Euro 2012: A Spanish Wrap

July 6, 2012
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Euro 2012 has come to an end and it was pretty good viewing for fans of each nation and neutrals alike. It will in all likelihood be the last of its kind as Michel Platini and his UEFA counterparts are looking to revamp the entire tournament in a way to maximise profit. The tournament will expand to 24 teams next time around, which means that half of Europe will be able to qualify for the 2016 tournament. Therefore basically every noteworthy nation in Europe will be there, heavily diluting the quality.

As things stand there are very few blowouts at the Euros (other than this year’s final!) because the playing field is quite level, more so than the World Cup or perhaps even the South American Championships, but with the huge influx of teams there are bound to be some drubbings. The other option being tossed about is to have the whole continent host the tournament rather than one or two host nations. This will make the tournament cheaper to run for the hosts as they will not have to update their stadia or transportation for the large amount of fans travelling, but the downside to this is that the fans won’t be mixing together in their little tournament communities as they have at every major soccer tournament for the past seven decades, simply flying to the respective cities where their team is playing rather than all packing into a few cities. There are pros and cons to each side, but that is the way UEFA is taking it.

Looking back at Euro 2012, one must dissect the work done by repeat champions Spain and how they have managed to conquer Europe again. In the final Spain produced their best performance with Cesc Fabregas restored to his false nine position, which at the beginning of the tournament seemed like lunacy but now in hindsight appears to have worked rather well. Fabregas was probably not even the false nine we all believed him to be, as he did not drop deep and simply played like and made the runs of an actual center forward – very successful in doing so. Italy on the other hand were outclassed and unfortunate.

Giorgio Chiellini started at left back, which was unfortunate for the excellent Federico Balzaretti with Ignazio Abate returning from injury to reclaim his spot at right-back. This proved to be a mistake on multiple levels by Cesare Prandelli: to begin with Chiellini did not have the pace to keep up with the pace of David Silva or Andres Iniesta and his distribution going forward was utterly wasteful – injured after 20 minutes, it was unfortunate to waste a substitute so early in the game but Balzaretti was able to rightly come on and play a much better game. These early substitutes would come back to haunt Italy though.

The main question asked of Spain’s formation other than the lack of a striker was where would the width come from? Jesus Navas came on a few times to great effect and there was some talk before the match started that he could replace Xavi to create more work down the flanks, so Silva and Iniesta could drift inside as they like to do. This however was not a problem as Italy also play very narrow with a midfield packed full of central players, and starting with Chiellini and Abate as full-backs was never going to be as adventurous or fluid going forward as Spain’s Alvaro Arbeloa and Jordi Alba.

Xavi rightfully started the match and proceeded to break his own record for most passes in the tournament, outshining his Italian rival Andrea Pirlo. The Juventus player was very tightly marked all over the field by the high pressing style of Spain, which nullified his impact on the game much more than the Germans or English were able to do. In all fairness to Pirlo however, he is likely the best deep-lying playmaker of this generation and the only thing he lacks is other similar players to himself in his squads. Xavi and Iniesta have each other to play off of they excel for Barcelona and Spain, while Pirlo has all the playmaking responsibilities on his shoulders for club and country, so when he is marked tightly the whole team suffers. Credit must be given to Xavi as well for keeping an eye on Pirlo as in the group stage match between these two sides he sat very deep, and Pirlo was allowed too much space as Xavi, Sergio Busquets, and Xabi Alonso were all essentially playing the same position.

In the final however, Xavi pushed forward and played just behind Fabregas, which allowed to him be more involved in the build up play but also to track Pirlo at all times and not allow him any space while sitting deep. This caused Daniele De Rossi to drop back and spray balls forward, which Italy wanted Pirlo to do and it changed both of their roles. Spain managed to do in the final what everyone had been looking to them to accomplish all tournament – quickfire attacks of one touch football, rather than the slow build up of keep-ball. The Portuguese managed to mark the Spanish players one-to-one, while the Italians tried to use their diamond to stifle their creative players but this tactic had no luck for the Azzurri. Riccardo Montolivo, who did such a good job of closing down Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger against Germany, couldn’t get close to Alonso or Busquets, and tired himself come the hour mark, which lead to the final fatal substitution for Prandelli.

Because De Rossi was back in aid of Pirlo, Alvaro Arbeloa was free to break forward from his right full-back position and consistently open. He played far up the pitch in most of Spain’s games at Euro 2012 to great effect, and it was a diagonal pass to the right from Alonso that started the play for Silva’s opening goal. On the left, Claudio Marchisio played wider to cover the threat of Jordi Alba’s lung busting runs forward, but even he couldn’t stop the speed Alba showed to score Spain’s second goal before half time. Barcelona’s new left-back was one of Spain’s most important players throughout the tournament as his direct running was a great compliment to the tiki-taka build up from the rest of the side. With Montolivo tiring and Di Natale coming on for Cassano at half time, Cesare Prandelli made his final substitute on 60 minutes, bringing on Thiago Motta.

