False nine is still the magic number for Spain
AS usual, they passed and passed, and waited and waited, stubbornly resisting the temptation to hurl the ball into the penalty box, where there were no team-mates anyway. Spain made it into the semi-finals of Euro 2012 last night with another of those trademark performances that are threatening to give strikers a bad name.
For the second time in these finals, there was no Fernando Torres in the starting line-up, no striker at all actually, but it made not a jot of difference to Vicente del Bosque’s principled team who stuck to their strengths and, despite a rally by their opponents in the second half, picked and probed their way to a first competitive victory against France. It wasn’t a commanding performance, but the defending champions retained their composure throughout, and did all they needed to do, namely convert a couple of their few clearcut chances. Both were scored by Xabi Alonso, the second a soft penalty late in a pedestrian game that rarely lived up to its billing.
Torres only appeared as a late substitute, but they didn’t need him. For the striker whose loss of form since a £50 million move to Chelsea 17 months ago is the biggest mystery in football, it was another slap in the face, the like of which he has grown accustomed to lately.
Some argue that it doesn’t say much for Torres, or indeed Spain’s other forwards, if Del Bosque prefers none of them to the injured David Villa, but the Spain coach likes his so-called ‘false nine’, a strategy in which the centre-forward is sacrificed in favour of deep-lying players whose unpredictable runs are more difficult to track.
This, of course, was the philosophy for which Craig Levein was ridiculed when he set up Scotland in a 6-4-0 formation against the Czech Republic in qualifying. The national coach rolls his eyes on each occasion that his tactics in that 1-0 defeat are dredged up, insisting that they will soon be commonplace at international level. He, for one, was doubtless gratified to see it repeated in Donetsk last night, as was Cesc Fabregas, the Barcelona midfielder who found himself, for the second time in these finals, playing up “front” for Spain. Many have questioned Spain’s approach these last couple of weeks, arguing that tiki-taka is all very well, but where is the penetration? Where are the runs in behind? There is no point in using withdrawn forwards to pull out defenders, if the midfield players are not driving into the space created. This, of course, was the kind of criticism levelled at Arsenal when they played some of the best football in the Barclays Premier League.
Spain, though, qualified from Group C by scoring six and conceding only one, which puts into perspective suggestions that they have been labouring through the foothills of this championship. Only 20 minutes of this one were required to provide more evidence that they are not doing a lot wrong. Alonso, earning his 100th cap, did exactly what his strikerless team required by timing a run into the empty box and planting a downward header past Hugo Llloris. In keeping with the plan, Fabregas twice set up the onrushing Andres Iniesta in a one-sided first half, but the latter failed on both occasions to get his shot away.
Spain’s approach is nothing new to students of the game’s tactical nuances, who must wonder why it is that a team is expected to have a “target man”. The ‘false nine’ has been dabbled with for decades. When Carlos Tevez used to drop deep for Manchester United, they were dragging defenders all over the place, allowing Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo to capitalise at will. There is evidence from the 1920s, in central Europe and South America, of centre-forwards adopting a withdrawn position.
France, it has to be said, did not help themselves last night, especially when Florent Malouda failed to track Alonso for the goal, but there were signs early in the second half of the purpose they had hitherto lacked. Spain were even knocked from their stride for a spell, most notably when Mathieu Debuchy headed on to the roof of the net.
Their growing need for an equaliser eventually persuaded Del Bosque to at last throw on Torres, mindful perhaps that the game was stretched. He had one sniff of goal when he found himself one-on-one with the keeper, but the flag was raised for offside, and the chance to land a blow for strikers around the world was gone.
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 17 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 10 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east