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Thursday, June 14

Pregaming (Spain/Ireland)

A look at Spain applying principles from Barcelona's hybrid 4-3-3/3-4-3 in their Euro 2012 opener.
By opting to start Cesc Fàbregas as a false-nine centre-forward against Italy, Vincente Del Bosque revealed Spain's most notable absence for Euro 2012:

Lionel Messi.  Not the player, but the role: the false-nine.

With La Roja's most prolific goalscorer ever, David Villa, unable to complete a rapid rehabilitation from a broken leg, Del Bosque chose to fill the vacuum atop his side's shape not with one of the traditional forwards available in Fernando Llorente, Álvaro Negredo or Torres but instead by deploying a playmaking midfielder who thrives in advanced positions.

Spain's Starting XI

The selection of Fàbregas was as much a decision fueled by philosophy as it was any other consideration: by forgoing Llorente's aerial and hold-up play superiority, by keeping Negredo's sheer physicality sidelined, by escaping the seduction of the blistering runs and deft skill from Torres' past, Del Bosque fielded a side committed to the tiki-taka, quit of any alternative or 'Plan B'.  Fàbregas as a false-nine meant an attack hoped to be keyed by torrents of intricate passing and fluid movements between the outfielders, an attack looking to pass its way through the windows of a house rather than around or over it.
 
An attack not just guilty of the same accusation Barcelona faced in last campaign's Champions League, of being a one-trick pony, but of being the same one-trick pony.

Blaming Barça's exit on a certain predictably, however, is intellectually irresponsible: their semi-final loss to Chelsea wasn't a function of needing ball-in-net alternatives but dismal finishing, with Messi's penalty-kick miss exhibit A.  Barça's force-of-will approach, however, has Messi for its vanguard.  That no matter how narrow the play becomes, no matter how packed in the opposing defence is, there is the best player in the world to sneak through the cracks.  And while Fàbregas can play the false-nine role in the spirit of his club's talisman, he, like every other football player, cannot do it as well.

Which means Spain doesn't have the margin of error Barça has, and that any shared issue between the sides will be that much more amplified for La Roja.

And, just like in Spain's opener of the 2010 World Cup, the chief issue was width in attack for Spain's Euro 2012 opener against Italy.

Key Movements

With the centre-favouring Andrés Iniesta and David Silva again plying their craft on the wings, Spain again had the problem of not having any forward or midfielder to provide width down the flanks.  On the left, this wasn't that large of an issue: Jordi Alba, a skilled attacker with even better pace at left-back, is worth every bit of the rumoured €15 million Valencia is asking from Barça for him.  Alba's ability to bomb forward well -- an ability not unlike that of Barça's right-back, Dani Alves -- let Del Bosque's side incorporate and slightly modify a concept of Barça's hybrid 4-3-3/3-4-3: where Barça's right winger can shift to centre-forward in possession, ahead of Messi, Spain's left winger -- Iniesta -- can shift to midfield in possession, behind their false-nine, recreating the best club midfield in the world.

But on the right?



Barça's Midfield Triumvirate and The Missing Width Right

This missing width didn't help matters much for Spain in the first hour, but it should be noted Fàbregas' goal came after his run in behind centre-backs already occupied by the flood of Spain players taking up positions in and running through the centre.  It was proof that Spain can find success passing their way through a defence, width be damned.

But is that Spain's best way of playing?

After Substitutions

After Torres came on for Fàbregas and Jesús Navas for Silva, Spain suddenly had width down both flanks and a runner to go over the top, all without having to sacrifice their way of playing. Italy, for as good as they played, were two touches from a woefully out-of-form striker away from losing 3-1.

Del Bosque's starting eleven for Ireland (Casillas - Arbeloa, Piqué, Ramos, Alba - Xabi Alonso, Busquets, Xavi - Silva, Torres, Iniesta) does add verticality for Spain by including Torres, but the width down the right flank is still very much missing, and against a side likely to park a bus, a stretching of the pitch is, if not essential, wanted.

Even with this inherent problem, Spain shouldn't have a problem against Ireland.  But it does raise the question: when able to recreate the best club midfield in the world -- one of the best of all time -- and without width down both flanks, is Xabi Alonso, for all of his immense talents, not a redundant piece?  What good is his distribution with limitless range when Spain forgoes a third of the pitch?  If Ireland parks the bus, leaving no space for Torres to run over the top, wouldn't dropping the holding player for a wide or attacking player offer more to Spain's attack?  For that matter, why isn't Spain's best aerial threat,  Llorente, starting?

Now probably isn't the time for Spain to experiment with a 3-4-3 (or Alonso in defence) but a starting eleven of Casillas - Arbeloa (or Alonso), Piqué, Ramos - Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Cesc - Navas, Llorente, Alba offers Spain versatility without losing its identity.  As it stands, Spain is still likely to come away with three points, but is there room on the margins for even better play from the reigning Euro and World Cup champs?

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