Spain sheds 'boring' charges in Euro 2012 final, with Italy's help
Everything in football is relative. How one team plays is necessarily conditioned by how the opponent plays. When Spain was accused of being boring, the response was always that it was very hard for it not to be when opponents packed men behind the ball. Italy didn't, and Spain showed just how unboring it could be, its 4-0 win the largest margin of victory in a European Championship or World Cup final.
Spain's game plan, essentially, was a game of chicken -- and it never blinked first. When opponents sat deep against it -- and in the past two tournaments only Chile and Italy have not -- Spain held the ball.
Vicente Del Bosque's watchword has always been "control." Goals come later. Keep control of the ball, keep control of the game, and the goals will follow. Deny the opponent the ball, and you deny it scoring chances. Deny it scoring chances and it cannot win; and all teams, eventually, crack. All teams eventually make an error when made to chase the ball the way Spain makes other teams chase.
In this tournament it conceded only one goal in six games; at the World Cup it was two in seven. Spain hasn't conceded a goal in a knockout game at a major tournament since its last-16 defeat to France in 2006. Ten games since then have produced two goalless draws (followed by penalty shootout victories), six 1-0 wins, one 3-0 win and ultimately, in the game that ensured its place at the very highest level of the pantheon, 4-0.
The example of Switzerland in the World Cup, which beat Spain 1-0 in the group stage, and teams such as England in a friendly at Wembley last November, seemed to have persuaded teams that the best way to play against Spain was to pack men behind the ball, to cede the flanks and to try to force Spain to pass the ball through tight areas. USA had shown the way in the 2009 Confederations Cup.
At this tournament, though, that policy had failed, doing little more than keeping the margin down. Even Portugal, which unsettled Spain in midfield in the semifinal, ended up conceding chances in extra time and but for Rui Patricio's improbable save from Andrés Iniesta would have lost that game before the shootout.
Italy had caused Spain some problems in the group game between the sides. Then it had played a 3-5-2, partly because of the injury to Andrea Barzagli. The two wing backs, Emanuele Giaccherini and Christian Maggio, exposed the narrowness of the Spanish midfield.
But Barzagli's return for the third group game, against Ireland, meant a switch to 4-1-3-2. It was that shape that seemed to get the best out of Andrea Pirlo and also allowed the return of Riccardo Montolivo to the midfield. It worked then and against England and Germany, but Spain found itself facing an opponent that declined to pose it the question that had caused it so many problems in the first meeting.
"We played against them in group stage," Italy coach Cesare Prandelli said. "We were excellent in that first game because we were 100 percent fit. Against a side like Spain I think you really need to be good in terms of going into the tackle."
In the final, though, he admitted that "in midfield we were completely spent." The pressing was no longer as sharp, there was less bite in the tackle; Spain's midfielders had space to pick their passes.
And they also had space to play the passes into. Italy did not, as so many have, sit deep. They pressured Spain, tried to take the game to it. Given how many had tried to frustrate Spain and ended up losing, given Italy's relative success in that group game, the ambitious approach must have seemed worth a try; it is very much Prandelli's method. But it left Italy open. A superb long pass from Xabi Alonso found Alvaro Arbeloa in space, disrupting the structure of Italy's pressing. He played a pass inside to Xavi, who knocked it to Iniesta.
He saw the run of Cesc Fabregas behind Giorgio Chiellini and played a perfect pass inside the fullback. Fabregas held him off and crossed for David Silva to head home in the 14th minute. 1-0 Spain.
"We had ball possession and we had profundidad," Del Bosque said.
Profundidad literally means "depth," but in football it is closely linked to Marcelo Bielsa's notion of verticalidad -- it means the ability to attack from deep, to break the opponent's lines either with runs or passes. Here it was the long pass from Xabi Alonso that provided it, turning Italy's marking.
The second goal also came from a long pass, Iker Casillas's clearance being headed down by Cesc Fabregas for Jordi Alba, who played a swift one-two with Xavi before accelerating into the box and finishing. So why hadn't Spain been able to do that previously in the tournament?
Quite simply, because other teams hadn't allowed it, sitting too deep, being so conservative in their attacking, that there was no space behind them for Spain to attack. This was the point that those who criticized Spain for being boring kept missing: no side can be thrilling when facing massed ranks of defenders who leave no space: not Germany, not Italy, not the reincarnation of Brazil in 1970.
"The way is clear for the future," Del Bosque said; he is clearly not planning to change course. Rather the ease with which Spain won the tournament, behind for only two minutes in six games, vindicated his approach.
"They have made history tonight," Prandelli said. "They've been playing terrific football for a number of years. Despite the fact they play without a traditional striker they still cause a hell of lot of problems."
When the opposition plays high enough and adventurously enough to allow it.