What Went Right? PATIENCE! PATIENCE! PATIENCE! This was arguably the most patient side to ever lace up football boots. Spain didn’t so much come out with guns blazing and blow everybody away as much as slowly, methodically wear them down and put them to sleep. Their offensive approach was as technical and carefully calibrated as it comes: Build from the back, use the width of the field to switch play from flank to flank, use all of the field, maintain possession, use short, crisp passes to play keep away, lull the opponent into a false sense of defensive security, find the space in the opponent’s shape to spring a player lose, then quickly get the ball into that player in that space. They were the football equivalent of the old North Carolina Four Corners. Spain was so good at their long, sustained ball possession that if anybody tried to close them down La Roja Furia just quickly passed the ball to a space that a teammate just filled. There was not one single time in this tournament that they didn’t rule the time of possession. A lot of the time it wasn’t pretty but damned if Spain didn’t make it work to perfection. Hell, their movement was so total, the reason they beat the Dutch in the final was because they played like the Dutch better than the Dutch (which stands to reason; Dutch players and coaches have had a huge influence on football in Spain over the last 20 years). Nobody used the entire field better than Spain. They may not have been fast but when even a sliver of space opened up nobody was quicker at making diagonal runs and getting into that space. They switched play so often that nobody used the flanks better on both ends of the pitch, spreading their opponents so thin that it created the holes in the final third and in the box to attack. When they didn’t have possession – a rarity to be sure – they were the best in the tournament at closing down their opponents all over the pitch, anticipating where the ball was going next and quickly regaining possession. Got the ball to their front players better than any team, were the best at establishing a finisher up front (hell, he scored 5 of their eight goals), and their front players were the best at getting into the box and putting quality shots on target. Among the best at taking advantage of their opponent’s defensive mistakes. Above average at set pieces; nothing spectacular, though. Never lost their defensive shape – they allowed only two goals all tournament long, tied for the fewest by a winning side with France in 1998 and Italy in 2006 – but I can’t say it is because they had the best backline and defenders. So good was their ability to close down anybody anywhere on the pitch that a good portion of the credit for their defensive proficiency must go to their midfield and forward players. In a tournament in which the goalkeeping was pretty atrocious, all they needed was a reliable one; in Iker Casillas they had the best there is, and he stepped up to the plate and delivered, not once making a single mistake or committing the mental lapses that just killed other teams in this tournament. A large ingredient to being as patient as they were was they never panicked. Even after they lost their opening game to Switzerland they never lost their cool and continued to play their game. Most of all, because they had been playing like this for four years and lost only twice in that span, they finally believed in themselves, and showed a mental toughness and refuse-to-lose mentality that had been missing their entire history up to late 2006. Spain has always had the talent to be champions. Until now they just never had the heart and hard hat workmanlike guts to take on the world’s best sides at nut-crunching time and say “Screw it, we’re taking them down!”
What Went Wrong? They didn’t score a lot of goals. With only 8 goals all tournament Spain had the fewest goals scored of any World Cup champion. With a string of four 1-nil wins in every knockout game they were the Kardiac Kids. There just weren’t any games where they ran past anybody, so if you were a fan of La Roja Furia your heart was in the pit of your stomach for every minute of every game. They have to be glad they defended as well as they did, because at no time was there not the possibility that one mistake, one mental mishap, could have been fatal and made them an enigma in a long line of failed Spanish sides that had the talent and expectation to win but just didn’t (Hey, I realize I’m being nitpicky here because they did win the whole thing, but I have to put something here).
Who Stepped Up To The Plate? Are you kidding? WHO DIDN’T? Casillas only had to be reliable in a tournament where the goalkeeping was just awful. He was that and more, by far the best this month. Carles Puyol was a rock in front of goal, sweeping away what few attacks actually made it that far, and his partner in the middle, Gerard Pique, was just as stellar (I’ll bet Manchester United wish they had him back). Left fullback Joan Capdevila shut down every attack coming down the left flank, but his counterpart on the right, Sergio Ramos, was just lights out, showing an ability to go forward and join the attack; he is arguably the best fullback in the world now. The two defensive/holding midfielders responsible for stopping the opposition attack before it got to the front line and orchestrating their attack, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, were by far the best in the tournament. The linkup to the front, Xavi and Andres Iniesta, were invaluable, making runs into space, creating chances going forward, and even making some quality shots in the final third, and when it came time to take the game by the horns and get the ball in the net, Iniesta got it done at nut-crunching time. Of course, David Villa was the perfect finisher; he worked best operating just left of the target man. Scoring five goals to share the tournament lead, every shot he took was quality and on target. In their final two games Pedro stepped in, and allowed to roam got the ball on his feet and created space for Iniesta and Villa to make runs into the box. Spain’s bench was deep but not really very integral, so great was their starting XI. But on the rare occasions the substitutes were called upon, Fernando Llorente, David Silva, and Jesus Navas slipped in well, but when they needed more attacking quality in the center there were few that were better at opening up the game in attack better than Cesc Fabregas (it is his creativity and distribution that created the World Cup-winning goal for Iniesta in the final).
