Are Spain the greatest national side ever?

Weeks after the final and the most recent title for Spain is not the time to provide a balance of the Euro2012. The question I would like to address is much simpler: is this Spain side the best of all times? As in all comparisons, one should start by defining its parameters. In this case, the question is: what constitutes being the best? I’ll try to answer by approaching the question from different angles.

Number of trophies
This is the one more readily pointed as the evidence of spanish superiority over any other country in history. The fact that a run of two European Championships and one World Cup has never achieved is an immediate indication that Spain are on a level of their own. in this aspect Spain has one single rival: the Uruguay side of 1924-30 as pointed by Jonathan Wilson. That was the only side to have won consecutive tournaments in the manner of the spaniards. The question of whether the Olympics can be placed in the same level of the Eusopean Championship is moot. At the time it was an important competition (the only real international one) and involved (in theory) countries from all over the world. However, some countries did not bother to travel to some of the tournaments at the time and it is possible to make the case that the uruguayans did not face as serious an opposition as Spain.
Any other possible contenders (Italy in the 30’s, West Germany in the 70’s) either failed one of the possible trophies in the run or had other blemishes. In terms of simply taking trophies, Spain hardly has rivals. The main question could have been placed by Brazil between 1958 and 1962, but they failed to get the Copa America in 1959 and became thus ineligible, even if in those times this was considered by them as a minor tournament. In any case, Spain could then be considered, using these criteria, as the best national side ever.

On the pitch
This is a much trickier proposition and one that can be directly answered: no one team could be considered as the best ever. The differences are too great to mention and, furthermore, football itself changes so fast these days that it is debatable whether this Spain team of 2012 could be considered the same as that of 2008. From the back five, only two players remained and one of them in a different position. From the midfield, only Iniesta and Xavi featured regularly four years ago. Whereas that team fielded two identifiable strikers, this one has none. It would actually be a much more interesting exercise to have Spain 2008 play Spain 2012 to see which would come out on top.
Taking thses caveats in mind, one has to compare not with the above mentioned other contenders, but with Brazil 1970. However, brilliant as that side was, it was built for one single tournament and dazzled as much for the yellow shirts appearing for the first time in colour in TV’s all across the world, as for the amazing quality and balance of a team that was not expected to achieve those breathtaking football heights. Spain, at least if considering the core of Casillas, Ramos, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, have been battering opponents for four years straight, only occasionally conceding goals and never failing in knock-out stages. It is possible to imagine that Brazil 1970 could challenge Spain 2012, but it is unlikely. With a side built to use the ball but without the guile to defend adequatly, Brazil would probably be, as almost anyone else, passed into submission.
In this aspect, a much better case could be made for West Germany 1974. In Holland, the germans faced an opponent built around very much the same guidelines of passing and movement and, on Cruijff, had the individual brilliance that Spain lacks. Still, the germans managed to win, using a mixture of tactics, desire, strength and brilliant football. Furthermore, in Müller they had a striker who would not forgive the few mistakes the spanish back four could commit. In terms of trophies, the germans would come short. In terms of their impact on the game at the time, they could challenge the spaniards.
(A small interlude to explain the impact point. Even though we today remember the Holland side and their clockwork brilliance as much as we now are mesmerised by the passing of Spain, these are extremely difficult levels to achieve that come once every two generations. A much more lasting legacy may come from the tactical or technical innovations that managed to stiffle these sides. Nobody managed to follow the dutch from the 70’s, but the german approach was used to exhaustion and ended up being followed far more widly than the former approach).
Similarly to the germans, the uruguayans could be pointed as possible contenders for the title of best. Due to technical and tactical differences (not to mention physical) as well as the advent of professionalism, there is no chance that a magically transported Uruguay team from 2930 could compete would present day Spain. Still, taking the realities of the time into consideration, Uruguay, with their silky approach to football, could be contenders for the best ever.
In this thought exercise, some space should be made for famous losers. Hungary 1954, Holland 1974, Brazil 1982/86 should all be remembered. In tournaments of only a few weeks where one slip can be fatal, one should forgive somewhat those wonderful teams that captured our imagination more than the eventual winners.

