Spain’s striking development

The latest version of Vicente del Bosque’s Spain has arrived at the semi-final stage of the Confederations Cup with some ease, but it has also done so playing an attacking brand of football that combines possession with goals. The Coach has made some changes that have not been radical but have nevertheless been highly effective and his men face Italy tonight as firm favourites and also as entertainers.

The scoreline in Spain’s 2-1 win over Uruguay failed to even begin to reflect the extent to which they dominated their opponents while their 3-0 defeat of Nigeria was the product of a patchy if workmanlike performance. The intervening 10-0 thrashing of Tahiti can be put to one side for the purposes of analysis.

Del Bosque is crafting an evolving line-up and has made some important tactical adjustments in a competition he clearly believes is important but which at the same time provides room for some experimentation. Most notably, in the absence of Xabi Alonso through injury, the Coach has altered the structure of the midfield and has, in the process, made the whole unit a more attacking one.

Instead of bringing in Javi Martinez to replace Alonso, the Coach abandoned the double pivot system against Uruguay in favour of a single holding midfielder, Sergio Busquets. To accommodate the change, Xavi Hernandez moved into a similar role he plays at Barcelona alongside Andres Iniesta, whilst Cesc Fabregas was placed in the attacking three.

The effect of the changes were stark against Uruguay, where Spain drove forward rapidly and with purpose and where their dominance of possession and speed of thinking and passing was at times breath-taking. Uruguay did not play badly, they simply could not get the ball. It was all a far cry from the early stages of Euro 2012 last summer when, despite destroying the Republic of Ireland in the group stages, performances against Croatia, France and Portugal had Del Bosque’s men labelled as dull, boring and accused of lacking a cutting edge.

In the absence of a recognised striker and the deployment of Fabregas in the ‘false 9’ role, those accusations were justified because there was, as always with Spain, plenty of possession but without any end product. In spite of this, Spain persevered with the tactic into World Cup qualifying and paid the price when they could only draw 1-1 with France in Madrid back in October.

It is only now, with the return to a dedicated striking role and the change to a more attacking midfield formation, that Spain have become more direct, perhaps more aggressive and certainly exhilarating to watch again.

However, at the same time, there have been signs as to why Del Bosque has generally favoured a double-pivot midfield. Nigeria’s high number of chances created in the first half on Sunday indicated that competent opponents could exploit a less defensive-minded midfield, with Busquets often outnumbered and bypassed when the Africans attacked centrally.

Del Bosque’s response may well have been so far that the best form of defence is attack and Spain have certainly been scoring goals, even discounting the Tahitian bonanza. The Coach has given Fernando Torres a chance to shine and he has scored goals, even if most of them were against the minnows, but the more interesting introduction has been that of Roberto Soldado in the striking role.

Fortunate in the eyes of many to have been selected ahead of Alfredo Negredo, the Valencia captain seized his chance against Uruguay and capped a decent performance with a well-taken goal. His failure to put away two easier chances against Nigeria, however, will not have gone unnoticed by Del Bosque and the jury is probably still out, but Soldado is expected to be given the nod against Italy if he has recovered from a muscle strain.

Whatever changes he makes, Del Bosque will do so without fuss and is held in such high esteem that it is a brave man who challenges his experience and wisdom. He is not a radical reformer, but neither does he tinker for the sake of it. Their fast pressing game now has the promise of goals at the end of it.

Ahead of tonight’s clash in Fortaleza, Del Bosque believes Italy will want revenge for their crushing defeat in the Euro 2012 final, but on current form the world and European champions – 28 competitive games unbeaten – must be firm favourites to cement a place in the final. Italy have shipped eight goals in the tournament and their Coach Cesare Prandelli has conceded that Spain are “almost impossible to beat.”

Heat and humidity have been Spain’s toughest opponents at the tournament so far. The Italians are likely to pose the greatest threat to La Roja from a football perspective, and the sides are in some ways quite evenly matched. Italy lack experience up front and against a Spain line-up that once again looks like scoring each time it attacks, it is the Azzurri who will fear most from the game. It could be Kiev all over again.