Spain no longer reigns over international football?
It says something about the propensity of football fans to indulge in knee-jerk reactions that the final whistle had not even blown in Brazil on Sunday night before the world’s media and social media sites were deluged with posts and comments assuredly announcing the end of Spain’s reign over international football. Denouncers were quick to seize upon the vibrancy of Brazil’s attacking play, the hopelessly inept defending on Spain’s part, and the failures of tiki-taka. However, the dust has had some time to settle, and so the time is ripe, perhaps, for a calmer evaluation of where the tournament left the two major contenders for next season’s World Cup.
Brazil was formidable across the tournament: that goes without saying. The same knee-jerkers who are deriding Spain after a first international defeat in thirty games are probably the people who have been very vociferous in describing Neymar as overpriced, over-rated, and ill-suited to football in Europe’s higher echelons on the basis of a couple of bad games against that bastion of quality, England, and his having only played football in Brazil. They may well be quieter now after a series of excellent performances and high-quality goals from the twenty-one year old. He is still a little raw, and his diving was one of the most unedifying spectacles of the tournament, but it is hard to critique goals against Spain and Italy, two of the most formidable international defences.
In fact, Brazil’s forward line simply does not have the same mystique as it has done in former years: aside from Neymar, names like Fred, Jo, and an ageing Ronaldinho simply do not evoke the same aura as Ronaldo, Rivaldo, et al. This, in part, was one of the main reasons cited by those who harboured doubts over Brazil’s claims to a sixth World Cup. However, Fred has been in prolific form under Scolari, and helps add a balance to the side that clearly proves efficacious for Neymar. Similarly, the defending on Brazil’s part was, on the whole, good. In fact, one might go so far as to say that Brazil are slight favourites for the World Cup after the tournament, on the basis of a home support that, inside the grounds themselves, appeared frightening for opposition players at times.
So much so, in fact, that even Spain’s notoriously dauntless side appeared disconcerted by the whole affair. Spain cannot have ever been pressed as fiercely and continually as they were on Sunday in any game over the past six years, and their pressing game was mediocre by comparison. If Spain is to become the first side to retain the World Cup, one feels that pressing is the most important issue for the side to address. For Spain must show themselves able to deal with pressing of that kind; Brazil will have set a marker down for sides like Germany and Argentina to place Spain under the same pressure, and if their off-the-ball movement does not improve itself over the next year, they will be in deep trouble, for the movement is what facilitates tiki-taka.
Similarly, they must learn to press again. Both Barcelona and Spain have lapsed from a high-tempo passing game over the past twelve months, and both have suffered. Neither side possesses the most formidable defence, and therefore inviting sides to actually attack them is suicidal. The general consensus is that it is mere indolence that has caused the players to stop pressing, and this is unforgivable. Del Bosque must remind his players of what is at stake, for tiki-taka without the pressing is an untenable system for this squad.
To achieve this, Del Bosque would be prudent to reassess Xavi’s role. To many readers, this will appear sacrilegious – Xavi, surely, is undroppable? Well, perhaps. It is obvious to any meticulous observer that Xavi has looked lethargic recently, and seems ill-suited to place continuous pressure upon the opposition. Fatigue after year upon year of sixty-game-seasons may be one reason, but over the last year he has seemed loath to press; it is not merely a recent phenomenon. If the main stratagem adopted to defeat Spain is going to be to counter-attack them, then Spain need two reliable holding midfield players, and Xavi, for all his extraordinary abilities on the ball, is lapsing off it. A preferable system, it would seem, would be a double pivot of Busquets and Alonso, two players who will protect the defence and play as surrogate center-halves when Alba and Arbeloa venture forward. This leaves the three attacking positions. Iniesta, scintillating and mesmerising at times across the tournament, naturally takes one spot, as does Fabregas when fit. This leaves a third spot in the attacking triumvirate, and one feels that the talents of Jesus Navas provide greater balance to the side – he being more direct – than those of Xavi would.
This debate in itself is indicative of why writing of Spain is so incredibly misguided. No other international squad has the depth of talent that a debate over whether to choose Fabregas, Mata, Silva, Navas, Cazorla or Xavi is even feasible. England would go to extraordinary lengths to have one player of such quality. Writing off Spain after a tournament in which they were still, on the whole, convincing, is as foolish as it was to write off Brazil before this tournament. It is clear that a gap has been closed, and it is clear that Spain must change certain aspects of their game if retaining the trophy is to be a possibility. But Spain did not win the Confederations Cup before their South Africa triumph, and this is yet another reason why Spain will no doubt feel in sympathy with Mark Twain, in feeling that reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated.