From the publishers of THE HINDU

VOL.33 :: NO.29 :: Jul. 22, 2010

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COVER STORY

Touch, technique triumph

Spain's success at Euro 2008 and South Africa 2010 might well obviate the need for physically imposing midfield ‘enforcers.' Coaches will have to rethink their approach to the game, and scouts will be forced to look for small, nimble youngsters instead of unforgiving battering rams, writes Karthik Krishnaswamy.

How will football fans of the future remember Spain's class of 2010? Narratives are already being spun of La Furia Roja's World Cup saga, layered with equal measures of insight and distortion.

In the core of it all is the disturbing contradiction between two quantities — possession and goals scored. How can a group of players with such an innate feel for the ball and such an understanding of the space and geometry of a football pitch find the net so infrequently?

Spain's tally of eight goals is the fewest by any World Cup winning side. Of the three teams who shared the previous record of 11, only the 1994 Brazilians played as many as Spain's seven matches.

But it would be simplistic to hold this statistic up as evidence for an overtly cautious approach and to use goals alone as a barometer of attacking intent. Spain shot more often than any other team in the tournament — 121 shots attempted — to Germany and Uruguay's 102 (all three teams played an equal number of matches). Of these shots, Spain struck 58 from outside the penalty area to Germany's 36, repudiating the idea that its approach isn't direct enough.

To take more wind out of that theory, the Spanish delivered 61 passes into the penalty area to Germany's 40 and 162 crosses to Germany's 134. The Netherlands, the runner-up, doesn't figure in this discussion because statistically it is far short of either Spain or Germany.

The patchy scoring touch of some of its players, notably Fernando Torres, explains in part Spain's lack of goals. The Liverpool striker looked every inch a player coming into the tournament on the back of a knee surgery, and provided little of his customary thrust.

But the more significant factor behind Spain's inability to sweep through teams was the nature of opposition it encountered. Barring Chile in its final group match, not one of Spain's opponents attempted to fight fire with fire. Every team it encountered in the knockout stages — Portugal, Paraguay, Germany and the Netherlands — wielded CO2 extinguishers instead.

In footballing terms, they sat deep, compressed the space between defence and midfield and hoped to eke something out on the counterattack. This, most managers resignedly understand, is the pragmatic approach.

In the final, the Netherlands took it a step further, and systematically fouled the Spaniards. Its holding midfielders set the tone early — Mark van Bommel scythed down Xavi Hernandez from behind, Nigel de Jong stuck his studs in Xabi Alonso's chest.

In all, referee Howard Webb flourished eight yellow cards at the Dutch, of which he directed two at defender John Heitinga. Five Spaniards also went into his book.

It was by no means a beautiful final, and perhaps not a great final either, were we to view it through conventional lenses, and measure it against West Germany's 3-2 versus Hungary. But anyone who expects a World Cup final to produce an end-to-end goal fest is a little naive. It can happen, even against the will of the most negative coaches, but only if circumstances permit it, least of all an early goal.

This didn't happen, but the game was enthralling nonetheless. Chances materialised at both ends. Arjen Robben broke free twice, Sergio Ramos and Joris Mathijsen misdirected free headers, and David Villa and Cesc Fabregas had odds-on efforts denied by Maarten Stekelenburg.

Amidst all this, the game was a hothouse of personalities. The pantomime villainy of van Bommel, the petulance of Robben, the earnestness of Dirk Kuyt, the trickery and theatrics of Iniesta, the sheer shagginess of Carles Puyol's hair.

Puyol is often held up as something of a misfit in this sophisticated Spanish outfit, a hardy, no-nonsense defender often given back-handed tributes such as “he would be a perfect signing for an English club.”

And yet, the spirit of Captain Caveman (he is so nicknamed for his resemblance to the eponymous cartoon character) suffuses the entire Spanish unit.

Despite their struggles to break past stubborn defences, despite all the persistent fouling they have encountered, the Spaniards have put their heads down and persevered redoubtably, making yet another neat pass, moving diligently into space to receive the ball again, and pressing opponents doggedly on the rare occasion when the ball is lost. Xavi and Iniesta, for instance, aren't just waif-like technical wizards but are also among the most hard-working players in the world, constantly totalling the most distances run per game. In the final, the two Barcelona midfielders were the only players on the pitch to cover more than 14km.

These two players, even more than the serial goalscorer David Villa, will surely come to symbolise Spain's breakthrough era under Luis Aragones and Vicente del Bosque.

These two midfield midgets are products of a philosophy that reveres touch and technique above all else, a courageous, against-the-grain stand in an age in which even Brazil has succumbed to the call of physicality and athleticism.

Since USA '94, the Selecao has never featured cultured deep-lying midfielders, and has relied instead on pairs of destroyers stretching from Dunga and Mauro Silva to Gilberto Silva and Felipe Melo.

This approach has affected nearly every other team. England has struggled to replace Paul Scholes after his premature retirement, Italy has searched fruitlessly for heirs to Andrea Pirlo and Francesco Totti. Scouts have for long trawled Africa in search of physically imposing midfield ‘enforcers', with the result that the dominant prototype of African football is now Michael Essien rather than Jay-Jay Okocha.

Spain's success at Euro 2008 and South Africa 2010 might well change all that. Coaches will have to rethink their approach to the game, and scouts will be forced to look for small, nimble youngsters instead of unforgiving battering rams.



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