At Euro 2004, Spain, under the guidance of Inaki Saez, were eliminated in the first round with a team containing Iker Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Carles Puyol and Fernando Torres.
At World Cup 2006, Spain, under the guidance of Luis Aragones, were eliminated in the second round with a team that, in addition to the aforementioned players, contained Xavi, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, and David Villa.
Yet, the 91st minute goal scored by Zinedine Zidane in the loss to France in Hanover was the last conceded by the Spaniards during a knockout game of a major tournament. Fast forward six years and the French, devoid of the poetic brilliance of Zidane, resorted to the predictable strategy whilst playing Spain. The ultra-defensive approach had a modicum of success in the sense that, until the last minute penalty by Xabi Alonso, the game lay tantalisingly open for an equaliser. The reality though, painted a different picture. With only one shot on target, France were deluding themselves whilst being dominated more ruthlessly than an awkward bondage act.
France’s approach in the Euro 2012 quarter-final emphasised a core concern that Spain face. A backlash of sorts has begun, one that manifests itself towards successful teams. The Euro 2008 team were heralded, especially after their semi-final demolition of the counter-attacking Russians. Since then, however, the Spanish results in the advanced stages of tournaments have been 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0, 1-0 and 2-0.
This is not Spain’s problem, yet recent comments have suggested that their controlling nature of possession is infinitely boring. After years of being international football’s archetypal underachievers, the Spanish have sculpted a formation that is wonderfully successful. There is an odd mentality that raises the assumption that football must be entertaining. Whilst, as a supporter, I want to see my team play free-flowing football, I would rather my team win. Spain execute the latter view with ruthless perfection, leaving the former wish open to heated debate.
The Russia match was a catalyst for change, and not within the Spanish team. Whilst the appointment of Vicente Del Bosque to replace Aragones did see a shift from Marcos Senna as the holding midfielder to the duo of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, the mentality remains the same. The British like to see a game of high-intensity, littered with scoring opportunities, defensive lapses and crunching tackles. Spain have rejected these notions. They negate the other team’s threat so effectively that the main impact is in the middle of the pitch. Passing is the most difficult act of simplicity on the football field, and when it is executed perfectly, it is footballing art at its purest.
However, Andrea Pirlo of Italy showed that a master class in simple passing can be combined with the creation of goal scoring chances. Spain’s problem is their opponents. As was highlighted on the Guardian’s excellent Euro 2012 daily podcast, other teams have steadfastly accepted that they must allow Spain the ball and to try to frustrate and defend. The previously mentioned scores suggest that this approach isn’t remotely successful, yet is there a notion that losing 1-0 is more preferable to being destroyed like Russia were? If this argument is prevalent, it is a disappointing one.
Another intriguing point made was that, due to being on the cusp of breaking the three international championships in a row record, Spain have become the band that were once worshipped, but are now being lambasted because of their success and popularity. Accusations of arrogance due to not playing a striker are misguided. Oddly, bringing on Torres is actually a defensive change, as his introduction allows the flexible midfield to drop deeper. The fear of isolating a player, resulting in little impact, drives this 4-6-0 formation in a thoughtful way that Craig Levein’s Scotland will never achieve.
Watching Spain is fascinating, and whilst not anywhere near the excitement of seeing the Germany team play, the tactical nuances are exhilarating in themselves. I do, however, find myself willing Spain’s opponents to score, just to show that football cannot be controlled forever and that a natural cycle of progression has to occur. If Spain do win Euro 2012, are the psychologically set up for years to come, especially if the ideology and ethos is engrained within the junior teams? With teams simply unable to overcome them, this is a frightening prospect.