All Hail Spain, Champions Of The World

All Hail Spain, Champions Of The World

By on Jul 14, 2010 in Latest | 5 comments

Obviously, for a football snob like myself, even the best televised football is a poor substitute for watching a couple of Scottish lower league sides playing kick and rush on a muddy pitch, but I have to say I enjoyed that World Cup. More than any other since 1994, at least, though admittedly I didn’t watch so much of the last couple. Maybe there weren’t any real classic games like the Romania v Argentina game of that year, or France v Brazil from 1986, maybe there weren’t many outstanding individual performances, but after a quiet start it developed into an enthralling tournament. All four quarter-finals and both semis provided terrific entertainment, in their own ways, and the final was – if not a classic – then a good game too.

But I seem to be in a minority here, and I’ve heard lots of complaints these last few days that it’s been a dull tournament and – even more difficult to understand – that Spain weren’t particularly exciting winners of it. The quality of the tournament itself is down to personal taste I guess – maybe I’ve been watching such crap football for the last few years that I was always going to be very easily pleased. But I really want to take issue with the other bit: I’ve been watching World Cups since 1978 (albeit I can’t remember very much of that first one) and Spain are better than any other international side I’ve seen in that time, and I want to defend them in particular from the allegation that they’re a dull or negative side.

Generally speaking analogies between football and chess irritate me immensely, but for one night only I’m going to draw some of my own. Back in the day, the great chess players of old would win many of their games in grand style, with a welter of sacrifices and flashy tactics that make great copy and still fill many books in chess libraries today. They got away with it because chess theory was less highly developed, there were fewer good players around (even by the relative standards of the time) and the general standard of play, especially defending, was a bit rubbish. It’s very different now, standards of play are higher and the strength in depth much greater, and your modern grandmaster, while always on the lookout for opportunities to win in such style, will only get anywhere by basing his or her game on technique. Games at top level are closer, more technical, and more attention has to be paid to an opponent’s counterplay.

The analogy to football is obvious and the point trivial – we all know that the scorelines of the 1954 World Cup are a thing of the past, and that no team is likely to sweep all before them in the style of Brazil 1970 – but the important point is that it doesn’t mean top chess players are more negative / less attacking than they were before, just that the game has moved on and the attacks need to be built on a sounder base. To play great chess now you’ve got to be patient. It takes the game to a higher level and makes the skill behind it all the more impressive. More difficult to appreciate for the casual viewer perhaps, but then that’s where the analogy breaks down – in chess, the understanding and the doing are much the same, the ability to appreciate good play and the ability to play yourself are mostly the same, whereas you can appreciate great football despite having no ability to play it yourself.

There’s a big difference between being solid defensively and being defensive, and Spain embody that difference. Defensively sound, yes, but largely because to play positively you need the ball. They were always looking to create chances and were on top in every game they played throughout the tournament, including the one they lost, dominating possession, territory and chances, regardless of whether the opposition came out and attacked them – as Chile did – or whether they sat back and tried to make it difficult – as, well, everyone else did. And be in no doubt that they all did, even that German side that had been talked up so much after their previous couple of games. Spain had to work very hard to break them down, and it was wonderful to watch Xavi and Iniesta keep probing for gaps, refusing to panic when chances went begging and the breakthrough was late coming, and sticking to their gameplan throughout.

In an earlier article I cast a certain amount of scorn on the talking of football tactics – far too much is read into them and the bottom line is you have to play well (and have good players) whatever your formation. This is still true, after all Holland and several other sides play the same 4-2-3-1 formation without being as effective, but since I’m breaking my own rules today I might as well break this one too and indulge myself in some tactical talk anyway. Sure, the current vogue for playing two holding midfielders is just fashion, and no doubt that fashion will change as the game moves on, but at the moment I don’t think it’s coincidence that so many of the world’s top teams at club and international level have found it such an effective formation. It might seem more defensive but it needn’t, and often doesn’t, work that way. If played well, it defends higher up the field, snuffs out counterplay at an earlier stage, and frees up much of the rest of the team.

And not just the players in front of them, it frees defenders too. By cutting out supply to opposing wingers it gives more scope to fullbacks to push forward as Sergio Ramos frequently did (chess players should know this already – a flank attack rarely works unless you have control of the centre), and even centre-backs find they can make breaks forward knowing their position will be covered – Lucio has made something of a speciality of it for Inter and for Brazil. And it’s a shame Brazil didn’t get further in the tournament because they had the potential to be Spain’s closest challengers. Dunga similarly recognised the need to anchor the midfield in order to give the creative players more freedom, and Robinho in particular revelled in that freedom. I still think they were just unlucky to lose to a Dutch side they seemed to have the beating of. Or at least, they were unlucky to go behind – they only had themselves to blame for their loss of discipline having done so.

But then luck always has a habit of getting in the way in sport. Football is not an exact science (and neither is chess, incidentally, despite some level of popular belief to the contrary) and there is no way of playing that will guarantee you victory. Teams had chances against Spain – Paraguay most obviously with the penalty, Arjen Robben in the final – and there’s always a chance that things will go against you, a team will take its one chance and Spain will miss all theirs. All you can do is stack the odds in your favour, and this they did brilliantly. They’re the first side to go right through the knockout or second phase of the World Cup without conceding a goal – and while that needs a bit of luck, anyone who thinks it a mere statistical quirk should note that they did likewise in Euro 2008. And they achieved this not by sticking men behind the ball but by outplaying teams in their own half. The semi-final against Germany was the real masterwork, making a team who had scored so freely against fancied teams in earlier rounds look out of their depth.

