in the center of defense and let Spain attack only from the wings which they dealt with easily. Donovan and Dempsey were essentially extra corner backs who could break at speed and thanks to poor defending by Ramos and Spain, were pretty comfortable 2-0 winners.
One thing both these teams don’t do is shoot from outside the box. Those are tough shots to save and deal with when there are lots of people in front of you and defenders have to come out to stop them. This is where the gaps open up. In both games illustrated above, neither Barcelona nor Spain shot from outside the box and kept trying to penetrate on the ground. A well coached or well disciplined defensive side will stop that just about every time.
Spain will walk through their group barely breaking a sweat. Their round of 16 opponents will more than likely be Ivory Coast or Portugal, both attack oriented teams with undisciplined defenses. Spain’s first test will be in the quarters against Italy who will have paid a lot of attention to how Inter stopped Barcelona. If they get past them they will probably meet Germany, another disciplined team. Even if they make it to the finals, much attention will be paid on how to stop them where as Spain will just continue to do what they do better than anyone else.
I love watching Spain. The combination of skill and class is a pleasure to behold and they truly play the beautiful game. It’s just that its predictable and until they find a plan B and C, other well balanced teams with less skill and flair will give them trouble and just might beat them.