In his book, “Spain: The Inside Story of La Roja’s Historic Treble“, Graham Hunter brilliantly and insightfully captures, amongst other things, the essence of what it takes to win and dominate international football’s major championships and basically create a legacy which will never be surpassed. It is a true story of footballing immortality. Sadly and maybe inevitably, that dominance ended on Wednesday evening in the Maracana at 6pm local time as Spain’s 2-0 defeat to an emphatic, energetic and utterly focused Chile side, consigned them to history as yet another holder of the World Cup not to make it past the group stage of the following competition.
Without taking anything away from Chile’s incredible performance in their own right (and hopefully paying the South Americans the highest of compliments) in a way, Spain were out-Spained, if you know what I mean? Ok, Chile didn’t control the whole game with the metronomic quality possession game which we’ve become so accustomed to seeing from Xavi and co. over the years, but their individual and collective work rate, intensity of their pressing, coupled with short sharp incisive and almost instinctive passes in the attacking third, are qualities Las Roja have trademarked over the last 12 years.
I’m halfway through Graham Hunter’s book – a perfect literal companion to the televisual feast on offer three times a day over the next month – and it’s pages are already bookmarked with different coloured tabs for references and quotes on man management, team spirit, psychology and player development; inspiration that I intend to draw on as I make my own journey into coaching. So, it’s an insult and misguided to think that these world class players and total professionals that make up the Spanish squad ‘just weren’t up for it’ or were unprepared.
These guys are champions. Players so focused on maintaining a ridiculously high level of performance with a never-say-die attitude who, just before that glorious period of indestructibility from 2008 onwards, got together under the most difficult of circumstances and turned the tide of a Spanish public who didn’t hold back in their voracious criticism of the national side. Many of them are bitter rivals at club level, but are also best friends regardless of the divide, owing much to the fact that they’ve been in the same system at international level since they were 15 years old. Historically, they are team spirit personified.
So why has it not worked out in Brazil? In their opening match against the Netherlands, Dutch boss, Louis van Gaal got his tactics absolutely spot on. Their 3-5-2 formation frustrated Spain, the back three/five diligently tracking runners and covering one another when required, while the midfield were solid and compact to allow Robben and Van Persie to make the most of any counter attacks initiated by the wing backs, particularly Blind who was tireless and precise with his passing on the left.
Even before Robin Van Persie flew through the air to loop that wonderful header over Iker Casillas just before half-time, you could see Spain were nowhere near playing with the confidence and fluidity we’ve come to expect. It was almost as if playing with a focal point, in the considerable shape of Diego Costa, tempted the normally patient Xavi and Alonso and even more curiously, the back four, to force balls up to the Atlético Madrid striker when the pass wasn’t really on.
Costa himself was disappointing in the opening exchanges. Although he didn’t look anywhere close to being match sharp after recovering from an injury which forced him out of the Champions League final back in May, he continued to show the clever movement that gets him into goalscoring positions in the box. But when he did receive the ball, the back three of Holland were switched on enough to recognise the threat and pick up his intelligent runs. Vlaar did so on a couple of occasions and so did De Vrij, but the latter made the mistake of over committing himself for Spain’s penalty.
Apart from Xabi Alonso’s well placed spot kick, there wasn’t a whole lot more to get excited about regarding Spain’s attacking play. In both games, Iniesta seemed frustrated with his lack of involvement and it looked like he thought he needed to take on three or four players every time he got within sight of the opposition penalty area just for him to be effective. David Silva too was notable for his lightweight attacking contribution and lack of care on the ball in the final third and, quite frankly, mostly looked lost.
After their implosion in the second half against the Netherlands, Pique, Ramos and Casillas surely couldn’t all play so collectively badly again and we’ll never find that out as it was Gerrard Pique who made way for Javi Martinez in central defence against Chile. Unfortunately for Spain there were more players underperforming individually, maybe even every one of them. When this happens, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, never mind a team with the aggressive attacking mindset of Chile’s. There’s no way you’ll get the desired result unless you’re very lucky or tactically astute, which Spain and Vicente del Bosque so clearly weren’t on this occasion.
David Villa not kicking a ball in the opening two games of a World Cup mystifies. For him not to feature at any point and Cesc Fàbregas being afforded minimal involvement are decisions which are criminal at worst and confusing at best. Spain lacked movement in the attacking third and and also a clinical finish in the few instances a half chance was created, qualities these two players bring to the table in spades. Hunter, an avid fan of Villa’s, will be more puzzled than most with “El Guaje’s” lack of involvement especially after noting his sharpness in training and tipping him to play a major role in his Paddy Power preview of the match. He even went so far as to say that while “Villa is a man from La Roja’s past – he may need to also be their man of destiny”. Sadly for him and Spain, he never got the opportunity to attempt to fulfil that role and at 32, probably won’t get to do so in a World Cup again.
Was Del Bosque attempting to make a seamless transition for the future Spain, a team that will have to cope without players like Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso, or was he just being stubborn, trying to prove that they could evolve into a team that can be more direct. It’s quite obvious that counter-attacking football is in vogue, but this Spain have never been interested in following trends – they prefer to set them. Maybe this was Del Bosque’s attempt at a sort of hybrid that didn’t get past the prototype stage with the players not too sure of the blueprint?
Too much expectation? Over confidence? Player selection? Bad luck and timing? Underachieving as individuals? Probably all of these factors and more contributed to Spain’s downfall and the end of this magnificent team’s reign of world football that seemed to be all consuming and actually part of a never ending fairy tale. If anyone knows how much this legendary group of players will be hurting right now, it’s Graham Hunter. Spain’s sorry displays in Brazil won’t diminish their incredible achievement he’s described in his inimitable style. I can’t wait to delve back into his addictive prose, however the context I’m now reading it in has slightly changed with the realisation that these players are human after all.