Can we then declare a winner. Not really. Not objectively, in any case. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in this case it is also true (just replace “beauty” by “greatness”). Spain are, undoubtebly, the greatest national side in the last 20 years. Possibly 50 years. Beyond that it becomes a muddy issue. What nobody can deny is that they belong amongst the greatest ever and are creating a unique dinasty. Much of that may be due to the present laws of the game as much as their youth policy. This, however, is an issue for another time.

 

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Semi-Finals

Very well, a single post on the semi-finals will do, as I am sure everybody has read everything somewhere before.

Portugal-Spain
Certainly my preference goes to a repeat of the 4-0 victory of November 2010. However, that match had a very specific set of circumstances: it took place in Portugal, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Portuguese Republic, was supposed to promote the World Cup 2018 joint Portugal-Spain bid and it was a friendly seen by the spanish players especially as a waste of their time and energies. For the portuguese players, however, and especially for Cristiano Ronaldo, it was an opportunity to get one over the long time neighbours and rivals and, at the same time, show that the wobbly start of the qualification for the Euros was gone. In that match, Portugal played a very aggressive style, harrassing the spanish players when off the ball and darting rapidly through the flanks when on it. The spanish players always moved themselves and the ball slowly and were obviously as uninterested in the match as any newly minted world champions would be.
In this semi-final the story may well be somewhat different, but essentially from the spanish side. If everyone expects Portugal to again seat deep and absorb pressure hoping for a counter-attack (as they played in the World Cup match under the guidance from Queiroz), they might be in for a surprise. It is obvious that Spain will keep the ball and play as patiently as they have done since del Bosque took over, but I simply do not see Paulo Bento telling his players to sit back. Especially since Spain does not have much width without the contribution of the full-backs and these will most likely try to stay as much as possible goalside from Ronaldo and Nani. Besides, if the typical spanish attack involves the penetrating vertical pass, it is likely Bento will trust Pepe’s fast running and good form to snuff out these attempts. The question remaining in Portugal’s line-up will be whether to start Hugo Almeida or Nelson Oliveira as a replacement for Postiga. Personally, I would expect Almeida to get the nod, seeing the difficulties Pique had against him in South Africa (his substitution was highly questioned at the time) and also because by playing longer balls, a target man could be very useful to Ronaldo.
From the spanish side, the usual question could be: Fabregas or Torres. Or, in other terms, a striker or a false 9? Signs indicate del Bosque will go for Fabregas, but the truth is that a winger such as Pedro or Navas could be extremely useful, especially in exploring the left side of the portuguese defence and to restrain the forward runs from Coentrao. Even though the whole press coverage seems to bill this as a match between Ronaldo and Spain, Veloso’s checking of Xavi and Moutinho’s pressure on Alonso and Busquets could be the decisive issue in play. Also, if Nani keeps on defending as he has so far and then putting crosses with the quality and frequency he can, Spain’s central duo may suffer.
I still predict a simple 1-0 victory for Spain, with the goal arriving at some point in the match and then the spanish simply killing the attacks by keeping the ball. However, if there is a moment when Spain may be vulnerable, it is this one. And if Portugal play as a team and Ronaldo shows his good face, an upset would not be unexpected.

Germany-Italy
Two days rest and less minutes on the pitch for the quarter-finals. These may be the decisive factors. Especially because it will be difficult to predict how these two teams will play. Traditional instinct suggests that Germany will attack from the off and the italians will sit back, soak pressure and try to break forward using their talented attacking line. In this match, however, it is quite possible the situation will reverse.
Prandelli has, in his tenure as Italy’s national coach, cultivated a possession-style of game based on the spanish approach. With a team boasting Pirlo, Montolivo, Motta, de Rossi, etc, this becomes almost natural. Also considering that the golden period of Cannavaro and Nesta at the back is gone (even if the present centre-backs are quite good), it is unlikely Prandelli will want a game taking place too close to his box. The germans, on the other hand, are quite adept at switching between taking the game to the opponents and playing on the counter. For this match, I can imagine Joachim Löw going for the latter option. This makes even more sense when the italians have the type of side likely to be exposed by the width players such as Müller and Podolski can bring to the germans. After having stayed on the bench for the match against Greece (and after the poor performance of Schürrle), it is possible at least one of them will be brought in. The use of Müller would still have the advantage of increasing the defensive cover on midfield in comparison with Reus or Schürrle. It can easily be expected to see Reus on the left (cutting in to the centre or searching the byline) and Müller on the right. Both are extremely mobile players who could combine excedingly well with Özil in his runs to the flank. The big question is whther to use Gomez or Klose. Gomez adds more physicality, something the italians are not comfortable against. On the other hand, Klose has better movement and knows the italian defenders better.
From the italian side, there is the question of how they will line up. Probably they will bring in Mota into the midfield (possibly at the expense of Montolivo) and try to send Ballotelli and Cassano wider in order to pin the fullbacks and escape the influence of the german midfield. Still, the lack of rest will probably take its toll and I can see Germany taking the victory with 2-1 at the end of the match or in extra time. As everyone else, I am (from aneutral point of view), aching for the Germany-Spain final. We shall see.

