There was an inevitability about France’s last-gasp equaliser in Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier at the Vicente Calderon. After Spain failed to close out a game they should have had comfortably in the bag by half-time, questions can once again be asked about the wisdom of playing without a recognised target man.
Spain had destroyed Belarus last Saturday with Pedro Rodriguez, so often the unsung hero, hitting a hat-trick. Coach Vicente del Bosque went into that match with Cesc Fabregas in the false 9 role previously employed at Euro 2012 with limited success, with Pedro and David Silva either side of him completing the front three.
After the resounding 4-0 win in Minsk, the Coach was clearly minded not to tinker too much with a winning side, replacing only Santi Cazorla with Andres Iniesta in the starting line-up against the French on Tuesday night. Sergio Ramos’ 25th minute strike was due reward as Del Bosque’s men dominated the first half in Madrid and looked to be cruising.
Laurent Koscielny’s cynical tackle on Pedro drew only a yellow card, but Fabregas’ weak spot-kick was easily saved by Hugo Lloris, and when the Barcelona midfielder spurned a further chance before the break, there was an expectation that Fernando Torres might enter the fray sooner rather later to provide the killer touch to finish off the French.
Spain had beaten France 2-0 when the teams met in Euro 2012 and the two were better matched here than on that occasion. In many ways, however, Spain’s performance in Madrid was reminiscent of their less convincing displays in the summer. They passed the ball beautifully in the first half, with Xavi and Iniesta orchestrating the midfield, but looked ragged in the second, almost carelessly allowing France back into the game.
With the talent and versatility he has at his disposal, and his own wealth of experience and track record, it would be a brave man to challenge Del Bosque’s wisdom in deploying a false 9, with effectively six midfielders in the side, as a proxy for a genuine frontman. If it is a viable tactic, however, it may be that Fabregas is just not the right man to adopt that lead role in converting possession into goals.
France upped their game in the second half as Spain, by Del Bosque’s own admission, took their foot off the gas. Instead of continuing to press their opponents, La Roja tried to play more openly and, although they continued to be creative, they allowed France more time on the ball. Karim Benzema was a handful throughout and his replacement, Olivier Giroud, was in acres of space to meet Franck Ribery’s cross for the equaliser.
Whether the earlier introduction of Torres would have made a difference is hard to know. A fit David Villa, Fernando Llorente or Roberto Soldado might conceivably have offered better options to cement Spain’s dominance of the ball. The result was exacerbated by injuries to David Silva and Alvaro Arbeloa and although Del Bosque is unlikely to doubt his own strategy, he will not be happy with its execution.