Who Didn’t Show Up? Target man Fernando Torres just couldn’t get at the end of any service and finish his chances. After five games he was put on the reserve’s bench for Pedro, who moved out to the forward flanks and roamed while Villa was moved inside as the target man. The move didn’t work any better; after that all of a sudden it wasn’t the forwards, including Villa, scoring goals. However, while Torres may not have scored the goals that would have made it a lot easier for Spain, I contend that it was his ability to get the ball in the box, hold up play and get it to Villa that made the Spain attack work more proficiently. So while Torres didn’t score any goals he was at least effective distributing the ball to the open player trailing in the box.
How Was The Coaching? Before I answer that something needs to be said here. A large part of the credit needs to go to Spain’s previous coach, Luis Aragones, who put these players and this system in place four years ago. It was Aragones that came up with the fluid, rhythmic, attacking machine that is their 4-5-1 system — with two defensive/holding midfielders/distributors, one creator in the center, one winger, and one linkup player on the other flank roaming into the box — that put these players in a position to win. It was Aragones that got 14 players from the two most successful clubs in both Spain and the world, Barcelona and Real Madrid, and put their successful familiarity and chemistry – as well as their world class talents – to use for the national side. It was Aragones who convinced those same world-class players from Barca and Real to forget their bitter rivalry and animosity towards each other, all for the common national good. And it was Aragones’ high-strung, high intensity that instilled in these players a backbone and belief in themselves that led them to 22 straight international wins, culminating in a European championship in 2008. This side under Aragones played a much more fluid, creative, exciting attack, encompassing the best attributes of the Dutch “Total Football” – which is why I don’t think Spain would have won this World Cup under Aragones. After Euro 2008 Spain needed what the stoic, calm Vicente del Bosque brought. After losing to the Swiss the high-strung Aragones would have eviscerated his players, which would have had them playing in fear, on their heels and with enough doubt in their minds that it would have created any number of moments of indecision or panic in subsequent games that would have been fatal. Furthermore, Aragones was fiercely loyal to his players, so he would not have replaced a player as important as Torres at as critical a juncture as the World Cup semifinals. The players and system was already in place when del Bosque took over; what it needed to succeed in the World Cup was the patient, workmanlike, never panic, grind-it-out approach that del Bosque has brought to every winning side he’s ever coached (and most of us are still wondering why after winning both La Liga and the Champions League twice Real fired him). It is national sides like that — not the hypnotically creative and magical sides put on the back of one or two hyper-competitive mega-superstars that have won world championships in bygone eras – that have come define World Cup champions in the 21st century. Del Bosque was and is one of the best in-game thinkers there is. It was a stroke of genius for the Spanish football federation to pull him out of mothball and get him to instill in this side what it needed to reach the football summit.
Did They Finish Where They Were Expected? FINALLY, YES! Spain has been expected to contend for major international championships for over 50 years. Like I said, they’ve always had the world-class players with world-class talent and even world-class coaches. What they lacked was backbone, guts, balls. It wasn’t that they lost to other national sides that had world-class players with world-class talent and world-class coaches; that is to be expected. It’s that Spain would wilt under the pressure of expectations (France in 2006), What’s more, they would lose or draw to teams of lesser quality at the wrong time who raised their game for at least one game and took Spain out of their game (Austria in 1978, Honduras and Northern Ireland in 1982, Belgium in 1986, Uruguay and Yugoslavia in 1990, South Korea in 1994, Nigeria and Paraguay in 1998, South Korea again in 2002). It had reached the point where you just knew that as good as they were Spain was going to figure out some way of screwing it up. Not anymore. After their surprisingly easy victory in Euro 2008 there was an expectation by them, their countryman, the betting public and most of the world that Spain was favored to win in South Africa. There just simply were no excuses. And under pressure like they’ve never felt before, they delivered. There’s nothing else to say here except WELL DONE!
What Now? Party like you can die tomorrow, as if cities like Madrid, Barcelona, and Seville need any excuse to celebrate! Seriously, there is a lot to like about the national side going forward. A large number of their key players (Pique, Ramos, Iniesta, Pedro, Fabregas, Silva) won’t be 30 by the next World Cup in Brazil in 2014, so there is every reason that they can expect to keep things going. Furthermore, there are a few current national players who are in their early twenties and will be in their athletic prime by 2014, so they can expect to take over a lot of the heavy lifting from here (Fabregas, Silva, Pedro, Jesus Navas, Javi Martinez, Raul Albiol). Casillas is only 30, and we all know that great goalkeepers actually get better with age and can play at a world class level into their forties. And Remember, this is Spain; there is always a load of talent on the ground and there are at least two teams in Real Madrid and Barcelona that are always creating world-class players. If they don’t fall into the trap that their immediate world champion predecessors, Italy, fall into of not bringing in new players to compliment the experienced veterans, and integrate the young talent that is in the most talented league in the world (La Liga Primera), then there is no reason Spain can’t continue to live up to high expectations. Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque have shown the way, the system is in place, and there are some very good coaches in Spain that can take up the mantle and keep it going.