Standpoint, part 3

Quarter-Finals

Portugal-Czech Republic
As everybody has been keen to point out, Cristiano Ronaldo has been the outstanding attacking player of the tournament. If he had been criticised for his profligacy against Denmark, he had also, as Raphael Hönigstein wrote, put on a typical team-first display to help control the match. That Portugal had needed a late winner from Varela was a different story. Before that he had shown that, despite his constant histrionics, he can lead also by example on the pitch. Still, it was against Holland and the Czech Republic that he really has set the tournament alight. He ran, dribbled, passed, shot (with either foot and head), hit the post four times and scored three all-important goals. Moreover, his simple presence conditions the defensive set-up of the opposite team and creates space for his teammates. This was clear against the Czech Republic, where other players frequently had opportunities to shoot simply because Ronaldö’s presence cleared the path. Even the fact that he was lurking just outside the box created the space for the movement that culminated in Moutinho’s cross for his header. He has been the determining factor in Portugal’s advance, that much is certain.
Still, he has not been the only one. After the goals conceded all started from the left flank which Ronaldo seldom helps cover, Paulo Bento reshuffled his team somewhat to improve fluidity and increase solidity. Miguel Veloso has been the invisible star of the team, by dropping deep to stick to the opposing attacking midfielders and frequently run to the left to give support to Coentrao. In the first matches, it was Moutinho who would cover that side, but as Zonal Marking demonstrated, in recent matches there has been a switch between Meireles and Moutinho, with the latter now closer to the right side and the former offering the attacking thrust and defensive cover from the left. This was a shrewd move, as Bento realised that Meireles was not in his top form and therefore his attacking instincts could be sacrficed in favour of those from Joao Moutinho and at the same time his work rate could help compensating for Ronaldo staying up the pitch. This strongly stiffled Jiracek and with Gebre Selassie occupied, all czech threat had to come from Pilar, a player that was almost always well dealt with by Joao Pereira (who always had support from Nani and never had to face a 2vs1 situation at the back). In the end, the match could be summarised by the portuguese attacks breaking over and over again against the czech defence, the posts or Petr Cech. Ronaldo’s winning header may have come late, but was totally deserved.

Germany-Greece
Hailed as the the match of the €uro, this encounter had plenty of political conotations. On the pitch, however, the story would be quite simple: Germany would attack and Greece would defend, with an eye on the counter-attack. Joachim Löw decided on this match to present a very different forward line, with Reus on the right for Müller, Schürrle on the left for Podolski and Klose as striker for Gomez. The emphasis seemed to be more on creativity and technique (as well as movement from the part of Klose) to try to break the tight defence. Since Müller and Podolski are more direct players better suited for counter-attacking, this was a clever move. Still, the greek defence proved difficult to break, something which was not helped by an unusual slugginesh of Schweinsteiger on the ball (due to an ankle injury). Greece would defend inside the box, close out outside shots and hit the ball fast usually for Samaras who would try to impose his strength to Boateng and create openings for Salpingidis. In this phase, Katsouranis showed strong defensive awareness and brilliant passing skills, with his passes to the runners always narrowing avoiding interception. Without any team able to break the deadlock, the breakthrough came from Lahm who, taking advantage of not being closed down (the greek players were more concerned with the midfielders) unleashed a shot from outside the box and changed the match. Even though Greece unexpectedly drew just after half-time, they needed time to regroup at the back, having come back onto the pitch in a more attacking disposition. Khedira took advantage of that and scored what, psychologically, amounted to the coup de grâce for the greeks. From then on, it was a matter of putting in another couple of chances (and Klose drawing closer to Gerd Müller’s all-time scoring record with the Mannschaft) and Greece pretty much conceded defeat when Liberopolous came in for what was his final career match, in order to say goodbye to the fans. Germany progressed and stay as the only team to have won all matches whereas Greek go home knowing they overachieved and that they made their fans proud.

