Did Spain really win the European Championships playing “boring” soccer? Ben Wilkinson doesn’t think so…
It’s finally over. Those who watched Spain’s victory on Sunday in the European Championship final saw a sports team writing history in big bold letters, because Spain not only won, they did it in style, breaking all sorts of individual and team records along the way. Fernando Torres became the only player to score in two European Championship final games and was the tournament’s top scorer, despite starting only two matches. Iker Casillas earned his 100th international win and tied the tournament record for clean sheets. Xavi set a tournament passing record against Ireland—completing 127 of 136 attempted passes—and broke Zidane’s all-time European passing statistics. Even Vicente del Bosque made history as the only manager ever to win the Euros, the Champions League, and a World Cup.
In their group game against the Republic of Ireland, Spain completed 788 passes—a tournament record—and had 75.9% possession, the highest figure since the European Championships format changed in 1980. They conceded only one goal during regulation time in all six games—yet another tournament record—while scoring twelve. Spain is now the first team in history to successfully defend a European Championship and the only European side to win three major consecutive trophies (Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012). Their 4-0 thrashing of Italy was the biggest win in a European Championship or World Cup final match.
These achievements make it hard to argue against claims that we may indeed be watching the greatest soccer team in the history of the sport. Yet throughout the tournament, Spain were frequently criticized for playing dull, boring soccer. The Germans and Portuguese were young and exciting. The Italians were a breath of fresh air. But Spain? Meh…we’d seen all this passing stuff before.
We really hadn’t, of course—Spain averaged more passes per match this tournament than any other side in European Championships history—but for many people, the gloss finally wore off that tiki-taka style, the short passing and possession game that has defined Spanish football for at least the past five years. A friend told me, “I’ll watch Spain if I want to watch passing drills,” and one commentator sarcastically referred to Spain’s style-of-play as “death by a thousand touches.” The Guardian’s Scott Murray described the Spanish approach as “horribly draining, totalitarian football that has to stop” and Paul Doyle said they “lack balls,” suggesting that Spain could afford to play more attacking football since they’d won a European Championships and a World Cup. The implication was, of course, that since Spain already had their trophies, they should “play nice” and let everyone else have a go as well…
I’ll respond to that by paraphrasing the words of Anson Dorrance, head coach of the UNC women’s soccer team–another staggeringly successful soccer program–which I think fit well:
What is our objective? Aren’t we trying to build this country into a world power? Why do you want to restrict us…when our only goal is to kick everyone’s ass at every level from now until the end of recorded time?
Like any other national team (or sports team, for that matter), Spain have one objective: to win. They are under no obligations to entertain anyone, particularly those neutral fans who would rather see an “exciting” game of end-to-end, attacking “Premiership-style” football, full of mistakes and defensive errors. Spain’s goal at the end of the day is to bring home trophies. How can we possibly fault them for that? It’s their job, and one they do remarkably well. To borrow an analogy from Sid Lowe: It’s a bit like having a go at Sampras for winning Wimbledon for six years in a row—“It’s boring cause there’s no competition”—well, that’s not his fault.
There are two other points I’ll make in response to those who accuse Spain of being “dull.” First, we should remember that Spain are not Barcelona. That may seem like an obvious statement, but it’s worth pondering. We get to watch Barcelona, arguably the greatest club team of all time, all year long in La Liga and the Champions League, so it’s tempting to assume that Spain will simply carry on in the Barcelona model when international games come along. On the one hand, that’s an understandable assumption: there are eight players from Barcelona in Spain’s 23 man roster, and the only one who didn’t get playing time for Spain at this tournament was Barca’s goalkeeper, Victor Valdes.
On the other hand, despite their similarities in style, there are some crucial differences between the sides. Arguably the biggest one is Lionel Messi. Barcelona have him, Spain don’t. It’s worth noting that Messi scored 73 goals for Barca this past season; there’s no Spanish player with that same consistent goal-scoring ability. David Villa comes closest, and it’s scary to imagine whether Spain might have dominated even more had he not been injured this summer, but he’s still no Lionel Messi. A large portion of Barcelona’s attacking potency also comes from Dani Alves, the Brazilian defender. His defending is regularly poor, but as an attacking wing-back he’s in a league of his own. Those who expect Spain to play with the same kind of attacking flair that Messi and Alves bring to Barcelona are going to be disappointed. Both teams have a similar make-up, but are different in key areas. (The claim that Spain are boring, however, because they don’t score enough goals simply falls short when you crunch the numbers: the Spanish scored more than any other team at the European Championships this year. If Spain are boring because they don’t score enough, where does that leave Germany and Italy and Portugal, who all scored less?)
The second point I’d like to make is, in my mind, more important. Instead of saying “It’s boring watching Spain,” critics should really say “It’s boring watching Spain play against so-and-so.” Since Spain’s demolition of Russia in the semi-finals of Euro 2008, where they put on a virtual lesson in attacking soccer, almost every team that plays against them adopts a heavily-defensive style. Because the Spanish are so good at possessing the ball, opposing teams sit very deep, often with four defenders and (frequently) five midfielders. This is a “defend-for-your-lives-and-hope-we-get-lucky” philosophy. When teams are extremely disciplined, this approach may earn a draw or victory by the slimmest of margins—think England in the pre-tournament friendlies this year. (More often than not, Spain win anyway, grinding out a 1-0 victory despite their opponent’s negativity.) When teams are particularly unskillful, this approach fails miserably, as in Spain’s 4-0 win over Ireland in the group stages this summer.
