Álvaro Negredo is a striker of considerable class, combining the physicality necessary to win aerial duels and play with one’s back to goal with the guile and burst necessary to wreak havoc on runs in behind defence. There isn’t a club in the world who couldn’t put his talents to use in some capacity, and an undoubted many would play the Sevilla frontman in a starring role. But, of all the games that Spain manager Vicente del Bosque could have debuted Negredo in at Euro 2012, there exists no answer for why it was in the semi-finals against Portugal and not in the group stage matches against Italy, Ireland or Croatia.
There, simply, was no role for Negredo: with Portugal pressing from the very outset and closing down any Spanish player on the ball, the options to provide service were limited and the available paths to do so were on the wrong side of challenging. And since Portugal had the same number of centre-midfielders that Spain – nominally — did, the omission of Cesc Fàbregas as a false-nine made Portugal’s harrying of Spain’s midfield all the more cogent.
To make matters worse for the defending Euro champions, employing the wrong striker wasn’t even Del Bosque’s only mistake in his starting eleven.
The Starting XIs
With Álvaro Arbeloa both the weakest link of Spain’s lineup and the needed provider of any width down his flank since the centre-hungry David Silva was playing ahead, it was no great secret Portugal would target Spain down their right, where Portugal’s own left flank featured no less than one of the game’s most able attacking fullbacks in Fábio Coentrão and the most dangerous player of the tournament in Cristiano Ronaldo. And target Spain down their right Portugal did:
Portugal’s Passing, the First 28 minutes (via @GaryParkinson)
Before even one half-hour was eclipsed, almost the entirety of Portugal’s attention after winning possession through inspired and effective pressing was to Spain’s right flank, looking first to outlet the ball to Ronaldo if Arbeloa was advanced or, short of that, find Coentrão flaring wide while his marker, Silva, remained tucked inside. Each incidence of Coentrão getting ahead of Silva amplified Del Bosque’s error in selecting the Premier League Player of the Year runner-up over one of Jesús Navas and Pedro Rodríguez, natural wide players and, therefore, better natural markers for Coentrão, to say nothing of the both them just being better at the defensive obligations a winger has against an attacking fullback.
Even with the weakness down Spain’s right, it wasn’t as though that avenue was the only one available for Portugal to counter down, however, as Spain’s left-back, Jordi Alba, was for all intents and purposes their left winger as well.
(Spain’s Base Shape in Attack, and the Space Behind Screaming for Counter-Attacks)
Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, then, had double duty, each having to provide cover to their outside while simultaneously disarming the pressure of Portugal’s pressing. There was no issue of redundancy between the two: even if Alonso had not contributed his pinpoint long balls — he did — or Busquets had not shown why Xavi Hernández believes the Barcelona holding midfielder has the best first touch in football — he did — with how Del Bosque had oriented Spain, both holders were vital extinguishers of Portgual’s counter-attacking flames.
To Del Bosque’s credit, he eventually got Spain’s tactics right, not waiting until the hour mark to take off Negredo, bringing on Fàbregas in the fifty-fourth minute. And, on the hour mark, Navas and his pace and retention down the right was called upon to replace the diminishing returns of Silva. It was of no coincidence Spain were the better side from that point on.
But it also bears mentioning Spain didn’t dominate the game until Andrés Iniesta had replaced Xavi as Spain’s central playmaker. Iniesta’s ability to keep the ball glued to his foot while dribbling at goal or circumnavigating adjacent defenders is the closest thing Spain has to replicating what Lionel Messi brings to Barça with his dizzying, slaloming runs from midfield. It is not enough to say that Iniesta created new passing channels for Spain’s attack: Iniesta seemingly added another spatial dimension to the pitch, even when factoring in the attrition suffered by Portugal from pressing so vehemently and successfully through regulation.
Portugal’s refusal to go negative by challenging Spain with pressing high up and across the pitch was enough to keep the Euro 2008 and 2010 World Cup champions scoreless, and the cover supplied in midfield by Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets and in defence by Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué nullified the threat Portugal posed down the flanks. The impotency of Portugal’s attack makes it hard to say Spain were undeserving winners of the penalty shootout, and Spain again finds itself in the finals of its third major tournament in succession.
Editor’s note: This tactical review has been written by twelve point courier. Beyond being a football tactics enthusiast, he is a sports/politics blogger with a slight emphasis on snark and illustrating the asinine and illogical. Follow him on twitter @tpcourier.