First of all, I want to make it clear that there will be no politics in this article. The Spanish national team, indeed, has a lot of players with different cultural and ethnic identities, but that is not what this article is about. This article will be based only on tactical analysis.
Spanish national team coach, Vicente del Bosque, in this World Cup was blessed not just by having the best players, but also by having six players who play together on a regular basis. This meant that in the short period, while other national team coaches had little time with their squads to create a working system, all he had to do was to make adaptations and to fill in the blanks in a system that was created by someone else (Pep). This meant that there would be a lot of similarities between Spain and Barça. And there were….
Barça’s playing philosophy is the famous “total football” presented by the Dutch national team in the 1974 World Cup. It was an influential tactical theory in which any outfield player can take over the role of any other player in a team. In this system, a player who moves out of position is replaced by another player, thus retaining the team’s intended organizational structure. In this fluid system, no player is fixed in a nominal role; anyone can be an attacker, a midfielder, and a defender. That’s why they’ve name it Total Football. The best player, and by far the best student of this football school, was a guy we all know, Johan Cruyff.
When Cruyff was put in charge of Barcelona in the early 90’s, he had started the revolution of Total Football. It was his own interpretation of the famous football philosophy that later evolved in a style called “tiki-taka.” This style of Total Football was based on two things: short passing and a lot of off-the-ball movement. In “tiki-taka,” there are a lot of short passes with which the ball is moved carefully through various channels. The style involves roaming movement and positional interchange amongst midfielders, moving the ball in intricate patterns, and sharp, one or two-touch passing. This demanded a lot of movement, patience and, above all, possession.
The point of having the possession was that the team who controls the ball 70% of the game has 70% more opportunities to create chances and to score goals, and the opponents have 70% less opportunities to score. This style is neither defensive nor offensive; it’s a playmaking style of football where the “tiki-taka” team is in charge and dictates the tempo. Barcelona adapted the more aesthetic version of this style, which was associated with flair, creativity, and touch, but the tiki-taka can also be taken to a “slow, directionless extreme” version that sacrifices effectiveness for aesthetics. And here we come to the differences between Barça and Spain.
Barça plays a fluid 4-3-3, with three central backs, one offensive fullback (more of a wingback), one holding midfielder, two passing midfielders, two wingers and a striker (this is the default Barça). The gravity of this team is on the right side where you can find Messi, who cuts through the center and opens up space for Dani Alves’ bursts. On the left flank there is usually a winger who plays as a second striker, and when the ball is on the right, sometimes you can find one of the passing midfielders on the left flank to balance the presence on the field. The striker moves a lot of the time through various channels, attempting to make holes in the opponent’s defense. Possession is the essence, and when they lose it, they press high in order to get the ball back. There are a lot more things to be said, but this is the foundation of Barça.
Spain, on the other hand, plays with a fluid 4-2-3-1. This is a left-side oriented team with three central backs (although, the left back was moving forward occasionally), two holding-midfielders, one passing midfielder, one advanced playmaker, one winger (on the left flank) and a striker. The two holding midfielders were insurance policy against possible counter-attacks. They didn’t play key passes and were playing more of a deep role. The advance midfielder was moving through the channels in order to create space, but he didn’t give them any width. This lack of width was one of the main criticisms to Del Bosque’s system in every game, because the Spanish midfield often ended up in two narrow lines of two players, which were cut off from each other by the opponent’s midfield. The right fullback had a lot of offensive duties in an attempt to create some width, but in the final third his crosses were poor.
This resulted in a big percentage of possession, but only eight goals were scored in seven matches. In Del Bosque’s defense, I must add the almost every team that Spain matched up with were parking the bus, but we see that in many of Barça’s games, and that doesn’t stop them from sometimes scoring three or four goal in games.