Monday 21 January 2019

Paul Hayward: Everyone's a striker in Spain's slick coronation as they prove critics wrong with sublime performance

In total control: Cesc Fabregas helped lead the Spanish attack
In total control: Cesc Fabregas helped lead the Spanish attack

Paul Hayward

COME on, be serious: if you are going to field half a dozen midfielders they might as well be Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas and David Silva. There are several strikers inside that silky six, fighting to get out.

A goalscorer found his way to the surface in Silva, all right, as the world and European champions stunned Italy, dumping the reticence of their first five games and attacking mightily. After Silva played fox-in-the-box for their first on 13 minutes, the left-back, Jordi Alba, sprinted half the length of the pitch to meet an exquisite pass from Xavi and double the lead.

With no forwards in the starting XI, Vicente Del Bosque came up with the novel idea of making everyone a striker. What a future Alba, a converted winger, has at Barcelona. Italy, a team of great resolve, claimed 53 per cent of the first half-possession and slugged their way back into the match, but Spain’s shock-tactics were overwhelming them as this historic encounter reached the halfway stage.

With chins raised and chests puffed, Spain refused even to understand the allegation that they turned boring in Poland and Ukraine, interpreting every question on that subject as meaning, “Isn’t it time someone else won something — to provide a bit of variety?”

In fact the accusation was about tedium: ball circulation for its own sake, in a team without strikers. But the Spanish simply refused to hear it, and sent out a 4-6-0 formation as they sought to become the first team in history to win three consecutive tournaments. With his brilliant surge, Alba might have been David Villa, who watched from the stands alongside Carlos Puyol. Spain were without their best striker and senior defender for the whole of this championship.

It was Arsène Wenger who pinned the “sterile domination” label on Barcelona. Before this final he went one better, accusing Spain of “betraying their philosophy” with false No 9s and teams who can pass forever but never shoot.

As if to prove that football’s greatest minds often diverge, Cesare Prandelli, praised Italy’s opponents for “staying true to their philosophy”. Wenger was not predicting an Italian victory, merely expressing the frustration of those who felt Spain had fallen from the path of righteousness.

“These guys are more than outstanding footballers; they are really intelligent and they are winners. I want to give them credit for that. However, they have betrayed their philosophy and turned it into something more negative,” Wenger told Eurosport.

“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.

“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. That’s the impression you get from Euro 2012.

“Yes, it can be hard to break down defensive opponents, but this is a challenge that confronts every successful team. They are still absolutely outstanding, but they have less penetration than before.”

The summer’s last great contest turned that charge on its head. Maybe Spanish pride was pricked; perhaps they planned it all along. We know one thing: these are some of the greatest players ever to have played the game, and they know how to confront a challenge, how to adapt, how to lay a trap.

The triumphs of 2008 and 2010 have instilled in them a profound confidence. People though they might be at the end of a cycle. Instead the likes of Silva, Fabregas and Alba have come in to add fresh momentum.

Spain reduced their entire forward line to spectators at the feast. But Del Bosque never saw it that way. He said before the game: “We will play with three attackers, that’s for sure. There will be three men in the front who will be responsible for attacking. Each member of the team has his own mission. Of course there will be people in front and people in the defence.”

Xavi joined in: “We want to play a spectacular game. I think the Spanish team and Italy want to play an attractive game. We want to attack more.”

If only every press conference yielded such clues. Not that people took much notice. Xavi has a taste for artistic rhetoric. It sounded like another of his Catalan manifesto speeches. Instead it was Spain’s declaration: no more Mr Nice guy. Passing across the pitch was now passé.

Spain would pass straight down it. They would probe and push, turn the ball round corners and stop Italy falling back on catenaccio.

All the while there was that cruel Spanish game of showing the opponent the ball and persuading him that he might snatch it, then flicking it away at the last moment to start another move. Beautiful sadism, you could call it. Equally merciless was the hamstring injury that drove Thiago Motta off the pitch four minutes after he came on for Ricardo Montolivo, thus reducing Italy to 10.

The sweet harmony of Spain’s passing continued, with Barcelona’s Pedro invading Italy’s left flank, in place of Silva. History’s end-of-empire obsession pushed some down the path of thinking 'tiki taka’ was being swallowed up by time, and the tactical ripostes of others. There was supporting evidence in Real Madrid’s conquest of Barcelona in La Liga.

But the trick, plainly, is to have a brilliant idea and stick to it, so that emerging players know the vocabulary and the aim.

So Sergio Busquets, Alba, Silva and Fàbregas join a show they already know from the country’s junior teams. They have the technique, they know the religion. All they they need then is the mental strength to cope with the pressure of football at this level.

Alba has it. Silva displays it daily at Manchester City. This was an emphatic response to those rumours of decline.

They even sent on a striker to score their third: Fernando Torres. This magnificent team shared the love around.

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