We often attribute anti-football with teams that stick ten men behind the ball and soak up the pressure of a successful side. When a Wigan Athletic or a Blackburn Rovers comes to Old Trafford, you can predict they will play with a striker who will play the defensive midfield role, in front of nine defenders and sometimes they get a point.
The European Championships in Poland and Ukraine have unearthed a more arrogant edition in the World Champions and Euro holders, Spain. We have seen them zip the ball around the park, creating chance after chance and playing the attractive football that saw them beat the likes of Portugal, Germany and Holland in the previous World Cup. Yes, all of those wins featured the grinding out of 1-0 wins but the chances created well outweighed their opponent’s and the average of any team that could come close to matching them.
Spain were likened to the Barcelona which has reached the semi-finals of the Champions League every one of the past five seasons, and have won three in the past six years. The side that featured Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pique, David Villa and Sergio Busquets have played so differently to what they have done at the Euros so far. With the exception of the 4-0 thrashing of Ireland in Gdansk, we haven’t seen the fluid and professional performances from Spain in the poor wins over Croatia and France where they didn’t break a sweat nor dazzle us with their wins.
The endless and purposeless passing soon gets tedious when the presumably inferior nation they are challenging becomes too scared to make a move because of the high conversion of chances that Spain are capable of.
Nobody knows the reasons for their change of play, maybe they have believed their own hype, turned their stylish and attractive football into one that marks the arrogance of two successive major tournament titles. When you glance at some of Xavi’s passing statistics from the past season at Barca from the first half of the season he holds a passing accuracy of 93%, playing 1702 successful passes in 1338 minutes of football for his club side.
For Spain he along with club teammate Andres Iniesta played more passes than the entire Ireland team in their second group game at the Euros. That doesn’t make Spain look more impressive, it slows the tempo down, in Xavi’s first half of 2011/12 he played over a thousand sideways passes, playing 22% of his passes forward. You can expect that percentage to dramatically fall as compared to intricate build-up play and defence-splitting passes, the endless supply of passes either to Sergio Busquets or to a defensive player lead the neutral audience to become bored.
Throughout their quarter-final even the French seemed to become so bored with the task at hand that they gave up altogether, relinquishing the ball far too easily and sat and admired the Spanish side at work, a more boring version of Spanish sides gone by. France didn’t even sit all of their men behind the ball and were able to extinguish a lot of Spain’s tame attacks, those tame attacks which brought hardly more than the two penetrating moments which led to the opening goal and penalty in stoppage time.
You have to take Lionel Messi into account for all of this though. It is clear that the Argentine forward keeps the Barcelona side ticking but when on international duty the likes of Xavi and Iniesta keep Messi ticking, providing most of Messi’s 72 goals in the past season.
Cristiano Ronaldo draws similar comparisons when he plays for Portugal. Both Ronaldo and Messi provide that sting that both Portugal and Spain need as well as Real Madrid and Barcelona, it is clear that the 132 goals the two scored between them last season is the largest factor of success for the Spanish clubs whom both reached last season’s Champions League semi-finals.
The series of passes which inhabits most of any match that Spain play in is a factor to their poor style of play. However, the lack of recognisable forwards fielded in three of their five matches as the championships and in those matches they played their worst football in the matches against Italy, Croatia and France.
It’s not hard to see what Vincent del Bosque needs to do on Sunday. Employ a more direct and purposeful approach with an actual forward on the pitch, either Alvaro Negredo, Fernando Torres or Barcelona’s Pedro, who featured in a cameo role against France, will do.