29 May 2010

¿Cuatro-Uno-Tres-Dos o Cuatro-Dos-Tres-Uno?

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
Busquets Alonso
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.


McrRed said...

Hi Nate, thanks for keeping the blog (and considered football thought) going.

It's the funniest thing but i get you.

Spain without Torres (or Villa) playing might actually be stronger? Crazy. But true...

Somehow I can't see del Bosque being able to square this one - a bit like Capello with Gerrard/Lampard. As a result both teams might need fortune to go as far as the bookmakers suggest.

What do you think of USA chances against England after beating Turkey the other night?

nate said...

Oh, the blog will carry on. If there is actual Liverpool news – signings, sales, ownership, etc. – I'll write about it. On the Liverpool front, all I have to say right now is that everyone should join Spirit of Shankly, and otherwise, it's "Keep Calm and Carry On," for lack of a better allusion.

In lieu, I'll be writing about, and probably doing match reviews for, England, Spain, and the US at the least. Hopefully the World Cup will wash the taste of bad football out of my mouth. It's treasonous, but I can't avoid my youth and will probably root for England, but chances are I'll jump on multiple bandwagons so hard and so frequently, I'll crash more than a few.

And the US does have a chance against England, just like they had a chance against Spain in the Confed Cup and seized it. But it'll take a really good game from the Yanks and a poor one from England. Which we actually saw this weekend (well, the second half of the US/Turkey game and basically all of England/Japan).

My thoughts on the US team are short and sweet (if I say so myself). Jose Torres needs to partner Nepotism Jr. in midfield. Jonathan Spector cannot be anywhere near the starting XI (right now, strangely enough, I think Cherundolo is the best option at RB). Dempsey should start up front, but move to the wing when Findley comes on as 'super sub.' And Bocanegra is the absolute linchpin of the squad.

All those things happen, and the US might have a good chance of beating England.

McrRed said...

If I was a gambling man, which I'm not, I would put a wedge on USA beating England but England still getting to the quarters/semis as predicted by all and sundry.

Can't wait for it all to begin...

Earl said...

Benedict nate! At least you're honest. I guess I understand, England has a chance to do some real damage later on. I root for England as my 2nd squad, but just can't do it against my own team. And I actually hate half of this team, so I may even bump them to third this Cup. Even though there's a 90% chance the US loses, wouldn't it be worth the upset just to see the British press go apeshit? What do you think about Walcott being cut?

Can't get enough of Spain, but won't really root for them as much if Torres doesn't play. I do agree they're better with 1 striker. Probably get shit from the English readers, but I love Argentina. I can't wait to see if Maradona can stay out of his own way with this squad. Win or lose, it will be a show. Fuck Italy.

nate said...

I've said it before; I blame Italia '90. Just lucky I started following soccer before USA '94, I guess. Then came Owen, which led to Liverpool, which removed all possibility of becoming a good patriotic American. I can't root against the US (some of the US players though...), and I will assuredly be a mess during the Eng/US match though.

Also, I watch European football constantly (clearly, primarily English). I rarely watch MLS. Familiarity with players + childhood + Liverpool = Ingerlund!!!!

Also like watching Spain and Holland – two countries I spent time in, and both play the game 'the right way.' The number of Spanish players on Liverpool (as well as Kuyt/Babel for Holland) doesn't hurt either. But nowhere near the level of the other two.

Long story short, I'm a mess and I know it, and have no excuses. And, yes, I know the whole Bill Simmons sports bigamy shtick. Really though, club (read: Liverpool) is what matters, and I really just want to see good football at international level. Plus, pretending to stay somewhat removed allows me to be more sarcastic about or critical of any of the aforementioned squads.

McrRed said...

Shameless lift from another (Kop)blog:

"Looking at the Reds who are representing at the world cup.

Ryan Babel, Dirk Kuyt (Holland), Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina (Spain), Javier Mascherano, Maxi Rodriguez (Argentina), Sotirios Kyrgiakos (Greece), Martin Skrtel (Slovakia), Daniel Agger (Denmark), Jamie Carragher, Steven Gerrard, Glen Johnson (England)."

...and, as you mention, some peeking through the fingers at ex-red performances such as Xabi and Arbeloa for Spain.

And personally, I hope Maradona stuffs all the how-can-he-not-take-Cambiaso bullshit down everyone's throats.
The Press here would be apopleptic!

& a side benefit that we would get a world-cup winning captain playing for us (or an increased fee if Masch is sold) ;-)

Earl said...

Absolutely love Holland, forgot about them. They are always can't miss games.

I don't watch MLS either. I've tried, but once you've watched a real league where guys aren't making $40,000 a year, it just can't compare. I feel like I should support it more, but there are so many options out there. I'm glad its here for US development, but most of our elite players move on now. That's why I'm happy the US team has 17 guys in Europe, 2 in Mexico (definitely a step above MLS) and only 4 from MLS. One of which, Landy, like him or not has proved he can cut it in Europe.