Spain’s mauling of Italy was the consummate football kill. It was also necessary, because it wipes for all time the idea that the passing template adopted by the European and World champions is about anything other than winning.
Boring some said as Spain edged the semi-final chess match with Portugal. Passing for its own sake was the argument after the quarter-final dismissal of France. The attacks on Spain led England coach Roy Hodgson into that old cul-de-sac about the importance of passion, aggression, never-say-die attitudes that are central to England’s identity, virtues he would not want to lose.
The inference being that were England to emulate Spain’s possession-based game they would sacrifice the elements he holds most dear, as if Spain lack passion, aggression and an indefatigable will to win. They don’t. And what’s more they have courage to burn, the kind of bravery that demands they take the ball when marked, that compels them to contest every inch of territory when they do not have the ball in order to get it back, and the mental fortitude to retain the ball in tight spaces, to take responsibility for it rather than lump it long in a panic when space gets tight.
The quality of Spain’s display against Italy to win an unprecedented third consecutive international championship, led some to argue that it was the greatest expression of the beautiful game since Scotland and England introduced the concept of cross border competition at the back end of the 19th Century.
Yes, better than Brazil in 1970, better than the total footballers of Holland that followed later that decade, better than Maradona’s Argentina, Beckembauer’s Germany and better even than the Golden Magyars, who stunned the world with their epic destruction of the mother country home and away in the Fifties.
The Hungary of Puskas, Hidegkuti and Kocsis changed the way we thought about the game, ushering in as it did new thinking about mobile midfield and forward play. It was no longer about a stopper at the back and a big man up top, but pace and movement across the park, ball retention front to back and vision. Those who witnessed the 7-3 romp at Wembley in 1953 went home with their eyes on stalks. Remind you of anybody?
How we marvelled at the performance of Italy in the quarter-final dismantling of England, and Germany in the rout of Greece. Italy’s subsequent victory over Germany in the semi-final had many, including me, believing they had the answer to Spain since they combined a love of possession with a sharp point in attack called Mario Balotelli. Pirlo + Balotelli was the solution to the problem of Spanish geometry.
We know different now. So let there be no more talk of the pointlessness of the passing game. Ball retention is where football starts and finishes; it is the abc of the game. The coaching culture in England must change to reflect that truth. We have not won a bean since 1966. The evidence therefore is overwhelming. The FA’s new national academy at St George’s Park is the perfect vehicle through which to institute new habits and fresh thinking.
Forget technique. Our boys can play. What England must improve is tactical awareness, in possession and, just as importantly, when they don’t have the ball. They did a lot of running in Ukraine, but not in the right places or at the right time. Spain showed England the way forward. We must endeavour to keep up or be left further behind.