It’s amazing how the media can influence an entire nation’s mindset. 6 months ago Barcelona and Real Madrid were the two best clubs in the world; miles ahead of everyone else. Now though, after the all German Champions League final, the nation seems to believe that Spanish football is dying. Most punters tip Germany, not Spain, to win the 2014 World Cup.
Football fans are fickle, but just because a Spanish club did not reach a final of a European competition-being well beaten on the way-doesn’t mean that Spanish footballing standards are going to suddenly drop below that of Germany. The fact that people’s expectations are so high of Spain shows how high the Spaniards have set the bar. Even more frustrating than this is the commonly held belief that German clubs suddenly ‘got good’. Bayern München have been very unlucky in the past, and their financial clout is very much comparable to that of Barcelona or Real Madrid. German football has been strong for quite a while; the one thing it was lacking was a continental trophy. Moving back to the main point though, Spanish football is actually growing stronger, not weaker as many suggest.
Spain’s success, and the way it will continue, is by installing a love of victory. Getting youngsters hooked from an early age on the drug of victory means that they suffer withdrawal symptoms if they are not winning. Spain’s will to win is massive. A team full of talent can lose if the players do not try hard enough or have the will to win. Spain ensure that losing is a rare occurrence. They do this by taking the U21 Championships very seriously. (They try and develop players at levels lower than the U19s, as players still have much to learn in their teens). David de Gea playing for the U21s is a prime example of this. Spain possess such a vast oilfield of talent that players feel the need to prove themselves at lower levels. Spain winning the U19 European Championship consecutively and the U21 European Championship consecutively helps continue the winning ethic. Winning is almost part of Spanish culture now.
Spain were the current champions heading into the UEFA U21 championships in Israel. In the Middle East they have dominated, deservedly winning the title. The participating teams show the future of Group Stages. The Germans were lucky to come away with a win, with Georgi Schennikov being questionably sent off and Germany then being awarded a debateable penalty. The result, 2-1 against a nation, Russia-which footballing wise is still developing, is a poor result. Admittedly Germany were drawn into the ‘Group of Death’, which contained the Netherlands and Spain, along with Russia. However, Germany’s performance was very poor, even considering their tough group. Spain meanwhile have looked cool and calm. Their reputed Tiki-Taka has been in full flow, with Spain not rushing moves and enjoying large amounts of possession. In their victory over Germany, Spain looked far superior, limiting the Germans to just 2 shots on target and 35% possession. The side have cruised to an U21 Championship beating Italy 4-2 in the final; looking incredibly comfortable. Thiago Alcântara was particularly impressive, scoring a hat trick and looking like a mini-Iniesta. In fact, all of the youngsters are like ‘Mini-Me’s’ of the fully fled internationals, showing great ability to retain the ball. The future after Brazil is one laden with even more trophies.
The full internationals still look as brilliant as ever. The Confederations Cup, while not nearly as competitive as the World Cup (with all respect to Tahiti), is a rather accurate barometer of the participating nation’s strengths and weaknesses. Spain absolutely dominated against Uruguay-the score line should have been higher. Like their youthful counterparts, it looks like Spain are winning effortlessly. The strength in depth is also shown by the players on Spain’s bench. To call it a bench is almost an injustice! Perched on the VIP bench, against Uruguay, were Victor Valdés, Raúl Alboil, César Azpilicueta, David Villa, Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Nacho Monreal, Santi Cazorla, David Silva, Jesús Navas and Pepe Reina. Most of these occupants make up the Premier League’s best players.
So called ‘experts’, have said that Xavi, a key cog in Spain’s passing machine, will be too old for 2014. Xavi looks fine. If his stamina decreases a change in system is doable, with less running to do Xavi would have even more energy for his beautiful passes. Even if the cog of Xavi is worn out, the method can be adjusted to incorporate David Silva or Santi Cazorla. It must be mentioned that Michu, 22 goals last season Michu, did not even make the squad. Michu would easily make the English national side. Álvaro Negredo also missed out, despite scoring 31 in 42 appearances.
