Will Spain be able to recover from the 2014 World Cup debacle?
How ironic is it that Spain had a new king just hours after the country’s football team relinquished their crown in Brazil? And how symbolic is it that it happened at the Maracana Stadium?
Oh the Maracana.
While Brazil still sees ghosts of 1950 and Uruguay, there will be new skeletons in the closet for Spain for years to come at this iconic venue, for this is the ground that finally saw the end of Spain’s glorious era.
All great teams have a cycle. And alas, Spain’s has ended. It was Chile, one of the teams Spain defeated on the way to World Cup glory four years ago that put the final nail in the coffin. And so, tiki-taka, the short passing style of football that has become the symbol of Spanish football, has seen its day.
Simply put, Spain’s football has become stale and outdated. Teams have worked their way round it. Last year’s 3-0 defeat to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final should have set alarm bells ringing. It did not.
When Luis Aragones picked his side for Euro 2008, little did he know that he was setting in motion a style of play that was to characterise an era of football. There was originally an outcry over the exclusion of star striker Raul Gonzalez. But what Aragones laid the foundation of was cemented by his successor Vicente Del Bosque. The “false nine” system was developed whereby the team could play without a true centre-forward. It blurred the lines between midfield and attack.
But Spain’s success was going side by side with the enormous success Barcelona was achieving simultaneously under Pep Guardiola. Lionel Messi was not only the core of Spain’s side but was also the core of the Barcelona side.
Spain might have lost their first game of the previous World Cup too but their level of football was simply on another planet. Tiki-Taka was at its peak. Everyone wanted to mimic Barcelona. Opposition teams would simply tire out in the face of relentless possession. The central midfield duo of Xavi and Andres Iniesta was probably the best midfield partnership of recent generations. Spain scoring a paltry eight goals from their seven games on the way to glory four years ago is symbolic of an emphasis on patient passing and playing without a true number nine. Opposing defenders did not know who to mark.
Strikers did not matter. An overloading of midfield made Spain unbeatable. It was a Spanish version of the Total Football which Johan Cruyff brought to Barcelona all those years ago which eventually bore fruit.
The defence too was impregnable. Indeed, Spain has already conceded more goals in this World Cup so far than they did in Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012 combined. This time round though, every aspect of the team has lacked the finesse that brought comparisons with the victorious Brazil side of 1970.
Iker Casillas, the man who saved his country in countless penalty shootouts and whose wonderful save from Arjen Robben helped win the World Cup final, was a pale shadow of his former self. A nightmare against Holland in the opening group game was followed by another inept display against Chile.
Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, two of Spain’s most formidable centre-backs, could not deal with the pace of Arjen Robben and Alexis Sanchez. Spain’s slow style was bowled over by speed and penetration against Holland and additionally intense pressing by Chile.
Rather than going for fresh blood, Bosque stayed loyal to the old guard. Why change a winning formula? Except that these were tired and ageing legs. That much was evident from Barcelona’s worst season in half a dozen years.
At 34, Xavi no longer commands a game the way he used to. He was dropped for the second game but by then it was too late and Koke, considered to be the heir to the former for the national team, was only brought on as a substitute against the South Americans.
Additionally, the decision to play Diego Costa as a real number nine smacked of a lack of planning. The Brazilian-born striker has barely played with his adopted country, yet he was expected to fit in seamlessly. Unlike club football, international football requires a long time-frame of synchronisation. To play a complex role in a Spanish national team where a forward is starved of space and opportunities while barely being acquainted with the side is a big challenge for any player. Yet, Bosque decided to stick with the Chelsea-bound striker.
The Spanish national team as a whole has failed to see the changes the game has experienced in the last two years. By the time Spain beat Italy 4-0 in the Euro 2012 final, football was at its zenith. But what goes up has to come down.
The following season, Bayern Munich played a German upgrade on the Spanish tiki-taka. The Bavarian side played with power and speed to add to the possession to complete a treble, thumping Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League along the way.
Subsequently, a Guardiola-managed Munich was thrashed by Real Madrid recently. It became increasingly clear that the Spanish model had become archaic.
Indeed, the German national team has followed suit. The 23-man squad includes only one recognised centre-forward, Miroslav Klose, while Thomas Mueller plays a role comparable to the false nine.
Bosque did not budge though. With no backup plan and an overly predictable style of play, teams could thoroughly prepare on how to face them. So much so that Holland manager Louis Van Gaal publicly informed weeks in advance that he had switched to a 5-3-2 formation to counter his upcoming opponents.
The 5-1 humiliation to Holland also showed a group of players who, the majority having won three major tournaments in four years, did not appear to have the hunger to further motivate themselves. There was no urgency in their play.
Chile could smell blood. They hunted in packs and were duly rewarded. Outrun, out-thought and outscored, Spain was to become the third reigning champions of the last four world cups to be eliminated at the group stage.
When the dust settles, Spain can take solace from being the best international team of recent times, for symbolising an era of football and can rebuild with the next generation. Koke, De Gea and the injured Thiago are all below the age of 24.
Football has moved on. Possession is only nine-tenths of the law. The term applies to the beautiful game as well.
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