“People that think we play boring, in my opinion, don’t understand the game,” smirked Cesc Fabregas.
It was the type of comment that had it come 24 hours earlier would have led to a barrage of tweets and comments about the arrogant Spanish attitude towards the way to play the beautiful game, but, arriving as it did, moments after La Roja had disposed of Italy 4-0 in the biggest victory ever recorded in a European Championship final, there was more than a degree of vindication wiped across the former Arsenal captain’s face.
Spain had countered the talk of ‘tiki-takanaccio’ by common consensus with the best performance in their four-year run to an unprecedented third major international title in a row. However, the plaudits that finally rained down after a three-week slog in Poland and Ukraine had just as much to do with their opponents on the night.
Italy weren’t bad. If anything, in their previous showings in the tournament, they had been too good. They had been bold and aggressive against Spain in their opening game and been rewarded with a 1-1 draw, battered England over 120 minutes and taken the game to Germany and beaten them handily in the semi-finals. They now believed they could do the same to the world champions.
And that is what made Spain appear so fluid. In all the discussion of whether Spain were indeed boring in the past few weeks, little consideration has been given to what the opponents had been doing to make them appear so. Sitting deep, positioning 10 men behind the ball like Ireland, Croatia and France, or pressing high, trying to force errors before eventually settling for the former strategy once tiredness kicked in like Portugal and Italy first time around.
Which is why the final wasn’t decided when Fernando Torres rolled home the third, when Thiago Motta had to go off injured leaving Italy a man down or even with Jordi Alba’s electric burst to double Spain’s advantage just before half-time, but as early as the 14th minute when David Silva headed Spain in front.
Spain are a different side when playing from in front, it is no coincidence it is now 71 games and nearly six years since they failed to win having scored the first goal. Alba’s goal may have been the Vicente del Bosque-coached side’s best of the tournament but it is one that simply wouldn’t have been possible in most of their other games.
It came at the end of a half when Italy remarkably had more possession than Spain and forced Iker Casillas into more saves than France and Portugal combined in his previous 210 minutes of football. However, the price for the positivity shown by the Italians was a high defensive line that Alba simply flew past in racing on to Xavi Hernandez’s perfectly-timed pass for his first international goal.
The most proactive team in international football had become reactive, a state in which even after going in front in previous games they hadn’t been allowed to be in this competition. Ireland remained in their banks of four despite going behind after just three minutes and were eventually beaten 4-0 anyway, whilst France also played with damage limitation in mind in the quarter-finals and never got any forward momentum going in the way Italy did for a spell in the first-half.
The rest of the games have followed a similar pattern to those in South Africa two years ago, where Spain again had to grind the opposition down and wait for the opener. Hence why all four knockout games then were won by a solitary goal and why Del Bosque in the main preferred to keep his quick players, like Torres, Jesus Navas and Pedro Rodriguez, who are capable of stretching the play on the bench this time around.
Whilst the opposition wasn’t giving away any space in behind, those players’ influence was nullified, so better to wait, to keep the ball, tire the opposition out and introduce those players when those gaps appear after the break was his sound reasoning.
Logic that wasn’t needed in the final because the holes in Italy’s defence appeared rather earlier. Spain weren’t so brilliant in the final and so boring beforehand, in Kiev they just had the luxury of playing an opponent who finally wanted to play them.