Can Spain’s striker-less system bring success a decade on?

In the final of Euro 2012, Vicente del Bosque made an extremely brave call of starting the game with no recognised striker, to dominate possession and almost passing the ball into the net. 

Sergio Busquets was a sweeper just in front of the defence; Xavi, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas controlled the tempo of the game from deep and in the half spaces Andres Iniesta and David Silva worked their magic, with the latter scoring the opening goal early on. 

Spain went on to win convincingly 4-0 against the Italians in Kyiv, and a clear precedent was made. It was possible to set up with no recognised striker, yet dominate a game and score goals in abundance. The national team of that era reinforced the idea of ‘tiki-taka’ football in fans’ minds and ever since Spain has been associated with that style of play which was categorised by quick passing and movement. 

The personnel of 2022 

In 2022 at the FIFA World Cup in Qatar, Luis Enrique has deployed a similar system, keeping natural number nine Alvaro Morata as an option from the bench. But going forward does Spain have the quality to replicate what the national team did in 2012, as they secured a third successive major tournament victory? 

In world Cup betting, Spain were one of the favourites to go all the way offered at 8/1, and their opening game 7-0 thrashing of Costa Rica certainly demonstrated their ability to create and score goals without a number nine running beyond the opposition. They certainly do not currently have the level of quality that the team of a decade in the past boasted, but in terms of profile can Luis Enrique, or his replacement, deploy a successful system without a nine and guide their nation to victory? 

In defensive midfield, Sergio Busquets was still starting for his nation and he may be a much lesser version of his 2012 self, but for Luis Enrique was still an invaluable leader for La Roja. Stars Gavi and Pedri from Barcelona have taken the places of Andres Iniesta and Xavi, both of which have been likened to the legendary pair in their playing style. 

A modern take on tiki-taka

Enrique’s system was set up with more of an impetus on quick attacking transitions rather than maintaining possession deep. He started two central midfielders and three more attacking players operating between the opposition’s midfield and defensive lines. Creative midfielder Marco Asensio led the attack in three of their four matches and was the creative focal point of the team, and helped improve the counter-press, and the focus on progressing the ball through the midfield in possession – not just possession for possession’s sake. 

No matter how legendary a team was or how much success they achieved, there are always tweaks that can be made to a winning blueprint, especially if they want to finally win a knockout match, or looking long-term biggest football game of all. A Spain team that could be near as comfortable on the ball as the Xavi-Iniesta era, yet also relentless in their pressing off the ball would have the potential to be one of the most deadly national sides ever. 

The impressive form of Rodri Hernandez of Manchester City, playing in defence, was a clear indicator of the fact he is ready for a more prominent role in the national team. Composed on the ball and patient, utilising his ability will be a top priority for the coach.

In the game against Germany, Spain did not leave second gear, yet were never truly worried about being defeated. They left with a point which was what they came for, and their goal was a result of Germany’s desperation to push many players forward to put pressure on Spain as they searched for a goal. But for periods, the Spain side was playing through a press expertly. 

The most dangerous feature about this Spain side is their ability to frustrate teams; similarly to the team of the recent past, they can wear down the opposition by playing the ball around them repeatedly. Teams will require the mental and physical strength to maintain concentration during Spain’s lengthy spells of possession to seize one of the few chances Spain affords them. Spain has averaged over 80% possession at times in Qatar, and they do not like the opponent being in control of the ball, which is key to winning football games.

On the flipside, possession without penetration has been their biggest flaw and led to their downfall against Morocco. With no clear candidate to take on the central striking role beyond Morata, the decision to use a false nine or a natural forward could define the coming years of La Roja.

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