The clock was running and hearts were racing. It was the last minute of the European U-21 Championships semifinal and the favorites were losing. Spain had taken fourteen shots, Belarus three (of which one was on target). Spain had enjoyed 75 percent of the possession, Belarus had suffered it. Spain's goalkeeper had not made a save, Belarus' goalkeeper would get three out of three in the following morning's papers. And yet Belarus was winning 1-0 and heading to the final. It was time for Spain to panic.
Or was it?
Spain had used the ball neatly, but it was not traveling with its normal speed or precision. Chances were not made in the usual numbers. At the other end, a long throw, a flick on and a clever shot from Voronkov had given Belarus the lead just before the half. Spain's defense had been a little deficient, and after an isolated moment the team was trailing. Seven shots in the first 20 minutes of the second half had not evened the score.
So, Spain altered its approach. A defender was removed for a striker, with Bojan Krikic replacing Álvaro Domínguez. Two wingers were sent on, with Jeffren Suarez and Diego Capel replacing the small, narrow ball playing midfielders Ander Herrera and Iker Muniaín. Even Javi Martínez, the midfielder momentarily employed as an auxiliary center back, switched positions again, pressed into service further up. Play became a little more direct, a little quicker, than normal. It was, noted the sports newspaper AS, "contraestilo." Contrary to the style.
In the 89th minute the goal came, sending the subs spiriting onto the pitch in celebration, bundling into a pile of relieved bodies. 1-1. In extra time, another goal came. Then another.
This was not, though, the success of a Plan B. At least not a Plan B in the stereotypical, oddly exclusive and narrow-minded way "Plan B" is so often understood -- as if there are only two, diametrically opposed, mutually exclusive types of football. Contraestilo was an exaggeration based on a rigid reading of Spain's approach. This was not the classic onslaught in the dying minutes, the ball launched long. The phrase they use in Spain is "a la olla:" into the pot. In England, they talk about getting the ball "into the mixer." Just chuck it in there and see what happens. At times, teams that refuse to do so are seen as deficient, or maybe even a little snooty. Too puritanical for their own good.
That was not what Spain did. There was less than a minute to go. Spain had worked the ball down the left-hand side, short passes taking it up the pitch. There was little space until a sudden shift. Bojan to Thiago to Capel, to Mata, Thiago, Capel and Jeffren and in to Adrián, dashing toward the near post, six or seven yards out. It was a brilliant goal. The second was added soon after: Capel to Mata, a first time outside of the boot pass, spinning back to Capel, who had carried on running. Leaping, Capel clipped it into the area and Adrián again scored. Then Jeffren thumped in a rocket.
Vindication, too. On British television the commentator was talking about Spain's refusal to compromise the "philosophy." That was true. But (and this is a conclusion that can be applied to so many discussions about the way teams approach football), this was not an ethical question. It was a tactical one.
It's understandable for teams to throw the ball into the area in the final minutes of a game when they are chasing a goal. They are desperate, after all. Launching the ball into the area can seem to be the fastest, simplest and surest route to a goal. But it is not. The assumption that a team should simply throw the ball into the area is wrong, as is the assumption that the only way of exercising a Plan B is to turn to the long ball. It is as if people can only perceive a tactical difference if it is radically different, as if they cannot comprehend a kind of convergence of styles or cross-pollination.
To judge any major change to Spain's approach (or Barcelona's, or Arsenal's, or anyone's) as some sort of moral aberration, some sort of football treason, is absurd. As is the notion that a team lacks something if it does not chuck the ball into the mixer -- does not throw it a la olla. Spain proved that. The argument can be turned on its head: Maybe the teams that do launch the ball lack something. And something far more fundamental, at that.
The accusation leveled at Spain's U-21 team is that it doesn't know how to play any other way. Firstly, that's not true. Secondly, for those with a narrow understanding of ways to play it would be worth asking: did England, say, show it could play any other way? The long ball in the dying minutes is both legitimate and understandable. But rather than praising the teams that take the desperate option, rather than lauding their "courage," consider praising the teams that, amid the tension and the pressure, stay calm and carry on. Isn't that real courage?
When England's U-21 team was knocked out, Stuart Pearce complained that his team lacked "doggedness." He meant it in a very different -- and, on one level, quite depressing -- way, but there was something dogged about Spain too. The Spanish stuck doggedly to what they knew, at least in broad terms (after all, there is variation within their approach). Not because they are puritans but because they, like everyone else, are pragmatists. Because they believe in it, not on some abstract level but on a tangible one. Because there is no need to throw the ball into the box.
No need? No point. Spain was losing, sure, but it had taken 14 shots to Belarus' one. It needed to score, and to score it needed to shoot. Why change the approach that had brought it 14 shots and replace it with one that doesn't guarantee any? Why launch the ball into the box? Just chuck it in there and something might happen, they say. Yeah, and it might not. In fact, it probably will not. Especially with the players that Spain has. It's true that Spain might not find a way through with its style, but who says changing its approach means it will?
Many say that, actually, and it doesn't make sense. People talk about playing the "percentages," but what is the percentage chance of creating a genuine goal scoring opportunity with a long, aimless ball in the rough direction of the penalty area? Lower, surely, than actually passing it to a teammate.
Is kicking the ball into a 44x18-yard pot occupied by the opposition really more likely to work than kicking it to a specific person on your team? How often have we seen teams spend the final 10 minutes or more launching the ball long and not finding a way through? More, surely, than you have seen those teams get the goal they desperately seek. Why lay siege to a heavily armed fortress, sending missiles its way, if you can pick the lock on the back door?
And yet, when a team fails to find a way through after 10 minutes or more of launching the ball into the area, it is hailed as heroic and rarely criticized for not having a Plan B (or a Plan A) that involves actually creating chances. Is it not better to laud the team that knows what it's trying to do, even if it fails, than the one that just hopes that something might happen? Let's get back to the olla: Which chef is taking the more logical course of action, the chef who knows what ingredients he is putting in the pot, or the chef who grabs any old stuff from the fridge, chucks it in and hopes for the best?
Against Belarus, Spain played the way it played because it thought it was the best way to win. And here's the thing: Spain was right.