The Spanish revolution
JULY 3 — A little over a year ago, I wrote that Barcelona´s exploits in winning the Spanish League and Champions´ League double merited giving them the title of the greatest team to ever play the game.
Now, following their 4-0 dismantling of Italy in Sunday´s European Championships Final, it´s time to acknowledge the current Spain team as the greatest international outfit of all time.
Let´s put aside, initially, Spain´s scintillating approach to the game and the way they have rewritten every coaching manual. Tactics, strategy, style… they are all only relevant if they are aimed at and achieve one thing: winning. And Spain´s record in that respect — back-to-back-to-back major championship successes (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012) — is without precedent.
No other national team in the history of the game has ever recorded three successive major tournament triumphs — even the Pele-inspired Brazilian team of the late Sixties and early Seventies that was, until now, widely regarded as the international side par excellence. Purely from a statistical point of view, then, it´s difficult to dispute the notion that Vicente Del Bosque´s team are the greatest ever.
And then we do have to return to the manner of their victories. As Bananarama told us, “It´s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it,” and in that respect Spain´s achievements in the last four years have also been mould-breaking.
Operating with the same philosophy (and with many of the same players, of course) as the “tiki-taka” style of play perfected by Barcelona last season, Spain (along with Barca at club level) have revolutionised the way that football is played.
In years to come, their tactical approach will be regarded as every bit as influential as the Hungary team of the 1950s and the Dutch Total Footballers of the 1970s — both of whom have to be regarded as inferior to Spain as they were unable to win a major trophy to match their strategic importance.
With their emphasis on retaining possession, controlling the flow of the game, pulling the opposition out of shape, and then creating goal-scoring opportunities by slicing open the opposing defence with pinpoint passes, Spain play football with a blend of mechanical precision and individual creativity that has never before been seen.
The first two goals of Sunday´s final perfectly illustrate the beauty, flexibility and effectiveness of Spain´s play. Firstly, a patient flow of passes resulted in possession for Andres Iniesta (a left-sided midfielder finding himself in the right channel), who slid a perfect pass behind the full back and into the path of Cesc Fabregas (a midfielder operating as a “false nine” central striker but popping up on the right wing), who floated a cross onto the head of David Silva (a diminutive right winger drifting inside into the centre forward position). Such flexibility; such creation.
Then, just before half-time, left back Jordi Alba embarked upon a penetrating run to find himself the furthest player forward and run onto Xavi´s perfect pass – again threaded along the ground with precision between defenders – for Alba (the left back making a centre forward´s run) to apply the controlled finishing touch.
A tiny right-winger scoring with a header, and a left-back bursting forward to run through the opposition defence. How on earth can you prepare to defend against such a wide range of attacking options? It´s almost impossible.
Their sophisticated approach is particularly difficult for some fans of English football to appreciate. As Steven Gerrard acknowledged following his team´s quarter-final against Italy, English football is lagging miles behind its continental counterparts on both technical and tactical levels.
Even now, many English fans still expect their team to play a rigid 4-4-2 formation, kick the ball hard and long, get it wide and send in towering crosses in the vague direction of giant centre forwards.
4-4-2? Spain and Barcelona laugh in the face of such narrow-minded thinking. Their tactical fluidity and flexibility ensures that it´s impossible to pigeonhole the shape of the team into such a simple set of numbers.
With attacking full-backs, false nines, wide midfielders who have licence to roam infield and sweeperkeepers who effectively function as extra outfield players, the “formation” employed by the European champions can veer from 4-3-3 to 4-6-0 to 2-8-0 to 5-4-1 and anything in between within a matter of seconds.
Football isn´t just about creating chances, though: it´s also about what you do when you don´t have the ball to nullify the threat of your opposition. Here, too, Spain have excelled.
Marshalled by the outstanding Iker Casillas, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, and supported by the undersung Sergio Busquets, they conceded just one goal in their six outings during the Euros, and have now kept a clean sheet in every single knock-out game they´ve played since the 2006 World Cup finals.
That´s more than 1,000 minutes of knock-out football without conceding a single goal. The pretty passing and flowing attacking football might attract more attention, but you won´t ever find Spain neglecting the less glamorous side of the football.
They can attack, they can defend, they can transition between the two, and they do it all with a reliance — no, an insistence — on tactical and technical excellence ahead of raw physical power.
Spain are champions both in terms of results and style, and football will never be the same again.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.
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