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.