As with Italy in 2010 and France in 2002, Spain’s defense of their World Cup ended in the group stage. Unlike either of those teams, Spain entered the competition as one of the greatest national sides of all time, and while most of what has been said about their poor play has been ridiculously hyperbolic, there is no question that they were not close to the improbably high standard they had set in their past three tournaments. As against the Netherlands, it was Chile’s pressing that undid la Roja.
Jorge Sampaoli dropped striker Jorge Valdívia and brought in a third center-back, Francisco Sivla, to play to the right of Gary Medel in a 3-4-1-2 that may have been inspired by the Netherlands’ approach to Spain. This drew Arturo Vidal into the central midfield role behind the strikers,
Vicente del Bosque retained Spain’s 4-2-3-1, but with two critical changes in personnel. In my report on Spain – Netherlands, I singled out Gerard Pique for blame and Xavi Hernández for praise. Both of them were dropped, with Javi Martínez replacing the former in a straight swap while David Silva moved into the latter’s role with Pedro Rodríguez coming in on the right. At the time, I said the following:
Xavi looked much more commanding in this game than he did at Euro 2012. This may simply be a function of facing a high press rather than a parked bus, which reduces time but allows the space (limited though as it is) for Xavi’s genius to operate. . . . Chile definitely won’t sit back, and if Austrailia play as they did on Friday, Xavi may have room to operate throughout the group stage.
In all probability, I’m just wrong about that. Vicente del Bosque has won three consecutive major tournaments, the first to do so since the 1930s, and in 2012 he did so precisely by ignoring the advice of outsiders. Xavi is certainly the oldest of the Spanish stars, and fitness may well have been an issue (though, again, he looked fresher to me in the game than he did at the end of the last domestic season). Even so, I would have liked to see what he might have done in this game, perhaps filling in for a deep-lying midfielder who turned out to be even more in need of respite . . .
Xabi Alonso (Esp) – While a number of Spanish players had poor games (Jordi Alba and Iker Casillas would certainly make that list, probably Sergio Ramos as well), it’s pretty clear that Xabi Alonso was the worst of the lot. His misplaced back pass spurred the attack that led to Chile’s opening goal, and a very poor tackle (not his only one) gave up the free kick that produced the second. Moreover, these errors were exemplary of his poor play throughout the first half. He simply seemed unable to cope with Chile’s pressing, turning the ball over again and again leading to a series of rash tackles, probably out of mixture of frustration and desperation. Pressuring Alonso was a successful tactic against Real Madrid when he was partnered with the energetic but less technically capable Sami Khedira; but this was quite possibly the worst game of Xabi Alonso’s career. Vicente del Bosque’s contribution to the tiki-taka game plan inherited from Barcelona was to pair Serge Busquets and Xabi Alonso in the midfield to ensure defensive cover, and it served the national team exceptionally well–but not in this game. His replacement by Koke at halftime was at least 20′ too late.
Charles Aránguiz (Chi) – While Arturo Vidal is undeniably the central figure for this Chile side–Michael Cox has described him as “possibly the best all-rounder in world football”–Charles Aránguiz has emerged in Chile’s first two games as a critical force as well. He produced an assist for Chile’s first goal and scored the second in this game, and he played an important role in Chile’s attack against Austrailia, though with less tangible results. Perhaps most important in this game, however, was his defensive role. Sampaoli’s approach to pressing was less about a high line and systematic interaction than a commitment to man-marking, and Aránguiz was principally tasked with marking Xabi Alonso. It was a remarkable 1st half performance from Aránguiz.
One final point about the game that’s worth noting: though Chile played excellent defense throughout, there’s no question that their pressing lagged ever so slightly in the second half. In his analysis of the game, Michael Cox pointed to Chile’s tackles (18 of 27 successful) and ball recoveries (62 over the course of the game) to illustrate the intensity of that press. While the tackles were essentially evenly distributed between the first and second halves, the pattern of ball recoveries, not only the numbers but also their position on the field, suggests the dropping off in the second half.
In my view, Spain played their best football–and it was very good football indeed–from 30′ to 35′ and in the first 15′ of the second half. By that point, however, Spain was already chasing the game, and when those flurries of activity did not result in a goal, the game was lost.
Michael Cox wrote a perfectly pitched article on the legacy of Spain’s era of dominance in international football for ESPN, and if you haven’t seen it, it’s worth reading. But in case you don’t, let summarize a few of his key observations. First, regarding Spain’s supposedly boring style:
Spain have revolutionised what constitutes “boring.” Boring is now dominating a game, playing the majority of the contest in the opposition half, with multiple technically skilled playmakers exchanging rapid passes and looking for space to play a through ball. This is now “boring.” You don’t revolutionise what constitutes boring without revolutionising football overall.
Cox also points out the importance of the Euro 2012 finals, particularly the remarkable goals in the first half of that game, as the critical response to those charges of boringness, coming on the heels of a supposedly overly negative quarterfinal win against Portugal on penalties. My take at the time was largely similar (though I actually found Portugal-Spain one of the most interesting contests of the tournament).
Finally, Cox rightly notes that Spain has been beaten in this tournament by teams made in their own image, or at least developed as variants of the football revolution they created.