The title of this post is perhaps an example of what can be alluded to in Spanish as palabras mayores; ‘strong words’, ‘big statement’. And it is with regret that anyone throws criticism at the man of integrity that is Vicente Del Bosque. But bear with me…
I don’t know which is worse: a) that a manager, seeing the symptoms of illness, misdiagnoses and subsequently elects a course of action or inaction, b) that the manager seeing the symptoms of illness, diagnoses correctly and yet implausibly insists on continuing his preferred method of questionable treatment or c) that he fails to see the symptoms in the first place and thinks that things are in fine fettle.
Which of the above charges can be laid at the door of Vicente Del Bosque and assistant Toni Grande?
Of course c must be dismissed since that is the stuff of rank incompetence. Anyone could see that Spain have been experiencing difficulty and not only versus England at Wembley. And not only in recent friendly defeats but throughout the ultimately triumphant World Cup in South Africa too.
Charge b is flimsy argument against Vicente Del Bosque and more gravely is a perverse appraisal of the nature of a man who has enjoyed success at the highest level. Stubbornness borne of ideological convictions is the last thing that defines the man’s approach to managing a football team as the charge here would have it.
Del Bosque has been all too easily accused of charting a timid middle course in matters football over the past decade. There exists the notion that he is a fence-sitter, petrified of causing offence particularly when the mist of politics envelopes the air. Could it be, as some suggest, that Del Bosque’s avoidance of flat out implanting the Barcelona midfield trio in the national team is a sop to earn some respite from accusations that emanate across Spain’s bitter footballing divide?
In the above case perhaps it’s best to lend the Salamantine coach the benefit of the doubt; after all, the inclusion of Xabi Alonso as an aide to Sergio Busquets is more likely the fruit of a cornerstone of Del Bosque’s philosophy. To be sure, he has certain ideas and preferences among his repertoire such as his liking for playing twin holding-midfielders in front of a back throughout his club coaching career (apart from one brief, exhilarating 6-month spell in early 2000 as Real Madrid galloped from the shadows to glory, for which see Rob Smyth’s succinct views on the matter). And isn’t any self-respecting coach entitled to some degree of coherent vision without these necessarily being interpreted as caprice? To say otherwise would be to deny the coach his identity and personality and be left with a spoofer and an improviser.
Over three years into his tenure now, Del Bosque surely would have seen how during roughly the past two-and-a-half years Spain has been lacking incision. He will have acknowledged to himself that this flatness has become more manifest in consecutive appearances from the World Cup onwards. It is how he interprets (diagnoses) Spain’s poor play and chooses to address or not address (treat) the problem that can serve as grounds for criticism. And therein lays the crux of the matter: Del Bosque can’t quite finger the problem. There is talk of Spain’s strikers being off-form, but Del Bosque brought on the forlorn Fernando Torres when he had Llorente on the bench. To my mind, the problems of the somnolent play of La Roja stem from an ill-conceived compromise as to the composition of the midfield such that, even were Villa and Torres in the form of their careers and the formation up top altered, this once-in-a-generation Spain collective will continue to play below its potential. Football with the handbrake on. Indeed.
Watching Spain leaves me with the impression that Del Bosque is trying to blend the best of the current Barcelona model with other impressive performers from other clubs as well as with some tactical ideas of his own, as any one of us would. Indeed, it is entirely commendable that he attempt to pick and mix. But could it be that he has made the wrong kind of blend? Arrived at the wrong kind of compromise?
The recent tinkering with a false nine is handicapped in two respects: firstly, the absence of a false 9 of Messi’s nature (let alone quality) has deprived the attack of penetration. If there is a candidate even remotely similar to Messi, that would be Iker Muniain. But is there an argument to be made for building the attack of the reigning World and European champions around a 19-year old prodigy for all his preciously electrifying play? Muniain’s time will come later. Del Bosque’s preferred candidate is David Silva who, for all his qualities, is more of a facilitator for others than an autonomous threat in his own respect as is the case with the Messi or Muniain. Now perhaps Silva’s movement in the role would bear greater fruit if he were flanked by more direct attacking players and not solely David Villa. For Andrés Iniesta’s game is similar to that of Silva and with two associative playmakers in a supposedly three-man front line, we are left with redundancy and a tendency to recycle the ball rather than rupture with acute goalward movment.
