FOX Soccer Exclusive
Spain's simple style produces results
Success does strange things to people. Some are liberated by it, one indelible achievement against their name lifting the pressure. For others, there is a sense of fun and vitality about the aspiration coming within reach. But, once it does, success becomes a miser’s narcotic to be clung to with increasing desperation. That is the route down which Spain has gone.
If Spain does go on to win the European Championship, becoming the first side to win three major tournaments in a row, Euro 2012 will be very much the least of them. When Spain won Euro 2008 under Luis Aragones, it was an exciting, attacking team. It twice pummeled Russia and banged in 11 goals in its first five games before beating Germany 1-0 in the final. That, in retrospect, was the warning sign. It controlled that game from start to finish; it was as comfortable as 1-0 score can ever be, and that perhaps provided the seed for what was to come. Spain’s next four knockout games in major tournaments finished 1-0. Had it not been for Xabi Alonso’s late penalty against France in Saturday's quarterfinal match, it would have been six 1-0 scores in a row.
Spain’s method has become to control the ball — at all costs. That might diminish its chances to score goals, but it almost annihilates its opponents. If a team has 30 chances and its opponent has five, it probably will win; if it has six chances and its opponent none, it cannot lose. The former will produce a lot of ridiculous scorelines and the odd 0-1; the latter produces almost entirely zeroes. That is the decision Spain has taken and that is why there have been howls of protest about its supposedly boring style of play.
As Xavi Hernandez points out, that's not entirely Spain’s fault. “We are the first to have high demands from ourselves,” he said. “We always want more and play very good football. At times, it’s not like that but we are still in the best four teams in Europe.”
Xavi added: “It’s difficult because people keep inside their own half and organize themselves and every time it is even more difficult. There are nine or 10 players behind the ball and there are no spaces in between the lines, so it is really tough and evidently there are not many chances in all our matches.”
If the opponent sits deep and looks to resist, why shouldn’t Spain respond in a similarly negative way? Why risk defeat because the modern breed of fan has an absurd sense of entitlement and demands to be entertained? Football isn’t an action thriller or cheesy soap opera; its appeal lies in the struggle of two teams trying to win. It’s hardly Spain’s fault if no opponent has yet been good enough to come and take the ball off it.
Given how Portugal played against Germany in the first group game, it’s hard to imagine it doing anything other than sitting deep, defending and looking to score on the counterattack in Wednesday’s semifinal.
“People speculate a lot and defend for long periods and try and hit you on the break, which is what we are going to face against Portugal on Wednesday,” Xavi went on. “So we have to be prepared. I’ve watched all their games. They are a team of a high level and have gained in confidence in the last two games they won.
“Cristiano [Ronaldo] and Nani know how to hit you on the break very well, and [Fabio] Coentrao is also in good form. They are players with a lot of talent and also in midfield with [Joao] Moutinho and [Raul] Meireles.”
Xavi did, though, admit that Spain had tired towards the end of the match against France, unused to the heat and humidity of Donetsk, Ukraine, after the cooler climate of Gdansk where its training base is. The squad went back to Poland after the quarterfinal, returning only the day before the semifinal. That, plus the fact that Portugal has had two more days of rest after its quarterfinal, may be a factor against Spain, although the Spanish style of keeping the ball and rotating possession is probably a lot less exhausting than the way many teams play.
It’s not just the opponent that determines style, of course. Vicente del Bosque, in twice refusing to select an orthodox forward — opting instead for Cesc Fabregas as a false nine — has self-consciously opted for control above all else.
“The truth is it is a bit more complicated than playing in midfield when you are always on the ball as you are always receiving the ball with your back to goal,” Fabregas explained. “I’m used to touching the ball all the time. In this position, I have to show commitment and put pressure on the centerbacks, run to the keeper and pressurize and return to put even more pressure higher up the pitch and to look for spaces.”
Fabregas acknowledges, though, that success has changed the mood. When Spain beat Italy on penalties in Vienna in the Euro quarterfinals four years ago, it was as though a great weight had been lifted. It never previously had beaten Italy, and to get past them was a huge psychological step. But then, it had equally never beaten France in a competitive game before Saturday.
“What I was thinking at the end of the game was that we were like, ‘OK, we won,’ and I remember that four years ago when we won in the quarterfinals we were all together jumping up and down in the middle of the pitch celebrating,” Fabregas said.
“We were saluting the fans and our families; we felt the joy of a great success when we beat Italy on penalties. And now it seems like it was an obligation, something normal.”
In other words, it’s stopped being fun. The fear of not winning has eclipsed the joy of winning, and there is a sense in which that makes these triumphs all the greater.
“These are the wins that we have to evaluate the most inside because they are so tough,” Fabregas said. “We’ve won a Euro and a World Cup and now we’re already back in the semifinals. It’s brutal.”