International friendlies frequently don't mean much, especially when the team's rusty in its first match for a few months, so don't look too hard at Spain's late 3-2 win against unheralded Saudi Arabia. At least they didn't do as badly as Serbia, Portugal, or the US (prior to today, at least). They can't all be 3-1 wins over Mexico.
What's more significant is how the team lined up, and how potential starters played when given the chance. Which is why I was interested to see Spain's 4-2-3-1 in the absence of Torres.
Spain's usual formation – at least the one they won Euro 2008 (and lost to the Americans in the Confederations Cup) with – is 4-1-3-2, with either Alonso or Senna holding, a playmaking line of three led by Xavi, and two of the world’s best strikers in Torres and Villa. Yet I'm still not sure it's their best team.
It was strange to hear today's match commentator say that Torres' injury makes Del Bosque's life easier, but it's true. When El Niño's out, Spain simply has to play two deep-lying midfielders, leaving Villa as a lone striker. Today's line-up was:
Ramos Pique Puyol Arbeloa
Silva Xavi Iniesta
Despite starting slowly and conceding two sloppy goals, it was a line-up that worked. Again, there are different standards for "worked" in friendlies. Villa scored, Xavi was the pivot, Iniesta appears near top form, Alonso notched from distance, and there was yet another late winner. Had Casillas not flapped at an early corner, and had Spain not gone to sleep after taking the lead and making four substitutions (or had the strike not deflected off Al Numare), we'd be talking about a thorough if somewhat uninspired victory.
It was different when Senna was the primary defensive midfielder. A beast of a tackler as well a clever passer, Senna could hold the fort on his own: a one-man shield while the front five attacked at will. He wasn't named it, but I thought he was Spain's best player at Euro 08. As much as I love Xabi Alonso – and this season's done little to diminish that love – he doesn't fill the role in the same way.
Aside from '04-05, when Benitez stuck with the 4-4-2 left over from Houllier's reign, Alonso was paired with a "tackler" at Liverpool. First Sissoko, with Gerrard moving out right, then Mascherano as Liverpool transitioned to 4-2-3-1. We can argue the merits of Rafa's conservatism another time, but that Benitez didn't trust him defensively speaks volumes. I may be underrating Alonso as a tackler, but he's clearly better when hunting in tandem with another.
And I've gone through this tactical charade without mentioning Cesc. A candidate to start when fit, whether in place of Alonso or Silva, he's another dynamic midfielder who doesn't offer much protection. It was Busquets paired with Alonso today, and individually, he was mediocre at best. Senna must have been pretty average this season to be left out for Sergio. But he adds a different, and arguably crucial dimension to the Spanish XI, and I'll fervently argue that while Busquets certainly didn't impress, he made Alonso look very good.
Spain's almost always chosen the more attacking option, a philosophical choice if not cultural. It's the way football's played – or should be. In a group with Switzerland, Honduras, and Chile, it shouldn't matter much. But if they face the likes of Brazil, Argentina, or even England later on, conservatism might be the smarter option. Even with the likes of Torres and Villa in your team.