The Spain squad marvel at another snappy headline from The Mambo…
So Spain are ‘boring.’ Of course, success often breeds contempt but boredom? Frankly, the mind boggles. The argument seemingly (and bafflingly) goes that such is their dominance, such is their superiority and such is their excellence that the game’s innate ebb and flow is negated. The result becomes inevitable. Spain’s control of possession becomes boring. Soporific. An end in itself. The spectacle suffers as the Spaniards’ stultifying stranglehold of the ball, supposedly in ‘non-threatening’ areas, starves matches of incident; sterilising their emotional charge.
What’s more, technical excellence, composure and understanding of the game are dismissed as traits admired only by self-consciously trendy football hipsters, late converts to a once-great sport as it slides sombrely to non-contact status. True, their triumphs have been marked by a procession of single-goal victories whilst performances have at times given the impression of a team rarely moving out of 2nd or 3rd gear, rarely seeking incision but is that not only further testament to their quality? Such accusations may have become more prevalent during Euro 2012 and admittedly, Spain at times may have at least appeared to be playing within themselves but the ravages of form and fatigue, not forgetting their adversaries’ determination to claim a prestigious scalp can surely apportion the majority of the blame. The absurdity of such accusations is amplified further by the question of why would Spain deliberately seek for their fate to hang on a knife-edge? If indeed, it would be so straight-forward for them to unshackle and run amok, why refrain? Clearly, it would not have been. The counter-argument proposed so often and so tediously that their opponents, handcuffed by fear and pessimism, refused them the space to play may seem an insufficiently dreary excuse but it does however retain the ring of truth.
Cries of negativity were exacerbated by Vicente Del Bosque’s reluctance to field a recognised striker, with David Silva and particularly, Cesc Fabregas positioned as a ‘false 9.’ Still, the lack of a focal point does not necessarily equate to conservatism, as Del Bosque’s interpretation of the role differs wildly from that which brought Scotland manager Craig Levein such justified derision. True, Spain’s wealth of playmakers perhaps costs them variety but in the absence of established, exceptional performers like David Villa and Carles Puyol, a desire for yet further control of possession can be explained. Whilst this may constitute a slight shift in emphasis from previous tournaments, Spain’s philosophy remained utterly unscathed; their faith in the system remained unswerving even amidst swathes of (often ridiculous) criticism.
That faith would be wonderfully rewarded in Spain’s emphatic evisceration of a forlorn Italy in the final. Xavi Hernández, by his imperious standards so subdued hitherto, once more stepped forward on the grandest of stages to deliver 2 sublime assists whilst Fabregas, formerly the archetypal playmaker, displayed admirable versatility to fulfil his forward brief flawlessly. With Andrés Iniesta typically sensational, Sergio Ramos’ Herculean shifting inside as Puyol’s replacement and Jordi Alba offering the dynamism many accused Spain of lacking, they presented a performance for the ages. Contrarily, detractors clung doggedly to their grievances. The perfection of Spain’s 4-0 win, came the claim, validates their condemnation; the sense of frustration borne of the knowledge that this is what the Iberians are capable of if only they had the desire.
Inevitably, it’s not so simple. In Italy, Spain encountered an opponent buoyed by a glorious defeat of Germany the previous round and one growing in confidence in their own ability to attack teams and control the play, especially with Andrea Pirlo in magisterial form. As such, their coach Cesare Prandelli, possibly influenced by the consensus labelling Spain’s displays as somewhat lacklustre, opted not to defend and counter but to indulge a spirit of adventure. The Italian had done brilliantly in steering a talented though unfancied and out-of-form squad to the final, particularly in the context of the latest match-fixing scandal engulfing calico but in a pure footballing contest, there was only ever one likely winner. The gulf is just too vast. Spain’s technical and tactical mastery in conjunction with their selfless team ethic and unyielding devotion to a clear, fixed identity has them light-years ahead of the field. Relentless glory may bring the sting of bitterness but this is not the dour domination of Steve Davis or Pete Sampras. This is an astonishing amalgamation of great individuals into a seemingly invincible whole. This is what the game has been waiting for. This is the pinnacle of sporting excellence. The finest international side of their age are now unquestioned immortals and given the depth of talent at their disposal and relative youth of their first team, surely their sights must be set on retaining the World Cup in Brazil.
Player of the Tournament – Andrés Iniesta
Yes, Andrea Pirlo was at times majestic and arguably even more decisive but Iniesta was consistently excellent. Perhaps awarding an attacking player without a single goal to his name as the tournament’s standout appears a curious choice but whilst Iniesta doesn’t quite embody Spain’s philosophy quite so perfectly as Xavi Hernández, his fingerprints were all over much of what was so impressive about their play. Intelligent, selfless, technically flawless and surely the game’s most effortless, elegant exponent; no praise is too high for Barcelona’s diminutive schemer.
