Monday, July 1, 2013

Del Bosque selection errors cost Spain in Confederations Cup

de: Vicente del Bosque, Teamchef der Spanische...
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Spain’s glorious winning run at international tournaments came to an end once again at the Confederations Cup. While the defeat in 2009 was a genuine upset to the United States in the semi-finals, Sunday’s 3-0 loss to Brazil in this year’s final was comprehensive in nature.

First of all, credit must be given to Brazil. Roused by an unbelievably passionate home crowd at the iconic Maracana, the Selecao played with a vigour and intensity to start off the final that completely overawed Spain. After Fred’s early scrambled goal while lying on the floor, La Furia Roja simply couldn’t establish a rhythm, as Brazil were first to every ball, hounding the Spanish midfield constantly. Even after the exhilarating pace set in the first hour started to recede, the home team just seemed to have all the answers to Spain’s questions.

David Luiz executed a brilliant goal-line block when Spain seemed set to equalize through Pedro. Barely a minute later Neymar scored, and one sensed that was the decisive act of the game. Fred rounded off the scoring with his second of the game and to rub salt into Spanish wounds, Sergio Ramos missed a penalty and Gerard Pique was sent off.

Luiz Felipe Scolari deserves an immense amount of praise. Not many gave the national team much hope, but Scolari instilled belief in the team and had all his players functioning according to a well-executed plan. Nonetheless, in addition to Brazil’s players and Scolari, I believe Vicente Del Bosque also made some errors that contributed to Spain’s loss.

Spain’s attacking midfielders deservedly get a lot of plaudits for their brilliant ball retention and smart interchanging of positions in the final third. However, under Del Bosque, Spain’s midfield base plays an equally crucial role in developing the play. In fact, I would go even further in saying that in close games, the work that Xabi Alonso and Sergi Busquets do together just in front of the defence is even more significant in Spain’s dominance than the creativity of the four men ahead of them.

Alonso and Busquets are not defensive midfielders in the truest sense of the word. For starters, neither of them are particularly physical in the way they defend the ball. It’s all about positioning for the duo, often finding themselves in the right positions either covering for overlapping full-backs or as shields to the centre-backs. Furthermore, they both possess fantastic technical ability that blends well with the possession-oriented approach of the other midfielders. One could even say in a team compromising midfielders blessed with visionary passing, Alonso adds another dimension with the metronomic accuracy of his long passes. Busquets on the other hand has exceptional understanding of where his attack-minded peers are at all times, thus becoming the key master of transition for Spain. He often sets up attacks from defensive positions with one smart turn and short pass, always managing to find an open teammate in a position from which the team can capitalize.

Unfortunately, Alonso was injured for the Confederations Cup, and therein lies an illustration of how significant a role he plays in tandem with Busquets. Both complement each other so well, that in the absence of one, the others effectiveness is reduced by a fair margin. In fact, even in Spain’s insipid World Cup qualifying draw at home against France, they were effected by only Alonso playing as Busquets was injured.

Del Bosque made a significant oversight in Alonso’s absence. In stead of finding another partner alongside Busquets, the manager in stead tinkered with his formation further up the field. This compromised Spain’s defensive solidity.While Alonso certainly was a big loss, Del Bosque had in his squad a cerebral midfielder who just finished a magnificent season for Bayern Munich in Javi Martinez. Calm and languid in possession, and a brilliant reader of the game, Martinez could also have added a physical dimension to Spain’s play in both attack and defence.

Another mistake that Del Bosque made was abandoning his ‘false nine’ philosophy and his 4-6-0 formation that was such a success in winning the European Championship last year. In mitigation, Cesc Fabregas was carrying a niggle throughout the tournament, and David Silva has just come off a poor season for Manchester City. I can understand Del Bosque’s hesitance in playing the two, however once again he had replacements to fit the formation, rather than discarding the tactical make-up altogether.

