While Vicente del Bosque has crowned La Roja’s shape at Euro 2012 with either a striker in Fernando Torres or a false-nine in Cesc Fàbregas, both representing a discrete tactical aim, he has kept the remainder of the defending champion’s starting eleven static, employing a back-four in defence, a three-man centre of midfield featuring a double-pivot, and two inverted wingers.
Regardless of the player on top of Spain’s shape, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva cut in from the wings, Xavi Hernández, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets orchestrate the tiki-taka from midfield, and fullbacks Jordi Alba and Álvaro Arbeloa provide the attacking work down their respective flanks.
Their semi-final opponent, Portugal, is not a side terribly unlike Spain. Its fullbacks, Fábio Coentrão and João Pereira, also cover great ground down their touchlines. The midfield three, where Miguel Veloso acts as the holder and Raul Meireles and João Moutinho take turns joining the attack, also are capable of dictating — but not dominating — a game over not-insignificant stretches. Their wingers, however, provide the edge to their attack’s sword, with Nani’s pace a significant hurdle for any defence to clear playing opposite of the player of the tournament for many, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Ronaldo, tied for the tournament’s scoring lead, has been nothing short of a menace to all of Portugal’s opponents. Whether it’s drifting to the centre to create, bludgeoning his marker with the brute force of his gallops down the outside or, at his most dangerous, bringing the ball onto his right foot and driving at goal, the threat Ronaldo provides has been clearly evident. To complete the package, his movement off the ball has even been sublime.
While Spain, winners of Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, are the stronger side, Portugal presents perhaps the most difficult matchup for La Roja of all possible Euro 2012 opponents, including Germany.
Dynamic Systems, Converged
While del Bosque’s use of inverted wingers undoubtedly helps Spain’s astronomical possession advantage, it just as surely creates an imperative demanding advanced positions and blistering runs from his fullbacks for Spain to enjoy any width in possession, runs that hardly qualify as overlapping since the wingers ahead are hardly ever in any position to actually be overlapped. The space left behind each Jordi Alba surge or Álvaro Arbeloa push is a giant, flashing, neon sign for Spain’s opponents which reads, “Looking to counter? Outlet passes go here!”
And, with Ronaldo and Nani to lead those counters, Portugal is well-approached to combat the imperialism of Spain’s possession with a sort of Guerrilla warfare, able to not just break but to do so faster than any other side Spain has faced or could face this tournament, striking at La Roja’s weakest point all while buoyed by a capable defence and two central midfielders in Moutinho and Meireles who are both capable of key roles in attack. To say nothing of the chasm of talent between Ronaldo and Arbeloa.
Spain, however, is not without options. The starting of even one traditional winger — Jesús Navas or Pedro Rodríguez for David Silva — reduces the pressure on Spain’s counter-attack preventing dam: by needing only one fullback — Alba — to provide width, Busquets and Alonso are no longer stretched thin by responsibilities across the pitch, both capable to play a two-way role of providing cover and, if not supporting, keying the Spain attack. This isn’t saying that Silva has played poorly this tournament but, rather, that an alternative which can keep Coentrão occupied, pinned-back and tracked all while reducing strain on Spain’s right flank is more of a necessity than what Silva offers.
Del Bosque also must consider whether he wants Arbeloa marking Ronaldo for ninety minutes. While Arbeloa is not hide-the-children bad and is a game defender, the unsure centre-back partnership of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Piqué is perhaps not the best contingency plan for the tournament’s most dangerous player. Moving Ramos to right-back, however, is not without blowback, likely introducing a completely untested partnership between Piqué and Javi Martínez.
Potential Starting XIs
Del Bosque is a manager who favours pragmatism above even the mildest of conflicts, who is more a locker room conductor than a tactician in the mold of Marcelo Bielsa, and will likely again start Arbeloa, albeit in a more reserved role, at right-back. But, regardless of the Arbeloa decision, and just as Del Bosque did at the 2010 World Cup after Spain’s opening game loss to Switzerland, a new right winger is the likely — and correct — choice. Even though Busquets and Alonso can both drop into defence to provide cover for Arbeloa, the threat of Ronaldo demands caution. And, with Silva ahead, Spain becomes dangerously narrow.
As for the Torres or Fàbregas conundrum? More caution at the back generally means more help is needed in midfield, even more so when each side has three midfielders. Torres could get the nod, but Fàbregas offers more to Spain’s possession ambition, an ambition wholly non-negotiable.