Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Silva Xavi Iniesta
Gelson Fernandes 52’
It remains incredibly low scoring, but at least the World Cup’s finally thrown up a huge shock. Sucks that it happens to one of the tournament’s most enjoyable sides, one with heavy Liverpool ties, but, unavoidably, that’s football.
And it’s a small sample size, but we might have our answer about 4-2-3-1 versus 4-1-3-2, at least against flat-back 4-4-2s. That was smash-and-grab football at it’s best (worst?), but that happens. Cue approximately 1732 articles about how the more things change, the more Spain in the World Cup stays the same.
The first half was perfectly in line with the World Cup so far, direly lacking shots on target, let alone goals. Spain had 80% of the possession in the opening 15 minutes, but didn’t test Benaglio until the 17th, with Silva’s low shot easily smothered. Iniesta, cutting inside from the left (with Silva operating similarly on the opposite flank), was amidst almost all of Spain’s good work, but it rarely led to breaching a determined back four.
Despite the usual possession, Spain created just two clear-cut openings in the half. The first fell to Pique with extra men forward after a set play, from Iniesta’s delightful pass, only to see Benaglio come out to close off the angle. The second, right before halftime, came on Spain’s lone counter-attack at pace when Switzerland was caught up the field, with Iniesta again providing the pass that put Villa free down the left. The striker did well to check back at the byline, but strangely over-hit a chipped cross for Silva instead of shooting.
Once again, a resilient flat back four canceled out a strong attack. It’s been the overriding theme this week. Spain seemingly had two options – get more men in the box by replacing one of the midfielders with Torres, or stretch the field by using a winger that stuck to the touchline – i.e. Navas – as the narrow Silva and Iniesta had little room to operate into Switzerland’s packed half.
Spain eventually chose both, but not before Switzerland sent jaws plummeting to the floor with a goal from absolutely nothing. Slow to regroup on a Swiss goal kick, Busquets misjudged his header, allowing Nfuko to pick up the ball with Pique and Puyol backing off. His clever through-ball caught both flat-footed, Casillas was slow to come out, and the keeper's collision with Derdiyok led to a scramble that Fernandes reached first. I’d be a lot more surprised if I didn’t see similar weekly in the Premiership. If you can’t vary your game against a well-drilled defensive side, you’re not going to succeed. I know for a fact that Liverpool fans are nodding their heads at that statement.
The aforementioned changes – Torres for Busquets and Navas for Silva – led to more Spanish chances, but Benaglio was equal to the task when called upon, while Iniesta and Torres curled shots wide before Alonso nearly destroyed the crossbar on Xavi’s centered free kick in the 74th. Resorting to more customary clichés, when those aren’t going in, it’s just not your day.
And it only become further frazzled in the final 15 minutes. Switzerland nearly went two up on another hilarious Spanish attempt at defense. Derdiyok easily got around Capdevila after another Nfuko clever through (no coincidence he was at the heart of this and the goal), beating both center-backs before hitting the post with a tricky toed shot.
Exposed on the break in the desperate search for an equalizer and with chances harder and harder to come by as frustration mounted, this was about as bad as it gets from Spain. I can’t help but reference the loss to USA in last year’s Confederations Cup. But this team’s losses – like the club sides Spain’s always compared to – frequently look alike. Credit goes to Switzerland’s defense – which includes midfielders Inler, Huggel, and Fernandes – for giving Spain no space to operate in the final third, while the side’s height helped negate Navas’ – the focal point of Spanish attacks in the latter stages – influence on proceedings. Despite rarely impressing, the Swiss remained as indestructible as in the previous World Cup, where they never conceded, going out on penalties in the round of 16.
Writing ‘that’s football’ after games such as this rarely suffices. But it again seems fitting. There’s a reason underdogs inevitably rely on defense and counter-attacking. Spain’s original tactics fed into the strategy, and they were behind and scrambling by the time Del Bosque changed matters. They had two defensive breakdowns and were punished by one.
Group H, already interesting, is now must-see material. Switzerland and Honduras are incredibly difficult to break down. Chile and Spain are two of the most attacking sides in the tournament. Spain will probably become even more attacking against Honduras next week in response to this setback, ideally starting both Torres and Villa, while today’s two winners will face off. Which leads to Spain and Chile in the final match, ensuring the group will go down to the last day, especially since the second-placed side will almost certainly face Brazil.
As much as I hate to see Spain suffer, especially given their history, results like this are what the World Cup is all about.