As opponents adapt, Jordi Alba helping to give Spain a new dimension
The beauty of this Spain team is that it keeps evolving. After technical skill and the ability to retain possession finally overcame the neurosis of past failure at Euro 2008, there came the years of control in 2010 and 2012, as World Cup and another European Championsip were collected playing safety-first keep-ball. For all the criticism of its supposed negativity in Poland and Ukraine there were signs of another Spain emerging, one that had begun to come to terms with the problem posed by an opponent that sits deep against it.
It is an issue any possession-based side will have. If you dominate the ball to the extent that an opponent despairs of ever winning it back, that opponent will eventually simply stick men behind the ball, allowing you possession but trying to deny you space in the final third to create any goalscoring opportunities. Spain's response for a long time when faced with such an opponent has been simply to keep passing. The process is attritional but Spain essentially knows that as long as it has the ball it isn't going to concede and that, eventually, an opponent is likely to be worn down. A mistake -- and a goal -- will come.
At the Euros, Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, spoke again and again about "control." But he also spoke about "profundidad" -- depth of field. If an opponent packs men behind the ball, what is lost is depth of field: Spanish attacks essentially start higher up the pitch and that means that "verticalidad" -- verticality, playing the ball towards goal -- is far harder. The risk is that the team with the ball ends up playing too horizontally, going back and forth across the pitch without making any progress, without generating the burst of speed necessary to puncture a well-drilled rearguard.
That is why Jordi Alba is such an important addition. Although ostensibly a left-back, he is a converted winger and has many of the technical attributes you'd expect of an attacking player. But vitally, he has great pace and stamina, working up and down that left flank, and seems to have the gift of timing his runs to arrive in space. He did it against Italy in the final of the Euros last year and he added another two in the 3-0 win over Nigeria on Sunday.
Both those games were a little unusual in that Italy and Nigeria actually tried to engage Spain high up the pitch and did leave space behind them. For Spain that is a rare experience and against Nigeria it was one with which it wasn't entirely comfortable, yielding numerous chances, particularly in the first half, that better finishing might have punished. It may be that Spain, as Barcelona did against Bayern Munich last season, is not very good at defending -- or at least not at defending in the sense of thwarting an opponent coming at it. It seems to happen often with gifted possession sides that they get so used to defending with the ball, reducing the risk by denying the opponent the ball, that they effectively forget the mechanics of what to do when they don't have it and an opponent does attack them -- and of course Alba and Gerard Pique are both Barca players.
But what Alba offers is a player who can arrive at pace onto a sideways pass, and so turn horizontal movement into vertical movement. There are, essentially, two ways to beat a massed defense: go round it or go through it: Alba has the pace to create overlaps -- and conveniently does so on the left, where Spain, with Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta sharing the midfield and forward duties, are naturally narrow -- and he can also go through by dint of coming from deep positions.
Just as importantly, Alba can actually defend. Dani Alves performs a similar role on the right for Barcelona (and it may be that against better opponents Barca decides next season it must temper the attacking urges of one or the other) but his defensive inadequacies have regularly been exposed at international level -- most notably against Paraguay in the 2011 Copa America when his haplessness made the winger Marcelo Estigarribia look so potent he earned a move from the French second division side Le Mans (who had loaned him out to Newell's Old Boys in Argentina) to Juventus.
Alves hasn't yet been exposed in the Confederations Cup, although with he and Marcelo (who may be even worse defensively) both pushing up, Brazil looks horribly vulnerable to counterattacks that hit it wide. Del Bosque, instinctively cautious, counters that threat by balancing Alba with Alvaro Arbeloa on the right. Arbeloa seems almost archaic now, a fullback who actually defends, but he is key to how Spain play, often shuffling across to function almost as a third center-back (a role Sergio Busquets can also fill, dropping back from deep midfield) when Alba advances.
Much has been made of the success of Spain at youth level, which seems to suggest its success will endure. Perhaps the most alarming aspect for the rest of the world, though, is that the team those players will break in to has been together so long, has evolved so smoothly, that it has the rhythm and internal balance of a club side.