The Spanish are the World champions and European champions. But are they the best team in the world including clubs?? The answer is NO. They would come second to FC Barcelona. The question won’t be relevant always. But it is, now, because the two teams have the same engine rooms (read Xavi and Iniesta) and play with the same philosophy. More importantly I would say no other club can beat the Spanish team and that includes Real Madrid, Manchester United and other English clubs. The same cannot be said of any other national team that I have seen and hence the question is relevant.
I recently watched the friendly England V Spain, England beating Spain 1-0 scoring of the only chance they had in the entire game. If not for the jersey colours you couldn’t tell the game from any other FC Barcelona league game. But Spain lost it while Barcelona would never have. That brings me to my question of focus –
Why Spain isn’t as good as FC Barcelona yet? An immediate answer would be- Because they don’t have Lionel Messi! Well if that is the case they will never become FC Barcelona as Messi is from Argentina. In that case why isn’t Argentina even half as good as FCB yet? Let us try answering the former question alone because answers to the latter mostly involve events off the field. If the answer is the absence of Messi alone it begs the question whether the system of play in Barcelona is really the best in the world? Can it work without the best player in the world?
The Spanish are the World champions and European champions but they simply don’t have the goals in them that FC Barcelona has. They won the World Cup with a string of 1-0 wins while the possession stat in each match was comparable to what Barcelona would have. They didn’t score many goals. They just lacked that cutting edge. True, Spain will murder lesser equipped teams. True, they created some good chances against England, which had they been taken, would have made it 2-0 or 3-0. But that would be taking false solace as teams are fast finding the way to beat Spain; whereas how to beat Barcelona has been an unanswered question for three seasons running. Add to it the fact that England did absolutely nothing on the counter attack. Teams like the Netherlands and Germany are well equipped to do much better on the counter and had Arjen Robben buried those one on one’s in the WC final we would be discussing something else now. England just sat back (parked the bus as they say), maintained their defensive shape superbly and thwarted Spain all day long. The English will rave about the win while I don’t think there’s much they can take home on the attacking front from that win. England did what Switzerland did better in the World Cup, what the Netherlands could so easily have done.
In spite of the greatest creativity on the field, Spain lack goals. The reason for that is not because they don’t have Messi. It is because they lack width as a team. They simply don’t field players who like to run on the flanks, run at the defenders to create gap between defensive lines for their forwards and attacking midfielders to exploit. They were plagued by the lack of width in the WC and not much seems to have changed, if the Engalnd friendly is anything to go by. No, I am not suggesting in the very least that they should change their formation, go 4-4-2 or anything like that. It is just that this system of Spain or Barcelona, which is outstanding, needs players who can run on the flanks to create gaps in the middle. Spain can retain the system but will need to field players who can go wide. Barcelona has so many such players who run the flanks all day, many of them even being wing backs. Daniel Alves is the first name you would mention and Arbeloa or Sergio Ramos can never match him at right back. Adriano, Maxwell and Abidal are other wing backs who derive a lot of joy attacking the opposition wing back. Jordi Alba was efficient at left back against England but will need to offer better in the attacking third. Barcelona also has players like Ibrahim Affelay and Alexis Sanchez (when fit) who can provide width every day of the week. The other player from Barcelona who can do that, who also performed spectacularly for Spain in his short stint at the WC, Pedro Rodriguez was missing from the Spanish line up surprisingly. Injured?
A look at the Spanish line up and you cannot see many players who can provide width. Vicente del Bosque has always played all the four of Busquets, Xavi, Xabi Alonso, all of them being central players. Del Bosque’s formation I would imagine is a 4-3-3 (Iniesta being a part of the front 3) and the 3 in front rotating themselves which is very much like Barcelona. The two forwards they started with were David Silva and David Villa. David Villa was a fantastic marksman for Valencia, then started playing the role of the withdrawn striker and has a penchant to cut in from the left. He often starts wide left during the play for Spain and is always going to cut in. One can seldom see him take on the defender on the outside and play a cross in, which makes it quite easy for defenders. David Silva who played on the left flank for Valencia has abandoned the position to revel in a more central role for his country as well as the new club. His exploits as a play maker at Manchester City need no mention here but he hasn’t played wide for more than three years now. The players that came on- Cesc Fabregas, another playmaker who plays centrally. Santi Cazorla is another class act, who can run the game at any top club, but another central midfielder. Juan Mata- when I saw him at Valencia three seasons back, he played on the left wing, but now runs the game at Chelsea playing more centrally. So where does the width come from? I recently came across this article where I read the term ‘Media Punta’ and how Spain is extremely gifted with so many players who run between the lines. All the players mentioned above, fall in that category. Excellent! So many players run between the lines but who pulls the lines apart? Who drags defenders wide? Anyone who watched the game can vouch that Engalnd were comfortable sitting back protecting their goal centrally and knew nothing would come in from wide. Spain derived some width out of Torres and Villa in the WC and now Silva replaces Torres. Not much difference is it?
One player I wished, would come on for Spain when they were 1-0 down against England was Jesus Navas, the gifted winger from Sevilla. Now, he is a player who can play wide and can challenge any wing back, put them to shame on his day. He showed flashes of brilliance in the WC before Pedro came on to the scene. Pedro himself is another such player for Spain. From the fantastic talent pool of the La Liga such players are bound to be found as well. If Spain is to match the higher standards of Barcelona they will have to fit in such players into the system for better execution of Plan A and more importantly to have a plan B. An immediate retro fit would be start with Pedro in place of Silva or Sergio Busquets, the latter being a more attacking option. Irrespective of what line up they start with Del Bosque has to bring these players on as impact substitutions instead of may be a Fabregas, especially when the going is tough with the opposition defending well. Spain will also need better output from their wingbacks in the attacking third. The system with which Spain plays is a fantastic one which denies the opposition of quite simply the ball itself, places deep faith in possession. But when it is only possession without clear cut chances, troubling the opposition keeper it suffocates the team and opens them up for a counter. If Spain is to conjure up goals from high percentage of possession with scores of 2-0 or better, they need to find the width to stretch defences. That is the benchmark set by FC Barcelona and till they reach that, they are not the best team in the world yet. Or Spain isn’t FC Barcelona yet.