Does Spain need a Plan B option?
Questions have been raised about Spain's ability to beat ultra-defensive teams
Spanish coaches argue that Spain is capable of varying its style when needed
Spain's opponents recognize they cannot compete in terms of possession
By the end of last Saturday's international friendly at Wembley, Spain had completed 844 passes to England's 293. It had been caught offside five times to England's one. And it had taken 19 shots, while England had taken just three. One of those was a long-range effort from Frank Lampard that might as well have been a back-pass and the other two came in the same move -- the only attack England had. And from a set play, too.
But there was another stat that most interested fans, the one that ultimately matters: goals. It had finished England 1-0 Spain. And, even if you dug a little deeper, drawing on another stat, there was worrying reading for Spain: the Spanish had dominated the game, the ball was theirs and theirs alone, but in fact England had as many shots on target. Spain's possession had been largely sterile -- at least in terms of creation (although possession has to be seen as a means of protection as well as creation).
England's team bus had been parked by the exit door at Wembley, Spain's players having to look for a way round it as they left the stadium. The irony was lost on no one.
It wasn't the first time, either. When Spain lost to Switzerland the World Cup, the game played out in a similar way -- an ultra-defensive side eventually caught Spain on the break and won 1-0. Increasingly aware that they cannot compete with Spain for possession, conscious of the fact that if they open up they will be defeated, more teams will play extremely defensively. England's victory will only encourage others to follow suit (the U.S. also won in similar fashion in the 2009 Confederations Cup).
Spain will encounter many more buses parked on many more goal-lines. The question is what can they do about it? What can la selección change?
The answer is simple: Nothing. And nor should they.
Well, not nothing exactly. But, asked what they would fix, the response from coaches in Spain is largely: it aint broke, why fix it? Tweak it, perhaps, but fix it? What for?
"If that exact same game was played 10 times, Spain would probably win seven, draw two and lose just one," said Valencia coach Unai Emery.
"Spain played the right way, although it is true that they created fewer chances than normal, until the final minutes when they drew defenders to them on the inside and used the fullbacks to create space outside. Perhaps they could have done that more. But just because they lost a game that does not mean throwing away all the work they have done until now. England should not hide their defects behind a victory, nor should Spain allow a defeat to blind them to their virtues."
Especially not in a friendly. "You can't expect the best from a team in friendlies," said Villarreal coach Juan Carlos Garrido. "The fixture list is saturated and there is bound to be a point at which the level drops." It is natural for that to be noncompetitive games. "Spain have, coincidentally lost the games that have been friendlies. Coincidentally, or not so coincidentally," Garrido adds. "You can't have the same level of concentration or energy."
"Like it or not, players don't quite give everything in friendlies," adds the former Racing Santander coach and Real Madrid sporting director Miguel-Ángel Portugal. "For the other side, the motivation is huge -- they're playing the world champions -- for Spain's players, most of whom are at Madrid or Barcelona, it's impossible for it to be the same. Ultimately it is a training session and, with your club waiting, one in which you take no risks."
There is a practical reason, too, according to the Brighton coach and former assistant coach at Spurs, Gustavo Poyet. "In a friendly, when you can make five or six changes, and keep your entire midfield fresh as a result, you can resist Spain," he explained to Radio Marca. "But not in a real match with only three substitutions allowed. Spain's midfield possession and passing subjects you to such exertion that, unless you can make six changes, it is very hard to stop them. England would not have beaten them in a tournament match."
Should Spain be able to play differently, though? Do they need a Plan B?
"You have to have a style and different styles can work -- Madrid and Barcelona are the perfect example of that," said Garrido. "But you can't just throw that style out; you have to be clear on your identity."
First things first, says Julen Lopetegui, Spain coach at U-19 level, "if you are up against 11 very good players who play ultra-defensively, it is not easy. There isn't a secret formula."
It's more than that. Juanma Lillo, the former Almería coach and one of the men who most inspired Pep Guardiola, insists: "What can Spain do? That's a silly question. You can't find a single answer, the key to everything. In different circumstances, at different moments, different things are the solution. People are criticizing Spain but why do they have the obligation to attack, to seek out the opponent? If you come up against a team that doesn't want to attack you, what do you do? Sit on the ball? Spain chose not to; it didn't work in terms of the result, it might next time. If they had scored first it would have been completely different. "
"Against a very strong England team, Spain did more than enough to win but it didn't happen. There's a short blanket theory that is applicable here: you can cover your feet or your head but you can't cover both at once," says Lopetegui. "Besides, Spain do have alternatives to give variety to their game -- we saw that in the World Cup with [Fernando] Llorente and [Jesus] Navas, for example."
