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Spain: not boring, just inflexible

If the Euro 2012 winners want to be the best of all time, they had better come up with an alternative to pass, pass, pass.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

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Are Spain the greatest team of all time? Are La Roja, champions of Europe again, just plain boring? Perhaps it’s just that they’re the most boring of all the great teams. Total mogadon football.

Rarely has such a successful team divided opinion. The debate over Spain’s place in the pantheon of greats has been raging in parallel to an equally heated discussion about their allegedly soporific style of play. I think it’s too simplistic, not to mention philistine, to use the b-word. The yawn factor is a product of poor form plus the bus-parking tactics of their opponents. But it is also partly a product of Spain’s own tactical inflexibility.

The ‘Spain are boring’ thesis is not new. In 2010, as the Spanish juggernaut trundled inexorably towards a first World Cup triumph in South Africa, murmurings of discontent could be heard above the din of the vuvuzelas. Guardian columnist Barney Ronay wrote: ‘Spain play a kind of platinum-selling dinner-party football – Coldplay Football – that is clearly and undeniably high spec, but also devoid of jarringly revelatory spikes and twists. Playing against Spain must feel a little like playing a chess computer: strangled, impotent, you gawp helplessly at its robotic grace.’

Back in 2010, when the commentariat was largely still in thrall to tiki-taka, such heresy simply would not be countenanced. However, during Euro 2012, we’ve seen a full-scale Thermidorean reaction against Spain’s death-by-passing reign. It wasn’t just your average football Neanderthals screaming ‘get the ball forward’ who were nodding off during their matches. Even spiritual allies, such as Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger, voiced doubts. He claimed that Spain ‘have betrayed their philosophy and turned it into something more negative’. Wenger’s criticism, which is echoed by many sports writers and pundits, is that playing keep-ball has become an end in itself, rather than a means to score goals. ‘Originally they wanted possession in order to attack and win the game; now it seems to be first and foremost a way not to lose’, said Wenger. ‘They have become more conservative, and they don’t want to give the ball up because they don’t want to give you a chance to score.’ Spain, in other words, have developed an über-modern form of percentage football. Theirs is a short-passing version of the percentage game rather than the long-ball doctrine of former FA coaching director Charles Hughes.

Some of the debate has focused – incorrectly in my view – on the absence of a recognised striker in their starting 11. Vicente Del Bosque’s preference to play with Cesc Fabregas in the now-fashionable ‘false nine’ role was mocked by critics, who identified this tactic as the main reason for Spain’s lack of a cutting edge. Personally, I think that blaming the false nine for Spain’s failure to wow the punters is largely a red herring. Not completely – and I’ll come back to that – but largely. Plenty of contemporary teams have successfully adopted an attacking system in which there is no specialist centre-forward. In 2008, Manchester United won the Champions League with a front line of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo, none of whom had a fixed position or could be described as orthodox centre-forwards. No one could accuse that United team of being boring. Goals were not a problem. Barcelona, too, have often operated with a false nine. But when that player is Lionel Messi, you won’t many people dozing off or switching over to Downton Abbey.

One of the main reasons for the dull games was not the use of a false nine itself but that Spain’s stellar midfield simply didn’t perform very well. They dominated possession – averaging 60 per cent per match – but they simply could not fashion many goalscoring chances. Against Portugal, the Spanish mustered just one shot on target in 120 minutes of football. Even without a recognised striker, you’d expect a team like Spain to carve out more scoring chances. But, whether it was due to fatigue or poor form, their passing was sluggish and lacked penetration in the final third. I wouldn’t say they resorted to winning ugly, but they were lacking something in the beauty department.

Spain’s acolytes would no doubt disagree. They’d point to the bus-parking tactics of their opponents as the root cause of thrill-free spectacles. Matches in which one team is encamped on the edge of their penalty box can, it is true, result in a severe dearth of goalmouth drama. However, I do think Spain must shoulder some of the blame for the lack of goals. Sure, lesser teams will also set out to frustrate Spain by sticking 10 men behind the ball. But a team that is hailed as the greatest in history really ought to have a Plan B.

I’m not suggesting they stick a ‘big fella’ up top and launch long balls at him; just that they should vary their tactics more. For example, if their opponents play a high line and try to compress the midfield, a traditional centre forward playing on the shoulder of the last defender could wreak havoc. Similarly, if teams sit deep and cede the flanks, then Spain need to go wide and get crosses in. In both situations, an orthodox striker would be more effective than a false nine. It may be distasteful but they could sometimes – whisper it – knock a ball over the top or put some crosses in.

Of course, Spain are not obliged to be a glorified circus act, performing jaw-dropping feats of passing to entertain the neutrals. The objective is to win football matches and they do that with a ruthless efficiency that is positively Teutonic. I also think that it’s the height of philistinism to dismiss a low-scoring game as inherently dull. Watching two well-matched teams tactically sparring can be just as dramatic as a goalfest. If I were Spanish, I’d say that stylish football is a nice bonus but that it’s the result that counts.

However, the Spanish don’t say that. They dislike like the pragmatism of Italian teams. They regard themselves as exponents of beautiful football. They see their brand of football as morally superior. Well, it’s certainly superior, but it falls a long way short of beautiful. When even your greatest admirers are yawning, perhaps it’s time to relax the dogmatic aversion to direct football and mix things up a little.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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Topics Politics

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