Motta lasted only five minutes on the pitch before he had to be stretchered off after pulling a hamstring, which ended his tournament and Italy’s sooner than planned. With Italy staring defeat in the face at 2-0 down and Spain looking as bright and confident as they had all tournament, Motta leaving the field, reducing Italy to 10 men for the final half hour, ensured the game was no longer a contest or a spectacle. Spain simply needed to retain the ball for the rest of the match against a tired and sorry looking bunch of Italians who clearly wanted the whistle to blow 15 minutes before time. Substitutes Juan Mata and Fernando Torres each scored to make the final score 4-0, which was a bit hard on Italy.

In the lead up to the final, Spain easily brushed aside a French which played to stifle Spain rather than outscore them (as out possessing them is not an option for many or any teams). Defender Mathieu Debuchy was started at right midfield to man-mark Jordi Alba, which gave Anthony Reveillere his first start at right back for the French. France manager Laurent Blanc’s plan must have been nullify the man who gives Spain their width so the Spanish team would become overcrowded in midfield. Not a bad plan but one that did not work at first, as it was Debuchy’s slip that allowed Jordi Alba to cross for Xabi Alonso’s first goal to put Spain up 1-0. A loss of footing cannot be blamed on the manager, but it was this pre-match tactical decision that will reflect on Blanc’s entire tournament, which turned out to be his last as manager of France, resigning shortly after France’s departure amidst unrest in the squad and petty squabbling by young players such as Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez.

It is important to mention how on the other side of the pitch Alvaro Arveloa went unmarked as Franck Ribery stayed high up the pitch, with Busquets shuttling over to cover the right back position when Arbeloa went forward. So with the game plan for France being to stop Jordi Alba’s runs forward, which worked for the most part, Arbeloa became the key wide man going forward. With Carles Puyol injured before the tournament started, Sergio Ramos had to move into the center of defence alongside Gerard Pique, which left many seeing Alvaro Arbeloa as the weak link at the back but that was far from correct. Not only did the former Liverpool and current Real Madrid player have an excellent tournament with his high positions up the right side of the field, but Ramos was one of the best defenders of Euro 2012 in the middle of the back line.

Blanc could not afford to play two defensive players out wide, so perhaps he should have scrapped the idea altogether. As things stood Ribery was already marked by Busquets, leaving the lone striker Karim Benzema stranded in the middle with no real way of turning France’s all out defense into attack. Yohan Cabaye was tracking the central Spanish midfielders and Florent Malouda, normally a winger, continued in a central role where he seemed to have no defined position or tactical awareness.

It was interesting that after playing with six midfielders for the whole tournament, Spain’s manager Vicente Del Bosque decided to drop Fabregas for the semi-final game against Portugal in favour of a striker in Alvaro Negredo. If he was to choose a striker this decision made sense for him, as Fernando Llorente is the most physical and Torres is the quickest but Negredo could link play. Unfortunately for the striker he was largely invisible for most of the match, as Portugal were the only team to play Spain at their own game in the tournament. Employing one-to-one marking rather than trying to assign multiple players or a diamond to take out the tiki-taka of Spain’s core worked wonders: Xavi and Xabi Alonso appeared unused to such high pressure, which meant they were unable to get good balls forward to Negredo to run onto.

What was interesting in this match regarding Arbeloa was that he was supposed to mark his club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo, but he continued his adventurous play by positioning himself high up the field, with Busquets continuing to pull across to cover. In the second half, Ronaldo and Nani switched sides and for some odd reason Arbeloa stopped pushing forward and sat back far more, changing Spain’s attacking formations. Portugal tired and pressed less, and Spain seemed too content to play keep ball , not attempting anything positive enough to create a goal. Showing little intent, not helped by striker Negredo leaving the pitch, this match is the main reason why some fans started to dub Spain boring.

Paulo Bento outclassed Del Bosque in the managing aspect of this match as the Negredo plan failed and Portugal pressed and countered Spain better than any other team, ending up unlucky to lose on penalties. Ultimately Portugal’s usual undoing was a lack of a clinical striker, although a good effort was put in by Hugo Almeida. For the third time in the tournament Spain looked good in possession but clueless in the final third of the field without a proper striker (without Negredo) , suggesting the no-striker option was not the right one only to work so elegantly in the final against Italy.

However this does make Del Bosque look less like a genius manager and more like a man with such talent in his player pool that even when he makes the wrong decision his players’ ability still comes through to win games. That may be a harsh judgment but when a manager simply fields the same team every match rather than making adjustments to his opponents it does appear to give more credit to the players, which could be said of Jogi Low of Germany as well. It must be said however that Spain’s substitutes in the second half against Portugal were very successful as they calmly went on to win the penalty shootout to reach the final.

In the group stages, managers Cesare Prandelli of Italy, Slaven Bilic of Croatia and then Paulo Bento of Portugal in the semi final all showed how to nullify the Spanish attack making it more “apparent” that Germany were likely the team to beat in this tournament before they fell to Italy in the semis. However, in the final, Spain stuck with their line up and everything clicked as they picked apart Prandelli’s Italy with ease on the second try, showing that early tournament form is not always the best basis of judgment.

