World Cup review: Spain

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After a period of dominance that would be the envy of any national side, the Spanish team leave Brazil humbled and humiliated. The reluctance of Villa, Torres and Mata to even celebrate their goals against Australia demonstrates just how much this Spanish team is hurting from the result. Such pain is only natural, but it would be easy to overstate how much trouble the Spanish side are in. The end of an era it may be, but this Spanish side have hit such tremendous heights that even a large fall from grace leaves them above most.

Losing to lady luck

One thing that cannot be ignored is the sheer strength of the Spanish group. In the Netherlands and Chile, Spain ran straight into what look like two of the strongest sides in this tournament. Both are organised and disciplined for the most part, van Gaal and Sampaoli having constructed their respective sides extremely well. Both managers also benefit from having players such as Robben and Sanchez who have that special something capable of turning a good team into a great one.

Had the Spanish been drawn in the place of, say, Argentina, it is very possible that they could have taken 9 points from the group, beaten Switzerland in the round of sixteen and Belgium in the quarter-finals to make it to the semis. Had they done that, the legacy of this Spanish side would be still be intact, and anyone prophesising the doom of Spanish football would rightly be laughed at. In many ways, the final chapter in the tale of this Spanish side was written not in the Maracanã, but in the Costa do Sauípe Resort, where the draw was held; how terrible for all those officials to have to travel all the way to the beach for the draw, no doubt at the expense of the Brazilian people.

Despite their tough group, Spain still put up a good fight. Against Chile, they had 9 shots on target to 4 from the South Americans. Finishing is of course a part of football, but with the quality that Spain have, one might expect them to have converted a few more of those chances on another day. It is also worth pointing out that Chile, while in the lead, were understandably less willing to pour players forward and so probably ended with less shots than they would have done had they not taken an early lead.

Victims of their own success

To an extent, this Spanish side may have suffered somewhat from their overwhelming dominance of the world game. In the six years since tiki-taka tactics have burst onto the scene, some of the finest minds in football have presumably spend many long days pondering the question of how to stop Spain and Barcelona. This is a fairly natural progression for any radical tactical innovation, and was to be expected sooner or later; the (relative) struggles of Barcelona are also evidence of this.

New tactics burst onto the scene in an extreme variant. The new innovation is generally designed to exploit a common weakness within mainstream tactics, and so is deployed to nearly its logical conclusion. Over time, opposition managers begin to devise ways of countering the new tactics and exploiting the weaknesses that the overextension of this tactic opened up. As the ways of countering the extreme variant of this new way of playing become common knowledge, it becomes progressively less effective.

Some ideas and methods from this new variant are incorporated into mainstream tactical thinking in order to exploit the weaknesses that were originally identified; others are discarded for opening up too many weaknesses that can in turn be exploited by the opposition. The days of the “pure” version of each tactic thus slowly fade into footballing mythology. Just as we never see Total Football played now, in 40 years we may reminisce about the days of tiki-taka; perhaps one day a Spanish side will play roughly in a World Cup final and be criticised for betraying their footballing heritage.

Class is permanent

Even if the current Spanish system is on its way out, there is no reason for Spanish football to panic. Plenty of Spanish players ply their trade in other teams with other systems; the Madrid players even play for a side set up – with its quick, powerful counter-attacks – to beat the tiki-taka style of play. An extremely high line, along with an emphasis on ball-playing centre backs, leaves the tiki-taka style vulnerable to counter-attacking football.

With a midfield that can leave out the likes of Jesus Navas – who would surely be a starter on the right for England – and an attack that can afford to leave his clubmate Alvaro Negredo at home, Spain would do well not to panic just yet. A manager who was to organise the players at their disposal into a fairly traditional 4-3-3 with Spain would already have a fearsome side on their hands.

With David de Gea in goal, Raúl Albiol and Sergio Ramos in the centre of defence, Jordi Alba and César Azpilicueta as the fullbacks, Javí Martinez, Koke and Cesc Fabregas in the middle, Pedro and David Silva on the flanks and a healthy Diego Costa up front, Spain would boast a side more than capable of beating any team in the world. As well, they would still be leaving out players who might walk into other strong sides.

A point to prove

Spain will thus head into Euro 2016 with a point to prove. The days of pure tiki-taka might be over, but Spain still possess enough quality players with enough knowledge of other systems to thrive all the same. Every member of the side outlined above bar Pedro has played outside the Barcelona system, and more importantly, every member will be 30 or under at the next Euros. As well as these players, many other Spanish starlets look set to break through in the next few years. Spain might be out, but they will certainly be back.

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