Thursday September 4th, 2014

In a battle of European heavyweights, France topped Spain 1-0 in a friendly in Paris Thursday, with new Chelsea signing Loic Remy tallying the lone goal. For France, it marked a positive result that it can use to build momentum toward 2016, as it won't have any qualifiers to play as host of the next European Championship. For Spain, though, it marked the start of a new era after following its 2010 World Cup triumph with a 2014 World Cup debacle.

Here are three thoughts on the match:

The ‘New’ Spain

The contrast in the two lineups was striking. For France, Didier Deschamps made only one change from the side that lost to Germany in the World Cup quarterfinal; for Spain, Vicente del Bosque selected only four of the side that had gone down to Chile 2-0, thus eliminating the defending champion after just two matches.

A self-consciously experimental lineup it may have been – picked with at least half an eye on not tiring key men before Monday’s qualifier against FYR Macedonia - but it felt significant that there was only one Barcelona player, Sergio Busquets, in the starting lineup (and even he was replaced at halftime). Some in Spain have protested about a “half-revolution,” but the change in personnel is more radical than that.

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The golden era of tiki-taka is over: both at Camp Nou and for the Spain national side. Still, it would be misleading to suggest Spain had abandoned its basic principles. This is still a team that looks to hold possession and is capable of glorious flurries of quick-fire passing. This, though, felt conspicuously familiar: although Spain had 59 percent possession, it was France that had the better chances even before Remy’s stunning 73rd-minute finish from Mathieu Valbuena’s cut-back pass.

The dearth of Barcelona players is, to an extent, an anomaly. While Xavi Hernandez has retired from international play, Andres Iniesta will return when fit, while Gerard Pique may return – after a miserable World Cup he asked not to be selected. Pedro came off the bench midway through the second half. And Cesc Fabregas, of course, was a Barcelona player until the summer.

The fundamental question is how Diego Costa fits with the rest of the team. He had a poor World Cup, and, while that was largely down to injury, he wouldn’t be the first striker to find that Spain prefers to play without one. A false nine effectively offers an extra half man in midfield, helping ball retention and providing additional angles for the build-up of play. Costa, for all his effort, for all that he works across the forward line, requires a different type of service and, so far, Spain is not providing that.

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Paul Pogba continues to shine

With each passing week, Manchester United fans must look at Paul Pogba and wonder what might have been. It’s become a commonplace to say that United hasn’t had a high-class dynamic central midfielder since Roy Keane retired, but it’s not quite true. It did have one, in Pogba, but he only ever played three league games for the club.

Then, in 2012, his contract expired and he joined Juventus. Since then, he’s gone from strength to strength, establishing himself as one of the best holding midfielders in the world. It’s not just his pace and his power, although he has plenty of them, Pogba is also technically gifted. One jumping sidestep midway through the first half was sensational, as was the finely calibrated pass he arced through for Karim Benzema 25 minutes in, only for the forward to shin his volley wide.

Other than that, he was simply an awesome presence, an extra line for Spain to try to pass its way through, but also capable for forward surges into the attacking third.

Both sides showed lack of width

This was a game that absorbed rather than thrilled. There were neat moves that didn’t really go anywhere, and, from long before the blizzard of second-half substitutions that disrupted the rhythm of the game, there was a sense of stalemate. In part, of course, that is the nature of friendlies: the intensity is less and games have a tendency to peter out.

But there was also the fact that everything was so congested. Both sides set up in a 4-2-3-1, and both used wide forwards who drifted infield: Antoine Griezmann and Moussa Sissoko for France and Santi Cazorla and Raul Garcia for Spain. Often there’d be six attacking players occupying a small square, with both sets of fullbacks seemingly reluctant to overlap.

In France’s case that was probably by design; in Spain’s, there may have been a level of caution after the way the Netherlands and Chile tore into the space behind the defensive line at the World Cup: there was a conscious effort not to overcommit. This has been an on-going issue for Spain. It scored just 14 times in World Cup qualifying, the lowest total of any side to top it’s group in the UEFA section.

At the time, the temptation was to write that off as a natural result of a side that holds possession and stifles games. But there is also a genuine lack of creativity. Costa, as he showed at Atletico Madrid last season and is showing at Chelsea already, is a fine finisher and a natural goalscorer, but without greater verticality in Spain’s play, it’s hard to see how he can make an impression.

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