All that was missing, all they needed to really prove their greatness as a team (besides maybe a better left-back) was a couple more goals. It wasn’t through lack of chances created. Perhaps if Torres had been properly fit or on-form he would have scored a few while allowing Villa to stay in his more effective position cutting in from the left. That would have made the scorelines reflect their superiority a bit better and we wouldn’t be hearing any of this talk of them being a dull side. As it was, they had to make do with 1-0s. But that shouldn’t disguise the fact that they’re the greatest World Cup winning side for many tournaments, and – for all that it was won with a set-piece – that semi-final may well go down as the defining game of the era.

It’s going to be interesting to see Scotland taking them on in the next batch of qualifiers. But I’ll worry about that later – meantime, real football is back and the pre-season friendlies are well underway. Bring on the muddy pitches.

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    5 Comments

  1. Nice article, thanks.

    I generally agree and find the criticism this Spanish side has been receiving baffling. There was an interesting interview with Xavi before the final where he described how difficult it was playing sides who set up defensively and closing you down at every opportunity. Perhaps some elements of the media have gone over the top in painting Spain as whiter than white. They do have players who can compete in the ‘dark arts’ of simulation, hard tackling and card waving. And I can accept the point that some of Spain’s matches aren’t gripping as they aren’t end-to-end thrillers.

    But to put this down to Spain being dull and passing it endlessly sideways is, I think, to not actually watch the way they play. One of the most ridiculous, bone-headed arguments against Spain I’ve seen a few people post is along the lines of, ‘if they’re so good, why did they only score with a header from a set-piece in the semi-final?’. That doesn’t even justify a comment…

    As has been pointed out by Sid Lowe and others, the Spanish style of play works superbly as a defensive tactic, without defensive strength being its primary purpose. Another argument I’ve heard often is that without a natural ball-winner in Marcos Senna, the side is not as fluent as it was in Euro 2008. Though Senna undoubtedly was an important part of that side, I think his replacement with Busquets actually means that they can keep possession to an even greater degree and, with the often unnoticed high pressing they apply, there is effectively no need for such a player. The other factor is that, at Euro 2008, they weren’t favourites at the outset and teams would set out to try and beat them. At this World Cup, everyone (bar Chile) has tried to sit back, press and catch them on the break.

    I’m not in the ‘tiki-taka’ Taliban, I just appreciate a great side playing good football.

    Tim Vickerman

    July 15, 2010

  2. I think this is the first time I’ve ever read a chess/football comparison written by somebody who actually knows their chess. Splendid stuff, and more than substantially right.

    ejh

    July 15, 2010

  3. Great article.

    The fact that they lost their opening game to more limited opposition trying to contain them and yet persisted in playing their normal way makes them a better, not a worse, team in my eyes.

    Four 1-0 wins against different opposition from different cultures and scoring different types of goals doesn’t lie. Not enough has been written about just how good their defence (all down the pitch) has been.

    They are worthy champions and certainly a degree better than that lucky Italian team of 2006.

    Martin

    July 15, 2010

  4. Really enjoyed this, thanks – a well-reasoned argument against the naysayers.

    The difficult thing for me has been balancing admiration for Spain’s purity of intention, their solid system, their passing ability, their moments of individual brilliance with the nagging feeling that that there could and should be more entertainment and excitement from a talented, winning side. (I appreciate that this is monumentally unreasonable of me, especially given the point about other teams ‘parking the bus’, but I can’t shake it.)

    They play a certain way, and do it brilliantly, but Spain’s near-perfection in their successes makes me wish we’d had a less functional (less-deserving?!) winning team that rode their luck more, had less defensive discipline, and crazily threw more caution to the wind and went for the jugular when it wasn’t necessary to do so. The team with these characteristics was the eventually-outclassed Germany side. Spain are a better team than Germany/anyone else in the world but I didn’t find them better to watch.

    Still, I’ve referred to them recently as being ‘dull’ myself and you’ve made me re-think that here; it’s a reactionary term that doesn’t really stand up to close scrutiny. They’re clearly not dull, but perhaps because of their ability their games were often less exciting than certain others to watch, for some neutrals.

    I also thoroughly enjoyed the tournament after the cagey first week; didn’t enjoy the final too much but I thought the knockout stages were pretty special.

    Ungentlemanly Conduct

    July 15, 2010

  5. Personally I do find Spain dull to watch. Brilliantly effective, but dull.

    I think there’s two reasons:

    It is partly due to the relentless mechanical perfection of their game. In the same way that Pete Sampras, Stephen Hendry, and Gary Lineker were nowhere near as exciting as John McEnroe, Jimmy White, or Paul Gascoigne. Flawed genius is always more exciting than consistent reliability.

    The other reason is the style of their play. Totally dominating possession with endless quick passing and good movement. It occasionally produces moments of delightful flowing football, but most of the time it’s just pragmatic possession retention. Some people, particularly TV pundits, love this style of play, but it leaves me cold. I like quick, direct, counter-attacking, end-to-end stuff, and Spain’s system snuffs that out.
    I also like teams to be adaptable, but Spain have a Plan A that they just force to work in all situations. Arsenal do pretty much the same thing, but at least they have the decency to be completely undone every now and then, followed by an amusing tantrum from Wenger.

    Showboating

    July 15, 2010

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