Spain seems to be blessed with central playmakers: Xavi, Iniesta, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas. The list reads like a who’s who of European football’s great ball players. Yet, although it is unquestionably their greatest strength, an overbearing of central creative influences can progress towards self-harm.
Against France in the 2006 World Cup, Spain were sufficiently blunted – despite scoring first – by Domenech’s team which consisted of two deep-lying physical central midfielders in Patrick Viera and Claude Makelele. With little steel and brawn in the midfield to counter balance the flair and technical skill of the creative forces, Spain were continually pressed and muscled off the ball. Makelele and Viera came to dominate the midfield and Viera justifiably won the man of the match award, scoring a goal himself. Luis Aragones, the Spanish manager, fielded Xavi, Cesc Fabregas and Alonso that day. Marcos Senna was added late in the second half to bring some steel to the midfield, but the organisation – who would go forward and who would hold – remained unclear.
Aragones realized that in order to allow the creative players freedom to get forward and support the front men they would need to be confident that defensively the side also remained sound. Soon, the physical presence of Senna became a perpetual entity.
Aided by Senna, Euro 2008 saw an unleashed Xavi and Iniesta; key men and world class players who alone would make any team a favourite, but with the added freedom the two combined with deadly potency. Additionally, the fluid and skillful force of David Silva gave Spain some much needed width. The interest surrounding his name after the closing ceremonies underlined how well he accomplished his personal task.
It wasn’t all roses for Spain in 2008 though. Italy frustrated them at the quarter-final stage and their semi-final against Russia raised questions of the two front men’s compatibility. Fabregas’ immense performance, after coming on for the injured David Villa, significantly highlighted how better the system appeared to work with an attacking midfielder dropping off the striker. After the change, Spain went on to beat Russia comfortably, 3-0.
Spain’s new manager, ex-Real Madrid supremo Vicente Del Bosque, looks set to settle the issue by using only one striker. Throughout qualifying Del Bosque has used varying combinations of 4-5-1 and, although he has started some games with a 4-4-2, he has later gone on to replace one of the strikers for a midfielder, favouring Villa as the lone front man.
Another boon to Spain’s exceptional quality has been the production of another sturdy defensive midfielder. While Marcos Senna begins to enter his twilight years, Barcelona have produced another burgeoning prodigy more than capable of replacing him. Sergio Busquets has played in an identical role to that of Senna’s for the Catalan club and has been instrumental in their European and domestic campaigns this year.
Spain’s weak-point – if indeed it could be labeled so – is that the team is probably too offensive. Arbeloa, Albiol, and Sergio Ramos all love to rummage forward up the flanks to offer Spain some necessary width. This creates a problem if the full-backs get caught too high up the pitch; a problem not dissimilar to that witnessed in Barcelona’s recent game against Inter Milan in the Champions League semi-final first leg. With pace, an aging Carles Puyol has a tendency to buckle and a clever through-ball has the potential to out-fox a relatively inexperienced Gerard Pique. Isolating the centre-backs from Busquets and the full-backs appears the only way to counteract the Spanish onslaught.
Spain though, unsurprisingly, breezed through qualifying, not loosing a single game, conceding 5 goals and scoring 28. They’ve lost only one game since October 2006. So, if you’re prepared to back against them, you’d better have a good tip-off.
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