I wrote an article a couple of weeks before the World Cup, stating why Spain wouldn’t win. One can read it here, but the gist of it states that Spain are an amazing team, but only have one method of playing, and until they come up with a plan B or C, will not be lifting the trophy July 11th.
Yesterday during their semifinal against Germany, they began to do just that.
What I wrote in the earlier post was that they needed to mix up their attacking. They play lovely, seductive passing football and are always looking for that sexy pass through the center of defense on to an on rushing striker to slide the ball in the back of the net.
They rarely try and go over the top or play the long ball (and why would you with pass masters Xavi and Iniesta running the show). Nor do they run hard at their opponents and try and dribble around them like Messi and CO. They also don’t play quick, counter attacking football, that Germany was destroying their opponents with up until yesterday.
Spain’s Plan A is to keep possession and pass the ball around and around until they find the combination of a penetrating run and pass. Against a well disciplined defensive side like Switzerland, this method was shut down. They were forced out wide and the Swiss defenders dealt with any high ball easily. Benaglio made some fine saves, but Spain’s closest chance came from an Alonso thunderbolt from about 25 yards out that hit the woodwork. They got caught out and Switzerland were 1-0 winners.With the exception of Chile, Spain’s run to the semis were against defensive minded teams. Not surprisingly, they won all those games cautiously, taking time to break down the stout defense in front of them. In the knockout rounds, they’ve won each game 1-0 with their goals coming in the final third of the game.
Against Germany, they finally came up with options. They started off trying to penetrate down the middle (Plan A), but once the German CB’s nullified that threat and pushed them out wide, they attacked on the ground (instead of in the air) from the wings (Plan B). They also started taking shots from outside the box with Pedro and Alonso going close several times (Plan C).
Before the goal, there was a series of chances in the 57th minute that started from an outside shot by Pedro which was well saved by Neuer. The rebound was picked up by Alonso who laid it off to Iniesta who went to the byline, cut back, and sent in cross that Villa was inches away from sliding the ball into the back of the net. The Germans had no idea how to defend this attack, as they had to come out to try and stop Pedro’s shot (his previous ones were either inches wide or had brought out saves from Neuer), which opened up space for Iniesta to pop in behind and set up Villa.
When the goal did come, it came from a header from an unmarked Puyol who came out nowhere to thump it home.
Many called Germany’s play negative but I disagree. They weren’t trying to park the bus, they just couldn’t get the ball. Sure the Pig Boss and Ozil had deplorable passing days completing only 3/4 passes, but when they got the ball, they did attack.
Spain’s back line and defensive midfielders do not get enough credit for keeping clean sheets in the knock out stages and they swiftly nullified any real German threat. Once done, Spain went on to keep the ball for another 5 minutes or so at a time. Xavi was at his incisive best completing 105 passes (509 total and counting).
Spain have finally become the complete potent attacking force that we all hoped for. Whether it’s by plan or a realization after their quarters game, they’re now presenting their opponents with their usual pass through the middle game, but augmenting it with good shots from afar that draw out defenders, which leaves space for Iniesta, Villa and Xavi to attack from the wings or if space allows resort back through the middle. Add in an aerial threat and Bert van Marwijk will be having fits on how to stop La Furia Roja.
THE 11 ON THE PITCH
Spain have used the same keeper, back line and three midfielders for all their games and I don’t expect that to change. It would have been 4 midfielders but Iniesta missed the Honduras game.
Casillas has been uncharacteristically dodgy when it has come to catching the Jubalani ball. Maybe it has to do with the flight of it or he’s being extra cautious, but he does look uncomfortable. That said, since giving up the goal to Fernandes in the first game (which was mainly his fault and partly that of his dishy girlfriend), Santo Casillas has come up big in big moments, saving a penalty in the quarters, and a volley from Podolski in the semis to name just a couple.
The back line has been playing smoothly and effortlessly and is always dangerous in attack, as Sergio Ramos can be found more in the opponents half then his own. Pique and Puyol, footballing version of Hall and Oates, are on song in the center of defense and always a threat in the h(air) off set pieces.
The Spanish midfield is purring like a Rolls Royce. Busquets is quietly cleaning up in the back and Alonso is doing all the dirty work. The Real Madrid player was much more adventurous in the Germany game, and his outside shots were a real threat that the Germans had to come out and deal with. His passing has been sublime and aside from a missed penalty has had an excellent cup.
There is not much to be said about Xavi and Iniesta that hasn’t already been said, but the Catalan artists are in sublime form and the opponents half of the pitch has been their canvas. One thing I will say to the people who believe that athletes in the mold of Dwight Howard and King James (I say he goes to Miami) would dominate soccer, is to keep in mind who the best players in the world are.
Before the cup, one just assumed that Torres and Villa would lead the line, score at will, and occasionally have Silva and or Pedro to keep them company and join in the fun.
Sadly Fernando Torres has been having a horrid time in South Africa. Clearly recovering from an injury, lacking the sharpness required of a striker, and now most importantly lacking the confidence in himself and from his teammates (Pedro not passing him the ball at the end of the game did more damage then one might think), Nando has been moved to the bench.
His replacement, Pedro, has made the most of his chances and if it wasn’t for Xavi’s exquisite play could very well have earned man of the match honors against the Germans. He was a constant threat either with his ferocious shots or making intelligent runs into the box.
Torres off the bench is a luxury most teams would dream off and even though is not even close to his best form, one cannot take him for granted, as he will more than likely come on with 15 minutes or so left to play.
WHY THEY WILL WIN
It’s very simple. Now that they have figured out alternative methods of attacking, they have become the best offensive team in the world.
No defense will be able to cope for 90 minutes with Xavi and Iniesta running the show, Pedro and Alonso shooting in bombs, Villa marauding the penalty box, and Hall and Oates in the air.
They will come at you on the ground from the middle or the sides, and just when the Dutch have clogged (pun intended) up the box, a shot will come from 25 yards away that will force them to come out and create holes for Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso to exploit.
Van Bommel and De Jong will do their best to stamp their authority, but they will be overrun by the little guys. Xavi and Iniesta have seen it all before and can handle the rough stuff.
The key will be for Busquets and Alonso to contain Sneijder. Between the two of them, they will need to be his shadow and to challenge the Champions League winner every time he gets the ball. It will be a loose form of double teaming and the back line will have to be ready to pick up the unmarked Dutch player.
Spain’s only weakness will be their full backs. They’re both capable of defending very well, but their penchant for going forward, especially Ramos will present holes for RVP and Robben to exploit. Once again Busquets and Alonso will need to keep a watchful eye on the wide players and make sure that when the fullbacks scamper forward, that they don’t get sucked in as well.
In the end, The Netherlands defense will not be able to contain the Spanish Armada. The Dutch have the least impressive defense (with the possible exception of Honduras) that Spain will encounter in South Africa. As Brazil proved in the first half of their quarterfinal, the Dutch are there for the taking.
If Spain play like the played against Germany (a team very similar to The Netherlands), they will be lifting the cup on Sunday. It will be a glorious tribute to beautiful football, their second major trophy in two years, a bright and promising future, and Spain will cement the foundations as one of the best teams to have ever played the game.
Plus if Spain win, New Zealand will be the only team to be undefeated in South Africa 2010!