Most over-rated player of the tournament – Cristiano Ronaldo
Despite a strong claim from Mario Balotelli (1 decisive game seemingly eclipsing weeks of profligacy), this is The Mambo and in honesty, Ronaldo’s name was all over this before a ball was kicked. Seriously, the Portuguese could’ve emulated Michel Platini’s performances in 1984 and these pages would cheerfully highlight flies in the ointment. Nevertheless, one exceptional performance against a ragged Netherlands team beset by disharmony followed by a goal against a tame Czech Republic and an abject showing in his nation’s meeting with Denmark and anonymous outings versus Germany and Spain are ignored by so many. He shall forever remain a player driven by ego and athleticism whilst his taste for power over precision continues to expose his limitations. The telling statistic that Ronaldo has now fired off 70 shots from outside the box in major finals without registering a goal underlines his lack of game understanding and contempt for team ethic. A myth and a charlatan.
Most disappointing player – Christian Eriksen
Denmark may have drawn the short-straw as the least deadly in the group of death and whilst their displays earned much of the squad admiration, precocious playmaker Christian Eriksen was largely invisible. Entering the Euros as the Eredivisie’s Player of the Season and with a clutch of prominent admirers keen to tempt him from Ajax, the man touted as his nation’s greatest talent since the peerless Michael Laudrup was a wild disappointment. In a squad high on endeavour yet lacking in imagination, the platform was provided for the 20 year-old to exhibit his skills but instead he left eclipsed by Martin Krohn-Deli, a journeyman forward who had failed earlier in his career at the very club where his most hotly-touted teammate is now flourishing.
Manager of the tournament – Vicente Del Bosque
Italy’s Cesare Prandelli may present a strong claim and his side contributed much to proceedings, involved as they were in perhaps the competition’s finest matches – their defeat of Germany sandwiched between 2 encounters with Spain. In the latter of those 2 however, Vicente Del Bosque’s claim became impregnable. Viciously condemned alternatively for not fielding a centre forward, his insistence on playing Sergio Busquets, Xavi and Xabi Alonso and for his perceived pragmatism despite the lavish talents at his disposal, Del Bosque in his uniquely humble, understated way, simply stayed true to his vision and was rewarded handsomely. Croatia and Portugal may have rattled Spain and their play wasn’t always as sparklingly fluent as expected but the stats will show his side were superior in just about every aspect of the game whilst the history books will record him amongst the greats.
Most over-loved team – Germany
Germany were of course, the neutrals’ sweethearts. Youthful, dynamic and allegedly attacking, it was oh-so-fashionable to tip Joachim Low’s charges for glory. Still, as previously covered, inconvenient truths were wilfully neglected. This vintage was essentially the team of 2010 that were so comprehensively outplayed by Spain plus Mats Hummels. Hummels is a fine player who accordingly enjoyed a fine tournament but his nation’s forwards, whilst intelligent (Lukas Podolski excepted) and offering great movement, aren’t great technicians, the brilliant Mesut Ozil aside. They may have moved on from the excessively counter-attacking philosophy of 2 years ago but Low’s pragmatism in the Italy game perhaps betrayed an awareness of his players’ weaknesses against technically superior opponents and they were deservingly defeated.
Most disappointing team – Russia
The Dutch may have been poor but then, with Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong paired in central midfield, what else was expected? Likewise, a gifted France once again flattered to deceive amidst further reports of ill-discipline, though they did at least escape from the competition’s initial stage. The same cannot be said of Russia. Drawn into by far the weakest group and opening their campaign with a wonderfully fluent, authoritative dismantling of the Czechs, hopes soared that Dick Advocaat’s classy team could prove themselves dangerous dark horses. Sadly, it wasn’t to pass as Russia wilted hideously in their remaining fixtures, dominating possession but creating little and departing limply with their minimum ambitions unfulfilled.
Squad of the Tournament
In truth, a 1-11 team of the tournament would be so dominated by Spain as to render it a farce…so here is a cop-out 23-man squad of the competition’s stand-out performers:
(note: We are more than aware that players such as the Czech Republic’s Petr Jiracek performed admirably but he’s just so limited and awkward in possession that he was never in contention despite his displays arguably warranting inclusion. Same goes for Sami Khedira. There is a shameless bias towards classy, technical footballers here. We know).
Goalkeepers: Casillas (Spain); Gianluigi Buffon (Italy)
Defenders: Ramos (Spain); Alba (Spain); Hummels (Germany); Coentrao (Portugal); Pique (Spain); Khacheridi (Ukraine); Chiellini (Italy)
Midfielders: Iniesta, Xavi, Alonso, Busquets (all Spain); Ozil (Germany); De Rossi, Pirlo (both Italy); Moutinho (Portugal); Modric (Croatia) who needs width?
Forwards: Silva, Fabregas (both Spain); Cassano (Italy); Mandzukic (Croatia); Ibrahimovic (Sweden).
On standby: Patricio (Portugal); Debuchy (France); Agger (Denmark); Dzagoev (Russia); Montolivo (Italy).
As an aside, this really wasn’t a tournament for strikers. The Mambo expected much of Karim Benzema but was often deployed bafflingly deep whilst few other number 9s contributed much of note. Contrastingly, last year’s Copa America was marked by practically every team’s use of a recognised, often highly-talented spearhead. These Euros will perhaps be remembered as the tournament Spain won without a striker.