16 June 2010

Spain 0-1 Switzerland

Ramos Pique Puyol Capdevila
Alonso Busquets
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.


TimC said...

Good account of the game. I think the manager got it slightly wrong but Spain were also unlucky not to find a goal. One disappointment for me was that, by making the Torres/Navas substitutions at once, it was more difficult to see which change had a greater impact on the game (and also to see how removed a holding midfielder impacted Spain). I mention this because I read a couple of article prior to the tournament that suggested Spain were better off with a lone striker but it did not seem to work well today, despite some evidence from the Euro cited in that piece.

My feeling is that Spain needed a central midfielder to threaten to get into the box and pull a centerback forward, creating more space for other runs. However, Xavi, Xabi, and Busquets don't fit that mold. Busquests is a holder, Xavi prefers to spray passes from deep, and Xabi Alonso rarely advances further than the top of the box. Plus, with Iniesta drifting to the center and Silva looking to cut inside the gaps to run through were cluttered with bodies. That said, maybe it was Torres that gave Switzerland headaches with the second striker.

What are your thoughts? Do they need to switch off Alonso or Busquets for Torres? Or would they be better if they just played wider with Navas/Pedro and perhaps used Iniesta/Fabregas centrally to attack the center backs from a deeper position?

nate said...

I think it should have been Torres to occupy another center-back even though the middle of the park was already cluttered. It would have allowed both Xavi and Xabi to orchestrate from deeper, especially if Busquets went off for Nando, with one of Villa or Torres creating space by pulling a central defender.

Wasn't a huge fan of the Navas sub - at the least would have waited 10-15min after the Torres sub for the reason you mention, to see if Nando alone could change matters. Navas is primarily a crosser of the ball, and Swiss height was canceling those out. Although Navas did look dangerous when he ran at fullback to byline, just no final ball. Pedro's pretty much a straight swap for Iniesta (doesn't add as much width as Navas), and was made because of Iniesta's knock.

That said, the starting line-up was the "right" one just because of questions over Torres' fitness. Just should have made the change - either Torres or Navas - sooner, as lame as it is to write in hindsight.

All in all, though, I still think it's dependent on opposition. Torres + Villa, 4-1-3-2, against Honduras because of similar tendency to defend, while probably today's line-up with Busquets against the more attacking Chile.

Noel said...

Nice summary, Nate. Have to say that, personally, Xabi smashing the crossbar had me thinking back to Fulham away back when the future looked fairly sunny.

Also, I wasn't a fan of Navas for the reasons you mention in your follow-up more than in the original post. He seemed a Spanish Theo Walcott, able to skin a fullback with his pace but frustratingly incapable of figuring out what to do once he'd managed that, his eyes wide and darting, his decision making suddenly tentative.

If he wasn't firing it straight at the next defender he was sending it to the back post when support was queuing up for the pull-back (or pulling it back when there was nobody there to receive it).

Also, I at least was surprised by Busquetes and the 4-2-3-1 rather than Fabregas or Pedro and the 4-1-4-1 or Barça 4-3-3 against such a defensive side. Perhaps, though, this does show that rather than getting in each others' way, against a defensive side Villa needs Torres there to at the very least draw off the attention of the central defenders.

In any case, doom and gloom for Spain and Engerland seems the current flavor.

Anonymous said...

Villa started (not Torres)

nate said...

Hahaha, thanks, fixed. I write out Liverpool's formation for similar reviews so often, it's just formality. Especially since Spain was also 4-2-3-1. And then not notice it despite focusing on him as a sub and actually proofreading. Sigh. So not surprising.

Thanks again.

McrRed said...

Cracking write-up.

Really missed Xabi Alonso for the first time since he went. He was an awesome puppet-master.

I thought if Spain could have kept their heads and self-belief they would have cracked the Swiss. But their heads went down and the goal killed them.

It was very much like watching a Liverpool game! ;-(

Earl said...

Very much like watching some Liverpool games.

Its their own damn fault. I can't see why a side as good as Spain needs to start 2 defensive mids against teams you know are going to park the bus. Chile attacks, Chile is rewarded. Keeping possession is not necessarily attacking. I know, Switzerland is better than Honduras. The Swiss are a great defensive team, but really who scares you? Put Fabregas on the line in front of Alonso, since Torres isn't ready for a full 90, get some width and its a different ballgame.

Group H is must-see indeed, hope the points work out for a crazy set of 3rd games. I'm dying for Spain vs. Chile with the loser stuck playing Brazil (or maybe going home), game on!