Absence of one of the world's best strikers actually could help Spain
It is one of football's crueler jokes to position two of the world's best center forwards in the same nation in an era when one forward has become the preferred way of playing. Almost every country would kill for either
There is still, bewilderingly, a habit among some pundits of complaining when sides play with only "one up" as being overly defensive. But that's not the case if it allows you to play a profusion of gifted attacking midfielders. The modern trend is to use five-man midfields (in various permutations) and a single central striker. That has two major advantages. There is the obvious point that an additional man in midfield makes it easier for a side to dominate possession, but it also gives teams additional attacking flexibility, allowing them to mount raids from an increased range of angles and depths.
This is an excellent Spain side that fully deserves to stand alongside Brazil as favorites for the World Cup, but the 4-1-3-2 shape it has preferred can leave it narrow in midfield and dependent on the fullbacks,
Orthodoxy would suggest fielding a fifth midfielder to try to outnumber Spain in central areas, but Bradley took a more offensive route, fielding a 4-4-2, in which
The differing physical threat of the two forwards unsettled
With the U.S. effectively surrendering the flanks, Spain did at times find room in wide areas, but
The flip side of that was seen at the 2008 European Championship in which Spain, paradoxically, played its best football after Villa, the tournament's top scorer, had suffered an injury 34 minutes into the semifinals against Russia. In the group stage, Spain had enjoyed a flattering 4-1 win over Russia, edged past Sweden and then, having qualified, played a second string against Greece. The first team returned for an ugly penalty shootout win over Italy in the quarterfinals.
In that opening half-hour against Russia, Spain had been troubled by the attacking surges of the two fullbacks,
Using only one forward also gives Spain greater tactical options. Del Bosque could play a similar 4-1-4-1 to that used toward the end of Euro 2008, with either Alonso or the more defensive
Neither Real Madrid not Barcelona habitually plays with more than a single forward, and it was telling at the Euros that while only eight teams began with a lone striker, 11, including the two finalists, changed -- or were forced to change -- to that system over the course of the tournament. Spain's dilemma is really evidence of the strength of the squad -- what other country, after all, would virtually be left to make a choice between Fabregas and Torres?
Of course, Torres, considering his ability playing with his back to goal, would be the more natural fit for the lone striking role, and certainly his aerial presence will be missed. Spain, like Barcelona, must be conscious that however good its Plan A is, it's always advantageous to have a Plan B.
But his injury may help Del Bosque make the decision to switch to five in midfield, something that would, by having essentially been forced upon him, absolve him from any media criticism for leaving out such an iconic player. If Spain starts well, Del Bosque can then retain a winning team, with the knowledge he has Torres as an additional option for later in the tournament. By robbing it of one of the best strikers in the world, Torres' knee injury may just make Spain even more formidable.