Aragones to Del Bosque: Spain’s evolution

 HavingHaving completed an unprecedented treble of consecutive major tournaments, it is worth considering how well Vicente del Bosque’s 2012 winners match up to his team in South Africa and to Luis Aragones’ European outfit of 2008. Although Spain has retained the same identity over the course of the four years, each vintage was shaped by a unique tactical approach that has generated debate over which has been the superior team.

What has attracted most attention in Del Bosque’s team this summer has been his use of a 4-6-0 formation without a designated striker. For much of the tournament it was felt that this method lacked a cutting edge with nobody to stretch the opposition’s back-line or get on the end of balls into the penalty box. This contrasts with his approach in 2010 when Fernando Torres led the line and David Villa supported from the left-flank. Yet, largely a result of Torres’ poor form in South Africa, Spain were unable to score more than a single goal in any of their four knockout matches.

Common consensus suggests that the most entertaining Spanish side was that which triumphed in Austria and Switzerland in 2008. Aragones then employed a more direct approach with two strikers in front of a four-man midfield. Their incisiveness ensured Spain averaged two goals per game with notable high-scoring wins, 4-1 and 3-0, over an excellent Russia side. As well as deploying two strikers, Aragones used just the single midfield anchor in the imposing Marcos Senna. The more direct approach was helped to an extent by the fact Spain had yet to establish the sort of fearsome reputation which forces teams now to ‘estacionar el autobus’. They were able to profit from higher back-lines and less packed defences in a way that his successor has been rarely able to exploit.

Central to Del Bosque’s philosophy meanwhile was the use of the double pivot in midfield, usually in the form of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. In South Africa he sacrificed a striker by pulling back David Villa on to the left side to make room for a second anchor. Such a switch ensured greater control in the middle of the park and afforded increased protection to the Spanish defence.

In Poland and Ukraine Del Bosque went further still. Villa’s injury, combined with the form and fitness problems faced by both Torres and Villa’s natural replacement Pedro Rodriguez, led the former Real Madrid Coach to reconsider his attacking options. Encouraged by the success of his experiments with a false No 9 against Scotland during qualification, Del Bosque sacrificed his remaining striker and played six in midfield. With such domination of possession, La Roja conceded just a single goal in the entire tournament. Yet their lack of a cutting edge almost saw them exit the tournament first against Croatia in the final group stage match and again against Portugal in the semi-finals. This was less to do with the presence of a ‘false 9’, rather that the previously direct threats from wide in Villa and Pedro, who had stretched the play so well against Scotland, were unavailable.

La Furia Roja’s success in shutting out the opposition can be attributed towards their ever-increasing grip on the midfield. Villa’s return for the 2014 World Cup qualification campaign may provide that edge which Spain occasionally lacked. How Del Bosque integrates him into a striker-less team could generate a new debate entirely.