Football

Toothless Spain miss forward presence

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In Vienna, four years ago, Spain and Italy played out a dull, uninspiring 0-0 draw in a Euro 2008 quarter-final.

Spain went on to win the match and tournament that year, with the likes of Iker Casillas, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and David Silva arriving on the international stage. Fast forward four years, and with a World Cup deservedly secured, Spain arrived to Euro 2012 as favourites, and once again found Italy stubbornly blocking their path.

As engaging as their group stage match ultimately turned out to be, the greatest talking point was undoubtedly Vicente Del Bosque's decision to field six midfielders at the expense of a striker. Actually, this is not strictly correct.

It's true Del Bosque avoided orthodox strikers, but the Spainard did pick Cesc Fabregas in an advanced role, a mandate he's fulfilled for Barca on occasion. Alongside Fabregas, his Barca teammate Iniesta and Manchester City's David Silva glided around the pitch, linking up with the much deeper Xavi and Sergio Busquets.

 

It was a wonderful idea on paper, and a great way to incorporate Spain's abundance of world-class midfielders. But sometimes tactical ingenuity fails to translate into results on the pitch.

And when the favourites stumble, everyone looks for reasons, so Del Bosque served up an easy excuse with his team selection. Against Italy in 2008, Luis Aragones opted for David Villa and Fernando Torres. On Saturday, neither played, Torres left on the bench and Villa at home on the treatment table.

Instead, Spain plumped for the 4-6-0 formation, as made famous by Scotland in their dreadfully insipid qualifying match against Czech Republic. That day, Scotland manager Craig Levein played an unashamedly defensive 11, but there a precious few similarities between the two.

Del Bosque cannot be accused of acting defensively, but the fact remains that this particular experiment failed. Spain's striker dilemma derives from Villa's injury, Torres' loss of form and Llorente and Negredo's perceived unsuitability to Spain's fluid, possession-based philosophy.

But Del Bosque will surely consider his alternatives now. Iniesta was superb, as was David Silva, and Fabregas scored the equalising goal so the situation is by no means desperate.

But Italy, widely under-appreciated heading into the tournament, were able to look more threatening with much less of the ball, while playing a defensive 3-5-2 formation designed to contain and counter. As expected of a team shaped so completely in the Barca mould, Spain enjoyed long spells of possession, and completed almost double the amount of passes as their opponents.

Del Bosque was obviously trying to replicate the Barca template, and with Fabregas, Iniesta, and Xavi in the team he had good reason to believe it could work. Add to the fact that David Silva had scored more goals than Torres, Negredo and Llorente combined in qualifying and Del Bosque could put forward a convincing case for using Silva in the 'Lionel Messi' role.

Silva is a great player, and a gifted passer, but he's not a goalscorer like Messi. As a result, Spain looked toothless. Iniesta demonstrated the value of taking on your opponent rather than passing, and the majority of his side's good chances came from the little Spaniard's jinking runs.

But without a focal point, Spain's pretty passing largely untroubled the five-man Italian defence. When Torres did arrive, at least De Rossi, Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci had to think about a vertical threat.

With the play in front of them, the Italian trio looked every inch the typical Azzurri defence. Once Torres arrived, and the ball was played behind them, they looked unsettled, uncomfortable and vulnerable.

But unfortunately Torres merely looked like a striker, rather than acting like one. His movement and touch suggested all was there, but his predatory instincts in front of goal are still absent. Three good chances came and went, as his shoulders gradually sunk further and further towards the Polish turf.

Del Bosque took a risk on Saturday, and it didn't pay off. But such innovative experiments only serve to enhance Spain's credentials in the tournament. Experimentation is to be admired rather than castigated, especially when you have such players at your disposal.

Italy served as the perfect opposition to counter Spain's rotating midfield - after all, who better to defend tiki-taka than defenders schooled in stifling Serie 'A'. But against less rigid opposition the tactic may work - it has for Barca in the past.

But, even so, with matches to come against Ireland and Croatia, the Spanish coach will surely opt for a striker. First pick, despite his troubles this season, remains Torres. Llorente deserves an opportunity after an excellent season with Bilbao, and Negredo scored 14 league goals for Sevilla but the Chelsea striker has the international goals to warrant a starting berth.

So Del Bosque does have options. Even the introduction of Jesus Navas changed the game for Spain, adding pace and the uncharacteristic ability to beat a defender around the outside.

So Spain have alternatives. Their experiment against a well-drilled, and impressive Italian side yielded a draw, but the sign of a good team is the ability to adapt. And Spain have the best. Despite their brief foray into the tactical wilderness, they remain the team to beat.

Topics:
Internationals
Football
David Silva
Fernando Torres
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