A nineteenth minute header provided the cushion and a ninetieth minute penalty provided the closure, and Spain rides into the semi-finals of Euro 2012 on the back of Xabi Alonso’s brace.
The Starting XIs
Vicente del Bosque went back to Cesc Fàbregas as a false-nine to head Spain’s “4-6-0″, a double-pivot 4-3-3 also featuring Andrés Iniesta and David Silva as inverted wingers. Laurent Blanc’s starting eleven, something of a 4-5-1, was vastly different than the one he employed in France’s last group game against Ukraine, featuring four changes, the most noteworthy being Samir Nasri’s exclusion.
With Jordi Alba again reprising his role as a fullback-cum-midfielder-cum-winger in the mold of Dani Alves, Blanc borrowed from Valencia’s method of dealing with the Barcelona man, opting to play two fullbacks, Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Réveillère, down France’s right. Another prominent wrinkle for France was the role of Franck Ribéry: instead of tracking Spain’s other fullback, Álvaro Arbeloa, down their left as the outside midfielder normally would in a 4-5-1, Ribéry stayed up the pitch without paying any mind to Arbeloa’s runs. To cover for this structural hole, Laurent Blanc simply shifted his central midfielders left, giving his side two banks of four. Unlike Spain’s previous opponents in the tournament, however, France didn’t park the bus in front of goal, both playing a high block and electing to press from the outset.
How France Defended
Blanc, then, had picked his poison, wanting to eradicate time on the ball for the surplus of Spain’s playmakers while opting to allow the weakest of Spain’s eleven free reign: so unconcerned were France with Arbeloa’s runs that a body would only be committed to the Real Madrid player upon him receiving the ball high up the pitch. This worked well enough, and even gave France a midfielder free to roam in Florent Malouda, but it didn’t come without trouble.
While a commitment to pressure isn’t in any way a poor tactic to combat the tiki-taka with, it does require a certain cohesiveness from the side to always be filling the gaps an engaged defender leaves behind, an organic system of fluidity and responsibility. This led to France’s trouble: Malouda. While Malouda’s lack of a natural mark did let him float to assist where needed, the lack of a prescribed role left him prone to being beat by surging runs from behind. And when Alba bested the French flank in the nineteenth minute, it was Malouda who, while floating to the centre without an assignment, had let Alonso surge into the box from midfield unmarked, free to head in Alba’s cross. From there, Spain was free to coast, patiently swinging the ball around in an attempt to open the French defence, not content to settle for half-chances and the potential loss of possession.
There were bright moments for France after half-time which came by route of winning the ball relatively high up and freeing one of Ribéry, Benzema or Debuchy in behind an advanced Spanish fullback, but the burgeoning centre-back tandem of Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos summarily snuffed out any danger that came their way, with Iker Casillas again cleaning up all loose ends from elsewhere, deftly cutting out crosses before they could reach their intended target. Casillas wasn’t charged with much to do, but what he had to do could not have been done more effectively.
Not long after the hour mark, Blanc brought on Jérémy Menez for the deputized Debuchy and Samri Nasri for the directionless Malouda, hoping the two positive moves could continue creating the chances the second half had seen thus far for his side. But Spain found themselves without little worry the rest of the way, with Alonso, taking the pressure off of Xavi, orchestrating when in possession and Spain, when not, committing three bodies at times to a French player with the ball and flooding the clear passing channels with everyone else.
Del Bosque also made two changes after Blanc made his. Torres came on for Fàbregas in an attempt to expose the growing spaces behind an increasingly urgent French side, and while he became no stranger to raises of the offsides flag, Torres did help Spain finish the game out via the traditional number-nine tasks: winning aerial duels, holding play up, occupying centre-backs. Pedro, making his tournament debut, was brought on for Silva not just to switch flanks with Iniesta, who would potentially have more space to operate behind an advanced Gaël Clichy, but also for his tireless workrate to, as the neologism goes, embiggen Spain’s defence. Pedro’s pace was immediately problematic for France, and he was instrumental to Spain killing the game off, winning a penalty by darting in front of Réveillère, the fellow debutant who could only lunge a challenge from behind.
Xabi Alonso’s 100th cap saw him score a brace in a Man of the Match performance, and the reigning Euro and World Cup champions now look to a semi-final clash with Portugal and the so-far-so-dominant Cristiano Ronaldo.
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.