Spain: Creaking at the Top

It’s been barely two weeks into the greatest spectacle of football and we have seen it all — complacency, aggression, surprise and, of course, shock! Here Debopam Roy analyses why the Spanish Armada sank.

It’s been a rollicking World Cup so far with goals galore but before the second week is over, we have already seen two former World Cup champions go out and are sure of the demise of a third. The most shocking has been the exit of current World and European champions Spain. In fact, they have maintained the trend that in the 21st century, no European team, while defending the World Cup has made it beyond the group stage. France started this ignominious trend in 2002. Italy followed in 2010. And now the armada too has fallen.

The Armada Sinks

So complete has been the Spanish domination of world football in the last six years that they have won every major trophy in that time losing just one game (against Switzerland in the 2010 World Cup opener). From there, to be out in 180 minutes is easily the biggest shock in this World Cup.  So what went wrong for the Spanish? On closer analysis one can point at these factors.

Spain crash out of the World Cup 2014 in the group stage
Spain crash out of the World Cup 2014 in the group stage

Team Formation was awry: The striker position has been problematic for Spanish managers ever since Fernando Torres went off the boil. The best striker since then has been David Villa but at 32, he is a peripheral figure in this team and was supposed to be an impact sub. Vincent del Bosque never tried Villa’s angular runs in this World Cup, instead he has tried out his club mate Diego Costa who had scored more than twice the number of goals Villa did at Atletico Madrid this season. But Costa had only played twice matches with the Spanish team before the World Cup. His club form was under a manager who orchestrates a completely different sort of tactics to the tiki taka of La Furia Roja.  For a seasoned manager like Del Bosque, it was astounding that he didn’t try out the striker-less false 9 formation with which he had won the 2012 Euro. Cesc Fabregas, did come on but only as a second striker to support either Costa or Torres.

The Xavi factor: Xavi Hernández has been operating the springs which has run the Spanish (and indeed Barcelona) clock for six years. In this tournament, he played the first match and had 91% pass accuracy. But critically he had only two through balls and no key pass in the entire match. In fact, only three of his passes actually were completed where the target was inside the opponent’s penalty box. That is as damning a statistic as any. Del Bosque dropped him for the second match.

The question of width: Spain had no width at all in their match against the Dutch. The wingbacks were supposed to provide the width between them. In the horror show against the Oranje, Cesar Azpilicueta had two crosses from wide areas – one more than Jordi Alba, the left back. That number improved to six with three crosses each in the second match. Just to give a comparison, in the Euro 2012, the Spanish team averaged 16 crosses per match. When Xavi was sacrificed in the second match, Pedro was brought in – evidently to provide width but he had no successful crosses despite having three take-ons. With no width, Spain didn’t have any alternative if the opponent crowded the middle third to spoil the tiki taka rhythm.

No More Saint:  3, 2, 1. what comes next? The answer is 7 and counting. Iker Casillas is one of those handful players who have won everything there is to win as a player at club and national level. He had only conceded three goals in Euro 2008, two in 2010 World Cup and one in Euro 2012. This arithmetic progression ended spectacularly when he conceded five in the first match. Except for the goals by Arjen Robben, culpability can be put on the captain for each of the rest. He gifted the fourth, missed the flight on the third and despite the superlative dive from Robin Van Persie on the first, Casillas’ position was all awry on the first. Not that he was helped much by his defence. The first choice pairing of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique were slow, kept a wide chasm between them and seldom provided the solidity that one Carlos Puyol always provided. On both the goals from Robben as well as the third Dutch goal, the defence was at sixes and sevens. So piqued was Del Bosque that he dropped Pique for the second match and brought in Javi Martinez, but clearly there was no understanding between him and Ramos either.

Iker Casillas
Iker Casillas

Missing Hunger: Casillas had famously commented that La Decima is more important than the World Cup. This group of players has been winning trophies at club and national level for so long that they assumed that just turning up would be sufficient and did not care about intensity. Robben’s pace, Van Persie’s finishing and the intensity of every Chilean showed that up. Somehow the Spanish were complacent and not playing with their heart in it. Evidently the Madrid players were sated with their Champions League win, the Barcelona players apart from Iniesta had a mediocre season and the only Atletico player to start the games, Costa was awful.

Del Bosque misses a beat: It is not new. In 2010, Marcello Lippi had filled his team with his 2006 trophy winning side without bothering to include fresh faces. The result was getting dumped out from a group consisting of Paraguay, New Zealand and Slovakia. Vincent Del Bosque wasn’t so radical and did include some youngsters like Javi Martinez, Koke, David De Gea and Azpilicueta. However, only Azpilicueta and Martinez started. The manager also didn’t use the mature players well. Players like Santi Cazorla and Juan Mata could have been the creative spark that Spain has lacked.  The continued faith on Torres in spite of him having poor club seasons meant that other strikers like Alvaro Morata, Markel Susaeta, Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado were left at home.

Looking Ahead

It is the end of a generation of tremendously gifted players. One would be surprised to see the likes of Casillas, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Villa or Torres in Spanish colours again. Spain has been winning the European competitions across age levels too and the supply line is already there.Spanish infrastructure and youth development system is still churning out talents aplenty. This disaster does not point to the overall failure of the system, rather augments the point that some of the stars have been persisted with beyond their shelf life. They need a new manager with fresh ideas who could frame a team with the likes of Koke, Thiago Alcantara, De Gea, Iker Munian and such players. They may not herald another generation of tiki taka domination, but they could well make for a strong Spanish team to Russia in 2018.

About Debopam Roy

Debopam Roy follows football in Italy and South America. You can reach him on Twitter @rossoneri