That is not to advocate a complete change of style, quite the reverse -- it doesn't mean Spain should suddenly play wingers and a big target man. Nor does it necessarily mean that the experiment of David Silva as a false no. 9 definitively failed. Against Costa Rica three days later, Spain started creating chances when they pushed two men up front, but that doesn't necessarily mean that is the definitive solution either.
The mistake is in seeing soccer as a simple two-tone dichotomy, to imagine that there are only two, utterly opposing options: short passing or long balls. Why does the plan B have to be such a basic and radical departure from you philosophy? One which, incidentally, has worked so well until now.
As this column has argued before, slinging the ball into the box is no guarantee of anything. Especially if it is not your natural game. Funnily enough, those that play the stereotypical Plan B as a matter of course rarely seem to see the need for a Plan B or their own.
"To talk about the big man and the winger as the only way is to limit yourself to a single approach," says Portugal. "And that's far worse than having 'only' Spain's style. You cannot renounce what you have got. At the World Cup Spain showed that they have variety -- within their approach. They did mix it up. Spain have some many different ways of playing -- Llorente, [David] Villa, [David] Silva, [Juan] Mata, [Fernando] Torres are all different and valid ways of approaching the striker position. And all of them get goals. I don't understand how people can say they are predictable."
"Spain's style is the right one," said Garrido. "They have variety but they also have a philosophy." "Spain played the right way against England," adds Emery. "You can alter things -- but you can't change the approach."
"In practice, there are some many different variables but when it comes to the theory, to the coaching manual, there are things you can do differently," said Portugal. "Against England, Spain didn't use the wings as much as they have done before. You have to attract opponents out to the wings in order to find those passageways inside that Spain thrive in. There was too great an accumulation of players inside, so you have to bring them outside. You need to break that up, and create greater space. There was an exaggerated accumulation of bodies."
Spain's way of doing that is via the fullbacks. Álvaro Arbeloa is not Dani Alves -- something that implies that Sergio Ramos' ultimate destination may remain full back for now, rather than center back. Although Joan Capdevila has gone, Jordi Alba looks an interesting solution on the left: a winger turned fullback.
"Spain do have players that can play wide and go one on one, opening space inside -- Navas, Jordi Alba, [Andres] Iniesta when he plays on the left," Portugal adds. "Above all, though, they needed to move the ball quicker. Against England, the ball did not circulate as rapidly as it normally does. The faster you move the ball, the harder it is for the opposition to cover all the gaps because they get pulled from side to side." Tiki-taka is not so effective without pace and intensity. And that, by definition, is harder in friendlies.
Another first division coach is far more critical, seeing a deeper problem.
"Spain," he says, "are getting too close to each other. [Sergio] Busquets and [Xabi] Alonso are close, they are playing short and they are losing those reference points, those passes that open the pitch out, that are further away; they are abusing the short ball. They are not encountering the solution to overrun opponents, to cerate a numerical advantage. The objective isn't just to have the ball; it is to have the ball so that you can do something with it. You're not playing to pass the ball to each other; you're passing the ball to be able to play.
"At the moment, Spain are guilty of passing for its own sake -- they need to break beyond the lines more. The more possession they have the fewer chances they create and they are going in a direction that is a little concerning. A similar thing is happening to Barcelona. The difference is that Barcelona have Leo Messi."
And yet the response remains the same, even from those who voice doubts.
Spain's defeat to England was reminiscent of their defeat to Switzerland at the World Cup. And if that invites a conclusion that says Spain's opponents have found the way of beating them, look back on South Africa again. All the way through the tournament teams largely parked the bus. Spain found a way past all of them. 1-0 sure, but they did. Even Holland approached the final in a manner totally out of keeping with how they had played the entire tournament until then. And it didn't work.
By the time Iniesta hit the net that opening game has been forgotten.
Switzerland parked the bus and defeated Spain, laying down a template for others to follow. The next bus Spain saw was the open topped one from which it paraded the trophy in Madrid. Switzerland fell at the first hurdle; Spain won the World Cup.