Spain were the best team of the tournament and were deserved winners again. Looking back though, Spain had not won the 2010 World Cup solely with tiki-taka, they won it because they mixed that famous style with a directness and urgency coming in from the flanks. At the World Cup David Silva and Andrea Iniesta started on the right and left as they did at Euro 2012 but eventually Silva was dropped for the remainder of the tournament because they both were drifting inside to the same position too much. With Busquets, Xavi and Alonso all sitting tightly together in the center, Spain had no width going forward and were too predictable in their first match against Switzerland, dominating possession but still going on to lose 1-0. With a healthy David Villa ready to attack down the left and Fernando Torres in the center, plus quality wide substitutes in the on-form Pedro and Jesus Navas, Spain were able to switch up their attack and break teams down in different ways. Fernando Llorente even came on in the match against Portugal at the World Cup and changed the whole game, giving Spain a presence down the middle and someone to cross to – the main reason Spain progressed past Portugal to the quarter finals.

Going into Euro 2012, there was no Villa and Torres had been greatly out of form for too long, so Fabregas was slotted into that spot and was a huge success. Spain’s defence was questioned as many thought Carlos Puyol’s absence would hurt them, missing Ramos’ runs down the right after he was moved into a central pairing with Pique. Instead, Spain kept nearly every team scoreless and were head and shoulders above the next best defensive team of the tournament, which was probably Germany. Many questions were asked of Spain but somehow their team chemistry and ability still shone through to guide them to another major tournament – this time in a very different fashion than they had at World Cup 2010 or Euro 2008.

Outside of Spain, there were a lot of interesting tactics and decisions from all managers involved. The first and most talked about point was the cohesion of club teams being brought to the national sides: Italy were dominated by Juventus players, Germany by Bayern Munich, Spain had the Barcelona (and Real Madrid) connections, while Russia looked a lot like Zenit and the Czechs had a large amount of Viktoria Plzen players in their starting line up.

Every group also offered up great entertainment as each team had a mathematical chance of going through to the knock-out stages come the final match other than Sweden (whose best game came against France in that final game) and Ireland. If fans didn’t know their permutations and tie-breaker rules going into the third matches they would have been lost.

There were great perfomances from players eliminated in the first round that are still doing the rounds on YouTube such as: Lukasz Piszczek, Daniel Agger, Simon Poulsen, Luka Modric, Alan Dzagoev, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Andriy Shevchenko. That being stated, there were also some very disappointing performances from players who were expected to give impact performances at the championships, like Shay Given, Arjen Robben, Mark van Bommel, Christian Eriksen, Robin van Persie, Ashley Young and Aleksandr Kerzhakov.

Somehow Fernando Torres managed to win the Golden Boot of the tournament with three goals but he does not make my team of the tournament. My overall best players from Euro 2012 counting down from eleven are: 11. Iker Casillas  10. Phillip Lahm  9. Bastian Schweinsteiger  8. Jordi Alba  7. Xavi  6. Sergio Ramos  5. Mario Balotelli  4. Mesut Ozil  3. Andrea Pirlo  2. Cesc Fabregas  1. Andres Iniesta.

Euro 2012 facts and stats:

  • Spain have joined (West) Germany as the only country to win the European Championship three times and are the first to retain the title.
  • Spain have kept a clean sheet in their last 10 knockout matches at a Euro or World Cup. Iker Casillas has therefore not conceded a goal in Euro or World Cup KO stages for an unprecedented 990 minutes.
  • Spain have won their last 62 matches in which they scored the opening goal. The last time they lost when taking a 1-0 lead was in a 3-2 defeat at Northern Ireland in September 2006.
  • Vicente Del Bosque became the 2nd coach to win a Euro and a World Cup title, joining Helmut Schön (Euro 1972, 1974 World Cup) and the first to win those two, a Champions League and a Club World Cup.
  • Xavi is the 1st player to have an assist in 2 different European Championship finals, also assisting the Fernando Torres goal in the Euro 2008 final.
  • Iker Casillas has won 100 of his 137 international matches, becoming the first player ever to reach a century of international wins. He also holds the world record with 79 clean sheets
  • Busquets, Pedro and Piqué joined an elite group of players that have won the European Championship, FIFA World Cup, Champions Cup/Champions League and Intercontinental Cup/FIFA Club World Cup in their career. This group now contains 19 players.
  • Pedro, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, Juan Mata, Jesus Navas, Fernando Llorente, Víctor Valdés and Javi Martínez joined the list of players (23 GER, 23 ESP, 18 FRA, 1 ITA) that have won a Euro and a World Cup title.

You can read more from Jared on Field of View.

To celebrate Spain’s win and their smart possession-based game, Philosophy Football have designed a shirt mocking the team’s “boring” tag. Spelt out on the backs of 11 shirts is “SER ABURRIDO” (To be boring) sat sardonically beneath three stars, representing their 2008 and 2012 Euro wins and their 2010 World Cup win. The shirt can be found here.

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