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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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.