One thing is for certain, this type of defensive approach—what Jose Mourinho calls “parking the bus”—compresses the space in front of the goal, making it extremely hard for attacking players to create and penetrate the space behind the defense. Generally, Spain are so dominant because they take to heart the old sporting maxim, “A good offense is the best form of defense.” It’s hard to score when you don’t have the ball, and Spain rarely give away possession to opponents, hence the reason Spain have allowed only one goal in knockout competition since 2006. But because “parking the bus” is the de facto mode of playing Spain, the Spanish have had to adapt their own game to find a way of breaking their opponents down, of picking those defensive locks.
On any team, the most obvious players who create space behind the defense for goal-scoring opportunities are the forwards. Spain usually play a 4-3-3, which puts more pressure on the opposing team’s defense. Forwards in this formation are generally creative and fast. Think Fernando Torres or David Silva, strikers who thrive on using their pace and skill to exploit space behind defenders. By “parking the bus,” teams take away that space, greatly hindering the contribution of these types of forwards. Because so many teams now play this way against Spain, the Spanish adapted their formation for Euro 2012 by simply playing with a “false nine.” Instead of traditional forwards in advanced positions, they rotated attacking midfielders throughout the final third of the field. Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Busquets, Pedro, and David Silva are all technically superb and unlikely to lose possession of the ball, so Spain sacrificed some attacking speed for players who had the ability to keep possession, be patient, and probe for defensive frailties.
Think about it. When playing with forwards, a defender’s job is relatively straightforward: mark the forwards in their zones and cover any midfielders who join the attack. But playing without forwards creates a disorienting effect among the defensive line, especially when playing a zonal defense. Who is marking whom, and in which area? The marking assignments change rapidly depending on who joins the attack. The attacker might be Xavi or Fabregas or Silva or even Xabi Alonso. By retaining possession for long periods of time while rotating through combinations of attackers, Spain eventually break down the defense and find a way through. Just one goal is enough. When a team concedes, they are forced to go looking for a goal of their own, pushing higher up the field and allowing more space at the back. This is why Fernando Torres often looked far more dangerous as a substitute when Spain was already ahead: there was more freedom to find space behind the defensive line.
Only one team really came close to playing Spain at their own game—Italy. In their first match during the group stages, the Italians played a three man defense, which allowed them to add another midfielder up front to keep the Spanish defense and midfield under pressure. This type of high-pressing approach is risky against a team with as much technical and tactical ability as Spain, but ultimately, it’s far more rewarding and it’s far more enjoyable for fans than parking the bus. Italy had six shots on target in that first game, as did Spain. Both teams scored one goal. The Italians gave themselves an opportunity to win and they could have done so. In the final match, perhaps too flattered by their tactics against Germany in the semi-final, Italy reverted back to a four-man defense, which left Mario Balotelli isolated and gave the Spanish defenders and midfielders more time and space on the ball. The Italian midfielders had to play deeper in their own half and work harder to receive passes. Spain won by a large margin, even though they had, by their standards, a relatively poor game, with only 56% possession and a mere 510 completed passes.
Of course, after the final, everyone began praising Spain again. Guardian football correspondent Amy Lawrence said it looked “as if they wanted to produce something that effectively made people fall in love with Spanish football again.” Riiiiiggght. I’m sure that Xavi and Iniesta woke up Sunday morning and said to each other, “You know, we should stop playing the way we’ve been playing and play the type of football people love.” Lawrence added, “There is no debate about a false nine, no need for tactical analyses about which way they should be playing. They just played superb football.” As if somehow, everything that Spain had done up in the tournament up to that point had been simply a matter of not wanting to play beautiful soccer enough. This type of naiveté obscures the very real tactical decisions at the heart of the Spanish footballing philosophy. It is about false nines. It is about tactical analyses. For the Spanish, controlling those types of tactical decisions is superb football.
The real lesson here, the one that all those who criticize the Spanish style of play have somehow missed, is that Spain did nothing different in the final game. It wasn’t a case of playing better in the final or somehow wanting it more. It wasn’t a case of simply deciding to “attack.” In actuality, it was Italy’s style of play that made the game so entertaining. Instead of parking the bus, to their credit, the Italians took a more attacking, positive approach, despite the risks. Unfortunately, defensive errors cost them two goals, and they played for most of the second half with only 10 men, which gave Spain even more of an advantage. The Italian approach allowed Cesc Fabregas (and Fernando Torres when he came on) to play in a more advanced position like a traditional forward. There was space at the back to exploit, and that made the difference.
Although the 4-0 scoreline greatly flattered the Spanish, winning the European Championships was ultimately no more than they deserved. Spain did what they always do. Not “boring” football, just football, pure and simple.