Naturally, my midway analysis of Euro 2012 has quickly turned into an object of ridicule. Whereas the Champions League was won by a battered and beat down Chelsea in a true Rocky Balboa style, the strongest team emerged victorious from Poland and Ukraine. So much for my conclusions about national team football being more random and likely to surprise than its club parallel. Oh well, bold statements are made to later be made fun of.
If you are still here, then I guess my preface does not defer you from reading anything I write about football. Things are always easier with a biased crowd. 🙂
Spain have imposed a rule in football the like of which has never been seen before. Even dominant teams in the past had to go through less matches to win the big trophies. This is something truly unequaled in national team football. And yet, much of the glorifying is result-oriented. This is perfectly fine. The winners always gather the compliments in the end, and it really is impossible to argue with the amazing Euro-World Cup-Euro combination. However, while fans and pundits are allowed to sing praises aloud and turn a blind eye to the winner’s weaknesses, it is the victor himself who mustn’t do t in order to stay on top.
The super-slow controlled model which has turned Spain from a classic loser into a winning machine is very shaky. It is most effective when Spain is leading or even at worst, but becomes largely obsolete when Spain trails behind. The Spanish do not force their attack on the opponents, which means they create few chances. The assumptions behind their system is that they will manage to reach these chances and have a high turnover into goals. Another key perquisite is that they do not concede first. Once Spain grab the lead, it is almost impossible to chase them down. They have a team which is built perfectly for that strategy, but obviously there is great risk involved in it. This was especially true in the latest tournament, where Spain played with no target-man up front. It turned out to the best in the end, but Spain did had to dodge some bullets on the way to its recent triumphs: they went through penalty kicks twice, Paraguay missed a penalty in the quarter-finals in 2010 and Robben and Ronaldo missed clear chances while the score was 0-0. We are yet to see this Spain in a must-score scenario, and in my opinion they will find it very difficult to get out of.
But, in the end, Del Bosque’s gamble paid off. I think there is a key ingredient behind it which allows the Spanish manager to take this risk. In an unexpected chain of events which has started in the summer of 2008, the current generation of Spanish players has turned into the biggest winners seen in football. Followed closely by the inauguration of the Pep Team, and two years later by the restoration of Real Madrid at the hands of Mourinho, the leading Spaniards have become so accustomed to winning (both matches and trophies), that managers can just expect them to perform. For them, the final on Sunday was just another match that needed to be won. You can see them stick to the plan flawlessly, without a hint of anxiety. Xavi played one of the best defensive matches of his career and performed true man-marking on Pirlo. He made Pirlo run down to his own box to receive the ball, effectively taking the Italian veteran out of his side’s attacks. Busquets and Xabi Alonso kept switching the marking between them to never allow a free Italian in the center. Iniesta orchestrated the movement of the ball in the final third until Silva or Cesc made a well-timed run. Ramos always stayed close to Balotelli, never allowing him to get space. When Ramos wasn’t there, Pique made sure to slow the Italian striker down until defensive backup appeared and only then would he attack the ball.
This is the sort of composure that allowed Del Bosque to take such big risks each and every game. His players know that they are the favorites and if they perform their game plan right and manage to capitalize on their chances they will end up winning. Cool as a cucumber. I too thought that Del Bosque needed to be more aggressive, and that he should make his team force themselves on the opposition’s defense with waves of attacks. I still do not understand why Llorenete, who had the best season among Spanish forwards and is a perfect target-men for their system, didn’t even receive a single minute of play. And yet, it worked, and so all credit going to Del Bosque is well-earned. It was no fool’s luck that his bet worked out. He had faith that his team would turn its quality advantage, experience and calmness into victories.
For the ending, a few words about the players. Before 2008, Xavi was regarded by many of the thinking Barcelona fans as the “sleeping beauty”. He would go on-and-off, providing epic performances from time to time but usually not imposing himself on the game. Euro 2008 and the seasons that followed have changed that, and he is now one of the greatest players in the history of football. This is the sort of change these players have went through. They are the absolute winners. Xavi, Iniesta, Puyol, Villa and Casillas have won every trophy imaginable, and Busquets, Pique and Pedro (and Valdez of sorts) have now joined this club. Ramos (best player of the tournament), Alonso, Fabregas, Torres and Silva are not far from that achievement as well. Besides Xavi, who is doubtful, all of Spain’s players in the final will be well within their peak years in Brazil 2014. These achievements, on a personal level, are beyond comprehension. These are true sporting heroes, the like of which we rarely see in football.