France-Spain
This was in effect the most boring match of the tournament so far. One may blame it on Spain’s style of game, with possession and safety being paramount, but France did not help matters by shrugging their formidable attacking force and ligning up with two right-backs, one nowadays mainly defensive player (Malouda) and almost only Ribery and Benzemea to try to fashion some chances for les Bleus. It was therefore ironic that the two right backs failed to stop Iniesta’s pass to Jordi Alba and the latter’s cut into the box before he layed a perfect cross for Xabi Alonso’s header. Still, the main fault was from Gael Clichy, who should have covered that side but was sucked inside and opened up space on his back
After this, the match could be summarised by a possession glut from Spain, closing spaces when out of possession and keeping the ball when in attack. As Cabaye’s influence grew, some spaces appeared at the back, but these were always well dealt with, especially since most openings came from movements wide by Benzema which left the centre completely devoid of french players, since no midfield runners seemed to be available. The second goal from Alonso was almost the only other notable incident on the match and if it brought the scoreline higher than what Spain deserved, it also punished a fearful french side which could have been one of the most exciting ones in the tournament. Spain go on to try to make history and France go back home only in slightly lower disgrace than after South Africa.

Italy-England
As Zonal Marking noted, England’s best period (the first half hour) coincided with Pirlo’s most quiet one and also with the period when Rooney better harrassed the italian regista. Whether Pirlo’s (and by extension Italy’s) dominance started because of Rooney neglecting this job or whether Rooney simply failed to do it because of Pirlo’s quality is difficult to point out, but it is not hard to imagine it was the former. Rooney is an excellent defender and chases the ball whether, but seems to get tired (as in bored) of this job quickly and prefers to stick to attacking. He has only ever managed to be a more defensive player when playing at Manchester United to give Ronaldo more freedom and it appears that, if he is the top player in the group, he will refuse to do too much of the dirty work. This marked the difference with Pirlo, who always ran after his opponent on the rare occasions he lost the ball.
Although Pirlo’s performance should obviously be lauded, Montolivo was only slightly less influencial. He operated more forward and his short passing frequently found spaces with Cassano and Ballotelli which confounded the english defenders. Still, a wastefulness from the italian players guaranteed that England managed not to concede in 120 minutes of play. As time wore on, England reverted to Hodgson’s revered two banks of four and waited it out, hoping for a long ball forward which could conjure a goal from a moment of brilliance by Rooney. Unfortunately, not having any other quality player next to him to fashion such chances (Wellbeck has promise, but he is no Nani or Valencia), the Man United man felt isolated and slowly faded away. In the end, the question was whether Italy would be able to break the english resistance or whether the penalties would tell the same old story. They did and England go back home. Despite some encouraging signs by some players, this was a performance that should actually not bring too much hope to english fans. Wellbeck only showed some flashes, Ashley Cole was largely anonymous, Wallcott and Oxlade-Chamberlain had impact mainly against tiring and mediocre defenders and the best members at the back were men around 30 years old. The day that strikers will get used to fake a shot to let Terry go to ground before actually shooting, England’s defence may actually crumble. Until 2014, however, the three lions may still be able to limp to Brazil.
Italy will now face Germany, an opponent they have a good history against. Still, with two less days to rest and 30 minutes of play (plus the stress of a penalty shoot-out) extra, they may fall to Germany’s attacking machine. After the possession masterclass by the italians in the quarter-finals, we may well see them going back to basics and shut down at the back in the semi-finals. Still, a side with Pirlo and Ballotelli should never be written off.

Final thoughts
As Sid Lowe wrote, the four best and most interesting sides made it to the semi-finals. Both matches will probably see proactive sides (Spain and Germany) against reactive ones (Portugal and Italy, respectively). Still, with the players on display, it should never be expected that one team will park the bus while the other looks for a way around it. These matches, even with the need to keep solidity in mind, could give some of the most interesting semi-final matches in several years.

Standpoint, part 1

First of all, an apology is in order. Due to professional obligations which have absolutely nothing to do with football or any other sport, I was not able to finalise my preview of all the groups of the Euro nor to post any thoughts on the matches. I will try therefore to offer a small summary of my expectations to the other two groups not covered before (groups B and D) and my impressions of the tournament so far.

