The statistics before the game were almost perfect; Spain had recorded 45 wins in 48 matches. In between, they have become the reigning champions of Europe, are joint favourites to hold aloft the 2010 World Cup and have achieved all this by playing a beautiful brand of football. Indeed, were they allowed to field a ‘B’ team, then surely both sides would face each other in the final. They are that good. But wait…hang on a minute. What’s this I see? Is that..is that a loss? Did Spain lose to USA?
Yes, they did. 2-0 in fact, in the Confederations Cup and they are hoping, on a little-known Wednesday on the 24th of June 2009. Because, despite cantering to the semi-final of the tournament without breaking as much as a sweat, the tiki-taka football found itself unstuck by the American’s defensive doggedness and speed on the break. Those tactics, Vicente Del Bosque knows, are prone to being imitated by his World Cup opponents and just like an honour student with a failure in gym class, has tried to cover up the blotches on the grade sheet.
Del Bosque has brought in two defensive midfielders – Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets – to guard his side on moments of transitions. Fernando Torres, whose scoring record has in recent times been overshadowed by his strike partner, David Villa, is now not guaranteed a starting place. The double pivot allows Xavi freedom to get forward into the box while also providing protection for the full-backs who are now detailed to stretch play on either side, almost as wing-backs.
And in the first-half against Switzerland, Spain were relatively comfortable without being very penetrative themselves. They passed the ball back and forth across the pitch with much patience, looking to drag a Swiss defender out of position. Phillipe Senderos committed a series of fouls to indicate that a mistake was imminent. Only two in the end as Gerard Pique once again produced a magic in the opponent’s box akin to the Champions League semi-final but saw his shot fired straight at Diego Benaglio. David Villa got his golden opportunity but saw his chipped effort go disappointing wide. A goal was coming they thought, as Switzerland’s minds and legs would inevitably tire and Spain’s technical superiority would come out on top.
However seven minutes into the second period and the unthinkable happened. Switzerland broke through on the counter attack, Casillas came rushing out and from a moment of messiness, Gelson Fernandez was able to convert from amongst the wreckage. Suddenly that meticulous preparation has to be revised – time was not on their side any more and Spain had to find try to find a goal. Cesc Fabregas, usually Luis Aragonés’ Plan B, was not even summoned off the bench. Perhaps it had become blasphemy to take off Xavi as Del Bosque’s predecessor did on frequent occasions in Euro 2008. Certainly the Arsenal man has added power and dynamism to his game to be both a Plan A and a Plan B being able to seamlessly fit in to the endless triangle passing. Del Bosque usually experimented with a winger in the midfield four in the Confederation’s Cup, typically Albert Riera, but as the former Liverpool manager has indicated, the wide man had let his status in the national side get to his head. Jesus Navas’ introduction saw the Sevilla man fire in 19 crosses but without a target in the box, nothing materialised.
The unthinkable happened and much credit must go to Ottmar Hitzfeld for instilling a discipline and concentration in his side and ultimately doing what USA did against Spain. Switzerland were narrow and conceded the wings to La Roja because essentially there was only one to aim for and that was Villa. Late running was at most going to be provided by Xavi due to the use of a double pivots. The two forwards, N’Kufo and Derdiyok remained up the pitch for all of the game, one dropping back to mark the deep-lying playmaker and sought to feed of any clearances. Derdiyok got his chance but when the on rushing Casillas blocked his shot lady luck must have been on his side because as he was sent tumbling, the ball ricocheted of his flying body and into the path of Fernandes to tap in. Phillipe Senderos may not be held in high regards by Arsenal fans but he is now associated with both the UEFA Champions Leage and World Cup consecutive clean sheet records. A team as perfect as Spain should not have this much questions to answer but being that good, they feel they must.
[Update 17/06/2010: 16:30] Ottmar Hitzfeld’s quote on Switzerland’s strategy: “We saw how the Americans played against Spain with a lot of interest,” Hitzfeld said. “You know that if you are going to have a chance against [Spain] you need to do certain things very well. The USA did not try to do everything. They accepted the fact that Spain has pace and width and simply made sure they kept the center of defense as tight as they could. It is not a perfect system, but it was a very interesting tactic and it worked.”