Zzzzzzz …. huh? What? It’s over? What do you mean?
Ain’t backlash a beautiful thing? Spain went from everyone’s darlings to a team that was boring, seemingly in about 12 seconds. And why? The parallels between Spain and Barca fascinate, and I don’t just mean the players. For instance:
Spain rolled through the group stages, quarterfinals and semi-final, barely breaking a sweat. They dispatched their opponents with ease, never really bothering to get out of third gear.
And what was wrong with that? Is there some sort of rule that says a team must play its absolute best, every last time or they suck? When I first started bicycle racing, I would win races by 4-5 bike lengths, until I got a coach, who said “You only need to win by enough to make it clear that you won.”
Spain, as with Barca, coasted. And that coasting was usually good enough, though Barca was caught out on more than a few occasions this season, trying to low-effort a match. More importantly, it is this quality that outrages, that makes people cry “Foul!” as though they are disappointed every time Spain didn’t win 235-0, with 125%of the possession. And when that didn’t happen, when Spain played only well enough to win, they were “boring,” in the same sort of backlash that saw Barca go from being the team everybody loved, to the team that people suddenly tired of watching win everything.
Is playing well enough to win boring? Good question. I’d wager that Spain or Barca don’t care a whit. The job got done. Time to move on.
That Passing Stuff is Boring
No, it isn’t. You know what’s boring? Opponents who won’t come out to play. So like Barca, Spain is content to pass the ball around and wait for the opening that almost always comes. And even when it doesn’t, it matters not, because Spain/Barca has the ball. And as long as you don’t have the ball, you can’t beat them.
Much of made of how “exciting” Spain was in the final, but people forget that Italy came out to play, once they went a goal down. But before that, the first goal came from a profoundly absurd bit of play that resulted in a spectacular team goal of the type that Spain and Barca score. Then Italy had to come out and play. Spain stepped it up early precisely because it knew that an early goal would fundamentally mean that the match was theirs.
Spain gave up one goal in the Euros this go-round. One. Goal. And scored 12. It doesn’t take a math whiz to note the stultifying nature of that statistic. Yet Spain doesn’t play defensive football, right, just like Barca. The hell they don’t. That lateral and back passing display that Spain and Barca put on are every bit as parked a bus as 9 men in the box. It’s just a (mostly) positive bus parking. They’re passing the ball, looking for attacking holes.
Much was made of the two times in the Guardiola years, Mourinho’s Inter and Di Matteo’s Chelsea, that Barca was beaten in Champions League play. But people forget that it was only an incorrectly ajudged handball call, and appalling finishing that kept Barca from the final both those years. You can’t really stop either Spain or Barca, but they can stop themselves.
Look Ma, no striker!
Xavi makes the pass to Iniesta, who fakes, dribbles, leaves a defender grasping air, floats to the wing to float in a cross and …. cricket! Cricket!” Nothing. Both Spain and Barca employ a fundamentally striker-less formation. Call it False 9 all you like, but what those systems both do is capitalize on the fact that a running player is more difficult to keep from finding space than a stationary one. Messi runs as Alba runs as Silva runs as Mata runs. It’s an offense predicated on getting there, rather than being there.
And it works.
Spain Don’t Give a Damn Who Score
I was watching an FCB match out in public once, and a civilian asked me why the Barca players ran to the guy who didn’t score, to start the goal celebration. I explained that the pass makes everything possible, that it is the perfect pass that will lead to a goal, which is often incidental to the assist that fed the player through. Assists matter.
Once a team decides to play a strikerless system, movement and passing become paramount. This often means that the goal scorer has a header or tap-in.
Is not conceding boring?
Barca and Spain have in common a miserly quality on defense, when they are at their best. Is a 1-0 win more or less boring than a 5-0 blowout? Depends on who you ask. Three points is three points, right? More importantly, Spain is Barca in that the passing game is used to play defense. Is it parking the bus in the same way as having 9 men in the box? Nope. Is it as effective? Absolutely. Either way, it’s a tactic designed to keep an opponent from having the ball to score, while also looking for ways to breach the defense.
The bottom line, however, is that as long as Spain/Barca have the ball, you don’t. This means you can’t score. Which is just fine by them.
No speculation, thank you
For long, we have lamented the fact that Barca doesn’t take speculative shots. Neither does Spain. The reason is simple: speculative shots cede possession, which ruins the team’s defensive strategy. It accounts for Messi’s astonishing finishing efficiency rate as well, as unlike his major rival for best in the world, he doesn’t take speculative shots. If Messi hits one, it has a chance of scoring, or there’s no point.
“They try to pass the ball into the net.” Exactly. It’s a tendency that I don’t see changing for Spain/Barca, either. Ultimately that’s an impossibility, as it’s no coincidence that Spain’s success has arrived at the same time as Barca’s golden period. Barring injury, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas and Villa would most likely have been starting for Spain. That’s Barca. So anyone who asserts that Spain is not Barca is kinda messing with themselves.
Greatest of all time?
Spain is making a case for being the greatest international team of all time, just as Barca has made a case for being the best club side that anybody has ever seen. Again, with the same players playing the same essential way, it could be argued that both Sparca has its success inextricably linked. But if you look at how the two sides make this argument, again there are parallels galore, most notably the sheer inevitability of their success.
When Sparca turns it on, the only real question is how much you are going to lose by. We saw it against Athletic Bilbao in the Copa del Reig final, we saw it against Italy in the Euro 2012 final. In high gear, both teams are unstoppable, primarily because they not only have more talent than anyone else, but that talent plays a system that always maximizes the skill sets of that talent. Is Iniesta, for example, playing in his “best” position when he dons the national shirt? In the context of how that side plays, yes. It’s why he was so decisive at Euros, and why he is so decisive with Barca.
So how is Spain not Barca
In three words, Messi changes everything. Without that same sort of galvanic talent running around, Spain become a different club and are forced to play a different way, even as that way is the same because that is the way of its nucleus. But what Spain doesn’t have is the genius that can take a ball, run around and create something amazing.
It is this quality that makes Spain a bit more deliberate in its approach, in lacking the “Here, go make something happen” quality that makes Barca so dangerous.
But what’s probably most fascinating is that both sides, the “Spain is Barca” or the “Spain isn’t Barca” both have supportable arguments. But what say ye? Discuss.