Group B

As could be expected by reading the header of this blog, this was the most interesting group on a personal level. I was expecting Germany to prove itself too strong for all opponents, but I had also expected some different things happening throughout the matches. For once, I had imagined Germany as capable of steamrolling Portugal while conceding one goal but instead we were treated to a relatively even match in which Germany’s availability of a world class striker made all the difference. Against Holland, I had expected pretty much the match that took place, but not such a broken game where one team tended to be pinned down at the back for while the other attacked. Versus Denmark, the Danish resilience surprised me, but I would have thought Joachim Löw would have preferred to go with a slightly modified line-up, bringing in more mobile and creative players in any of Klose, Götze, Schürrle or Reus. Also from the point of view of a neutral, it would have made for something considerably more exciting than the football on show.

Holland is usually a complicated team to predict, as we never know the face they will present in the major tournaments. In this one, it was the disjointed and divided one, which is probably the main reason for having departed on zero points after being touted as the “third men” of the competition, after Germany and Spain. Bert van Maarwijk’s tactics could be brought into question, particularly the use of van Bommel instead of van der Vaart or Kevin Strootman, but the simple fact that before the tournament it was the place of Nigel de Jong that was in question should eliminate any 20/20 hindsight reflections. The tactics of two defensive midfielders were sound (as the match against Portugal showed) and if anything, it was the use of Robben instead of Huntelaar (with van Persie, Sneijder and Affellay/Kuyt forming a fluid attacking trio) that unbalanced the team. Playing two destructive players at the base of the midfield was the basis for the almost fully successful run in the world cup in South Africa, so it should not be undermined here.

Denmark was a surprise in the way they managed to confound the opponents so much. Against Holland, they were lucky not to concede, but the interplay between some of the front players was excellent. Against Portugal they pulled back by exploiting the Portuguese weaknesses and against Germany they relied on some strong determination to fight for the match for a long period, even if outclassed. The determining factor was Crohn-Dehli, a dynamo of a player who plays mostly in a striker position for his club but who played here as an inside forward on the left, simultaneously providing attacking threat and also helping the left-back to cope with attackers of the caliber of Robben, Nani and Thomas Müller. All in all, Denmark can be proud of their performance.

Of course that the qualification of Portugal (already in the semis, but I’ll leave that for afterwards) pleased me, but especially because I had not expected them to get so far. I imagined they would lose to Germany, probably scrape a victory against Denmark but then fall short against Holland. This was the defining match, but I had predicted that Holland would have been in a better moment and not as desperate. The weaknesses of Portugal were quite evident from the start: problems with a left flank where Ronaldo does not help much, two left backs extremely vulnerable in balls through the air; and the lack of a quality striker. It was also pointed out that Portugal did not present much creativity, but that was not something I was particularly worried about. Even though neither of the midfield trio is a typical “number 10” type of player, their simple background grants them a larger degree of creativity than that of a comparable English, German or even Dutch counterpart. Without a really creative player, their combined inventiveness would provide the necessary penetration. In this sense, even though he is probably the striker with the worst finalization of all Paulo Bento took with him, Postiga’s movement fits well with the attacking actions of the wingers and he works well to create spaces for midfield and flank runs. His main weakness and one which frequently exasperated Ronaldo is his incapability to deal with balls played in space for him to chase and score. He can however get himself in good striking positions and if the ball is well placed he can score good goals (he has a better ratio of goals/caps for the national team than at any of his clubs). Still, I always expected that balls floated from right or left to behind the centre-backs (as in the goals of Gomez and both of Bendtner) would be Portugal’s undoing. The team however reacted splendidly and with Veloso doing a wonderful and unheralded job of picking the opposition’s attacking midfielder and helping Coentrão in defence, it was possible to offer some measure of balance. Also the substitutions by Bento were spot on, with Varela and Oliveira able to offer energy and dynamism to confront the opposition while the coming in of Rolando clearly hinted at several hours of training ground work with three at the back dealing with balls in the box. In the end, it has been Ronaldo’s performances that have made the difference, even against Denmark where his threat meant someone ended up always free, something which lead to the winning goal of Varela. This dependence may be worrying, but as long as he plays like this, there is nothing wrong in Bento playing to his strengths.