This redundancy was only compounded at Wembley by Del Bosque’s cut-and-paste imitation of the ‘double-false-nine’ deployed frequently by Barcelona so far this 2011-12 season. But whereas Pep Guardiola’s pairing of Fàbregas with Messi has sometimes proved providential (as in the thumping of Villarreal in September), the Catalan coach placed both talents in a sensibly favourable context. Quite apart from the fact that Barcelona had mostly switched to a 3-3-1-3 (or 3-1-3-3) formation, more important was the fact that Guardiola flanked the duo with genuine outside-forwards in Alexis Sanchez and Pedro, and, of course, there are the rampaging forays from deeper positions of overlapping figures such as Daniel Alves and/or Adriano. In other words, Barcelona has provided oxygen for the tiki-taka passing infield by using rapid players on the outside to stretch the playing area and the opponents.
Spain, by contrast, is built upon a back four with only Jordi Alba to provide any degree of stretching of the play for a midfield and attack which already is wont to converge centrally. So in this respect Del Bosque is faced with an insurmountable task; how to replicate Barcelona when for all your commonality of approach and style, the system and even some of the personnel are different?
If there is a single player who stands to lose most from the current arrangement, it is also Spain’s most emblematic player. Xavi is so neutered by the existing midfield set-up as to be almost a parody of the unkindest appraisals of his play. There are those who have long dismissed his game as bureaucratic and excessively cautious, primed towards recycling attacks rather than progressing them in the mould of, say, a younger Fàbregas. And looking at his performances with La Roja for much of the Del Bosque era, this staunch Xavista almost finds himself agreeing with them. With the proviso of course that this is hardly Xavi’s fault. Receiving the ball in a more advanced area of the pitch than per custom almost encrusted between and with his back turned to the opponents’ deepest midfielders, the Barcelona metronome finds his scope for surveying the action almost halved. As a result he appears to become a figure of almost excessive caution. Naturally, many will argue that Xavi usually acts out of caution given his zealous ball-retentive play, but his positioning in the Spain midfield, facing Alonso, Busquets and his own defence exacerbates this to an absurd degree. It’s almost as if the only balls he does play (all successfully of course) are backward and sideways. That old chestnut again.
Xavi’s discomfort unleashes a domino effect that ripples throughout the side. Busquets is faced with a dilemma: either he can choose to play it short to Alonso, who in turn can then opt to activate either flank or send the ball towards a more advanced midfield or even forward line, or he (Busquets) can exchange passes with club teammate Xavi. Only that the Barcelona arrangement is not in operation here; when closely guarded by opposing midfielders and some distance away, Xavi is difficult to reach via the passing range of Busquets whose true passing game is impressive when in close proximity to other similarly gifted teammates. As a result Busquets ends up ceding the ball to Alonso, who then contemplates the abovementioned array of options. But why should Alonso elect to activate a restricted Xavi when to do so the ball is unlikely to progress through the centre and instead come back to the Basque’s feet? It’s pure and simple redundancy.
There is yet the matter of how Xavi deals with his unenviable surroundings ahead of the midfield. Either subconsciously or in a deliberate attempt to buy himself room for turning and facing the direction of play, Xavi ends up retreating into midfield and closer towards Busquets and Alonso. This now leads Busquets, an intelligent player, with too much choice to compute. His instinct would have him exchange passes with his Barcelona teammate, now back on familiar turf and in proximity, yet he also must be aware that Alonso is more likely to provide the progressive and, in certain situations, the more suitable pass.
Also consider the effects up-field where the more advanced Spanish players can set off on all manner of clever runs to try and open up passing angles. However, now that they cannot be fed by Xavi they have one less permutation of moves to compute and accordingly one less set of options for Alonso to consider for the longer pass. And logically this reduced window of movement among the Spanish forwards comes as a considerable relief to the opponent’s marking scheme. With fewer dangers to calculate and now facing a less strenuous mental burden, the opponent can now choose to focus on thwarting other passing options or getting tight on other players deep into the Spanish midfield. Capello’s England players gave us an effective demonstration of this at Wembley on Saturday.
In attempting to draw conclusion from all this, the danger would be for Del Bosque to identify poor individual form or even to signal subpar motivation as impediments to Spain performing well in place of something more structural.
Spain is currently achieving the laudable feat of fielding three of the world’s iconic midfielders and somehow conspiring to render each one uncomfortable and less effective in the presence of one another.
Surely they owe it to themselves and their footballing capabilities to do better?