By Dermot Corrigan
While most observers outside Spain saw their opening 1-1 draw with Italy as a decent performance and result between two sides likely to go far at Euro 2012, it was greeted with some dismay back in Madrid. The main complaint was over coach Vicente Del Bosque’s decision to play Cesc Fábregas up front as a ‘false nine’, leaving out all three recognised centre-forwards in his squad – Fernando Torres, Fernando Llorente and Álvaro Negredo.
Fábregas has experience playing a similar role at club level for Barcelona, but never for his country, and the system was not trialled in Spain’s warm-up games before the tournament. He looked comfortable in the role though, linking cleverly throughout with team-mates Andrés Iniesta and David Silva. This combination even lead to Spain’s equaliser, with the ex-Arsenal man rifling in a shot after a build-up involving Iniesta and Silva.
It was not a complete success though. The Italians surprised many themselves with a very confident, impressive performance and a lot of Spain’s attacks took place in front of the azzurri’s three-man defence. Del Bosque recognised this and sent on Torres at 1-1. The game opened up and the Chelsea striker (and fellow sub Jesús Navas) gave the Italians more problems with their pace and directness. With more composure el Niño could easily have won the game for his side, but a draw was a fair result.
As neutrals admired a high quality group game between two potential challengers for the title, most Spanish pundits saw a disappointing failure. AS editor Alberto Relaño criticised Del Bosque for not knowing his best team or shape going into the tournament. Former Spain boss (and Euro 2008) winner Luís Aragones was even less impressed: “Obviously I respect the coach’s decision, but I would have played with a centre forward,” he wrote in Marca.
Real Madrid manager José Mourinho, analysing the game for Al-Jazeera, also grabbed the opportunity to implicitly criticise what was seen as a Barcelona-style approach from Del Bosque.
“The constant passing between Xavi, Iniesta and Fábregas is useless if you do not create danger in Italy’s box,” said Mourinho. “Spain’s midfield played really well, but the team was sterile without a striker.”
The media agenda was thus set for the build-up to Thursday’s second game against Ireland. Players were asked about the ‘false-nine’ system in every interview, and Spain’s daily sports papers and websites devoted plenty of space to the debate. The idea was floated that the Barcelona contingent in the squad had pressured Del Bosque into finding a place in the team for Fábregas. It was also suggested that Del Bosque had made the decision as he is too wedded the idea of playing both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in deep midfield and / or was loathe to drop David Silva, who reacted badly to being sidelined during the last World Cup.
Spain’s players – including Fábregas – all agreed that they thought they had played well, that the system had worked fine. On Tuesday Busquets mused to journalists about a lack of patience from those around the squad and he had a case. Spanish fans and pundits have been spoiled by four years of unprecedented success. Even as Spain won World Cup 2010, there were those – including Aragones – who felt they were too defensive and got lucky.
It does seem though this time around the critics have a better argument. Spain need to be careful of not falling into the trap of trying to copy Barcelona – for the obvious reason that Josep Guardiola designed Barca to get best out of Lionel Messi, and Messi plays for Argentina. It is difficult (and possibly foolish) to compare club and international football, but you can argue that recent Spain sides have used the understanding built-up by Xavi, Iniesta etc at club level, but built it into a more solid system – less leaky at the back, more dangerous from set-pieces, able to adapt better to any game situation.
The cleverest reaction to the Italy game might therefore be not to jump to too many conclusions. In 56 games in charge, Del Bosque has repeated his starting XI only five times. He used all his fit outfield players in South African two years ago, so we will likely see various set-ups against different opponents as the tournament progresses. The strength of Spain’s squad means there is no shortage of options.
Versus Italy the veteran coach took the opportunity to give the Fábregas ‘false-nine’ idea a go, and showed that Spain have yet another way of playing. Against Ireland it might be that the pace and direct goal-threat of Pedro Rodríguez is more useful on the wing, or that Juanfran Torres’ more attacking style is used at right-back in place of Álvaro Arbeloa. It would be no surprise to see Llorente introduced up front should a more physical presence be required. A three man defence with Juanfran and Jordi Alba as wing-backs could be needed in a later game.
While the conversation has pulsed in both Poland and Spain, Del Bosque has remained calm, as usual. He did a big interview with Spanish TV station Cuatro on Tuesday evening and denied he was angry with Aragones, Mourinho or anyone. At Wednesday’s pre-game press conference he repeated that he knew what he was doing.
“I have been around a long time, I know how these things work,” he said. “We should not be surprised. Everyone gives their opinion, but I am the one who has to make the decision.”
Del Bosque sounds sure he knows what he is doing, and he will need to be. Should Spain not beat Ireland and go on to win Euro 2012, and secure Spain a record third consecutive major international tournament, it is clear who will get the blame.