Spain’s style has at times looked vulnerable and ineffective. The tiki-taka, while devastating at first, is now easier to deal with for teams. Often, like Chelsea against Barcelona in the 2011/2012 Champions League semi-final, teams just put 11 men behind the ball and hit the tiki-taka wielders on the counter-attack. Spain though are tweaking their style, optimizing it. Against Uruguay they used Roberto Soldado who merged the boundaries between the false number nine role and the centre-forward role. Cesc Fàbregas was deployed in a free midfield role, roaming around and causing havoc. Spain’s style once again means they control how their opponents play, pinning them under constant pressure. The lack of penetration and expansive football seems to have been solved. In the past it looked like Spain were lost without a Messi or Ronaldo type player, now, this is not the case. Spain are adapting and optimizing and teams will soon struggle to cope again. Uruguay were under a barrage of shots, conceding 14 on target. The Uruguay manager Óscar Tabárez clearly realised his side’s good fortune: “It could have been catastrophic for us, but we improved and our professional image was rescued.” A sign that Spain are starting to sacrifice a bit of possession-for more expansive, penetrating and chance creating play-was the statistic that their possession was a meagre 56%. 56% is meagre for Spain… Spain also seem to never tire, despite the players clearly being exhausted at the end of games. (England could really learn lessons from this; one would be to keep the ball and take a breather. The bigger more important lesson though, would be to ignore people who tell you that you are tired. Pyschologically England need to be stronger, like Spain are.)
In Spain, the colossus of Barcelona and Real Madrid means that the other 18 clubs in La Liga get a lot less television revenue. Barcelona and Real Madrid earnt €140million each for the 2011/2012 season; the next highest total was Valencia with €48million. The lowest was Racing Santander, with a pitiful total of €13million. While the financial situation is very unfair, causing a mini-league between Barcelona and Real Madrid, it means that clubs are in great debt. The German and English leagues may be more competitive, containing an arguably more exciting style, yet the Spanish league still contains the best home grown talent. The debt means clubs have to look internally and use youth. This allows even more Spanish talent to develop and become stars. Among others, Álvaro Vadillo, Gerard Deulofeu, Isco and Thiago Alcântara will play a big part in the national side’s future.
The increased television revenues for the Bundesliga could corrupt the system of home grown talent. The League Association, made up of die Bundesliga and die 2.Bundesliga, will gain an overall income of around €2.5 billion from the 2013/2014 season to the 2016/2017. This equates to around €628million a season. The inevitable higher transfer budgets, due to the increase in revenue, could cause teams to look to foreign players, thus giving up on the harder and longer task of developing talent. The effect would be similar to the one on the England national team, which looks poorer and poorer in quality the longer the Premier League is dubbed “The best league in the world”. There is no real danger of this in Spain, with Barcelona and Real Madrid insisting on taking a large chunk of the money.
A big criticism of Spain has been of the defense. This is perhaps Spain’s main weakness, especially looking towards the future. Barcelona especially have looked very shaky at the back, with Gerard Piqué making a number of high profile mistakes. Barcelona and Spain seem to miss the leadership of Carles Puyol. The future of Spain’s defense also looks decidedly shaky. While Jordi Alba is just 24 years old, Álvaro Arbeloa is 30, Gerard Piqué is 26 and Sergio Ramos is 27. Looking far beyond Brazil to Russia in 2018, Alba will be 29, Arbeloa 35, Piqué 31 and Ramos 32. Arbeloa is a definite candidate for replacement, but Spain will also need players who can replace the other 3 defenders when the inevitable injuries or attribute decline occur. Martín Montoya and Marc Bartra will both be 27 by then. The pair has looked circumspect at the back, especially in big games. Despite this, Spanish media seems to be putting their faith in those two as definitive future Spain players. Rapid improvement, especially in the positioning department is needed. It must be mentioned that the U21 defense-featuring Álvaro González, Alberto Moreno, Daniel Carvajal, Iñigo Martínez ,Marc Bartra, Marc Muniesa, Martín Montoya and Nacho Fernández-only conceded 5 goals in Israel. Perhaps the future Spanish defense will be better than the current one.
All of Spain’s current defensive frailties are less damaging than it would be for the majority of other teams-if Spain have the ball a team can not score: “It’s very difficult to generate any kind of danger when you don’t touch the ball” said Luis Suárez after Uruguay’s recent 2-1 loss to the World and European Champions. Johan Cruyff, the man who shaped Spain’s change in footballing philosophy for the better, sums the idea up the best: “Without the ball you cannot score.” Spain’s ability to retain the ball is their best defensive attribute. In Euro 2008, Spain would go in front and then just keep the ball, often just looking to tire out their opposition. Spain scored just 12 goals, 5 goals off the lowest ever total scored by European Championship winners. (Greece hold the record after scoring just 7 goals in their Euro 2004 triumph.)
As Cruyff said, “Sometimes something’s got to happen before something is going to happen.” German football becoming stronger and stronger means that Spain have to improve. Spain for the past 7 years haven’t had to improve drastically or change. Now they have had to change slightly, and it now looks like they are back to the pinnacle of their dominance.
So Spain are actually growing stronger, not weaker. Germany’s national side is now good, but nowhere near as good as Spain’s. Spain’s future also looks so much better than anyone else. Spain could dominate football for at least another decade if the youngsters realise their potential, and they keep tweaking their tiki-taka ethos…
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