Del Bosque got one piece of the jigsaw right in selecting Pedro. Pedro never wasted possession, and was always a goal threat even when Spain were playing with ten men. However, the selection of the other two in the front three was erroneous to say the least. Juan Mata is an extremely gifted player, and at Chelsea he is easily the most technical player who sets up load of chances. I would argue that in the national team, he is more effective as an option from the bench, with his penchant for trickery in the box unlocking defences. However, for a whole 90 minutes his game doesn’t always translate well to Spain’s fluency of possession. Del Bosque missed a trick over here by overlooking Santi Cazorla completely. The Arsenal man could have floated effortlessly on either wing or in the hole just ahead of Xavi. An attempt at integrating the pace of Jesus Navas from the beginning could also have served as an effective tool for Spain to establish a sphere of dominance on the field against Marcelo and David Luiz on the left side of Brazil’s defence.

Finally, and possibly the biggest selection error by the manager was his faith in Fernando Torres. Torres is not the forward he once was, and having a good scoring record in the Europa League simply cannot be the criteria for a player to be a part of the Spanish national team. In fact, even if Torres was displaying his best form, his style negates the strengths of Spain’s midfield. Often ceding possession from areas of strength, and choosing the wrong option numerous times, Torres simply wasn’t on the same wavelength as the rest of his teammates, and this had an obvious negative effect on the collective performance of the team.

Even if Del Bosque does want to play with a striker every now and then to ensure Spain have tactical flexibility and versatility of options, I would argue Torres shouldn’t be in the squad. As David Villa and Roberto Soldado are more accustomed to playing comfortably in a possession based approach at club level they are simply better fits. In fact, even players who were not a part of the squad, such as Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo and Michu would have integrated better into the attack.

Notwithstanding the tactical issues of Del Bosque’s recent selections, the manager should not rest on the laurels of familiarity and loyalty either. It’s very easy to remain loyal to players that have won 2 Euros and a World Cup. However, it would serve the manager and the team well for Del Bosque to ensure that no player in the team takes his place for granted. It’s often remarked that a reserve side for Spain could just as easily win an international trophy with the talent they have.

It might be a good idea for Del Bosque to try and integrate some of these reserves more often. Especially as many of them are amongst the best performers for their teams at club level and have been more consistent domestically than the incumbents. The aforementioned duo of Javi Martinez and Santi Cazorla would be a good place to start. Nacho Monreal and Cesar Azpilicueta should challenge Jordi Alba and Alvaro Arbeloa for the fullback positions. A look at integrating some of the stars of youth teams would be a decent move as well. Isco has been the star at Malaga for a whole season, and could easily fit into the team, providing the attack with thrust without compromising on either possession or flair.

Even the captain Iker Casillas should ideally be challenged more often. While Saint Iker might have come out on top in the media war against Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, I think the former manager might have proved a point in dropping Casillas as his replacement Diego Lopez was comfortably an upgrade for Los Blancos, putting in some stellar man of the match performances. As a proven performer for his club, Lopez should be a part of the squad. As should the improving David De Gea. It reflects poorly on the national squad that along with Casillas, the back-ups Victor Valdes and Pepe Reina also have had average seasons recently. Lopez and De Gea can shake things up and even inspire Casillas to get better.

One poor result cannot undermine the brilliance of Spain on the international stage in the last six years. At the end of the day, the Confederations Cup is ranked lowest amongst international trophies, a glorified tournament that essentially serves as a countdown to the real deal a year later. Nonetheless, the tournament served some purpose for Spain. They had a chance to acclimatize to Brazil, with long journeys between the venues and significantly a peak at the varying climates in the different regions of what is a huge country. Perhaps, they also won’t be overawed by the home crowd this time next year if they are to face Brazil in a knockout fixture again.

Ultimately though, the most important lessons are learnt on the field, and as Del Bosque himself admitted sometimes its good to lose so that you don’t believe in invincibility. Lest we forget, Del Bosque is a manager who has won the Champions League twice along with winning the World Cup and Euros as national manager. If he stays true to his tactical philosophy, makes the right choices and ensures players are selected on form, then Vicente Del Bosque might yet lead Spain to glory by successfully defending the World Cup next year in Brazil.
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