Friday, June 11, 2010

World Cup Preview: Spain part 3

This article will cover the tactics of the current seleccion española. For a more concise summary, which also covers the defensive setup, see the zonalmarking article on Spain.

The Back 4 and Goalkeeper

I'll start with the back five to get them out of the way. There are some questions about the lineup at those positions, but they don't affect the style of play or the formation Spain will use.

Spain are very deep at keeper. Iker Casillas will be the number one, with Pepe Reina at backup and Victor Valdés available if something happens to the other two. All three are widely considered world class. Without looking deeply into it, I'd guess that Valdés would start for 20-25 sides in the competition and he doesn't even figure to play if there is nothing at stake in the third match in the group stage.

At center back, Del Bosque will choose two of Marchena, Puyol, Piqué and Albiol. I don't think there is much in it. I'd probably go with Marchena and Piqué, but it doesn't really matter. Capdevila (pro tip: pronounce the L in Capdevila like an L in English. The last two syllables are VEE-lah) has a solid hold on the left-back spot. On the right, Sergio Ramos is probably going to start over his Real Madrid teammate Álvaro Arbeloa.

The Front 6

The front six is where it gets very interesting. I break the players into 5 groups. Here they are. The groups go from front to back, within each group I've sorted them by what I feel is the most likely to least likely to start.

Strikers - David Villa, Fernando Torres*
True Wingers - Jesús Navas, Juan Manuel Mata
All-Around Attackers - David Silva, Andrés Iniesta, Cesc Fàbregas
Xavi - Xavi
Defensive Midfielders/Deep-Lying Playmakers - Xabi Alonso, Sergio Busquets

* may flip if and when Torres is fully fit.

Navas and Mata should start on the bench in all the matches that matter. I'll discuss them a bit more later because I think they will be important coming off the bench, especially Navas. The only player in the front six that is guaranteed to start all matches with something at stake is Xavi. For the others, it depends heavily on the formation Del Bosque chooses as well as small tweaks he might make.


A lot of the focus has been on whether to run one striker or two. I don't think that's an important division, for reasons that should become clear later. Instead I will break them down into formations where both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets are starting, and those which feature only one of them. Del Bosque seems inclined to start with both, so I'll look at those first.


This seems very likely to be the formation Del Bosque will use in the opener against Switzerland on the 16th. Here are the roles of each group:

Forwards - Villa plays a pretty standard center-forward position. Of the two on the wings, Silva will be the more flashy but Iniesta's job is more interesting for the tactical enthusiast. Much more than you could say about Euro 2008, Silva's position could legitimately be described as winger, albeit one with A LOT of freedom. He plays on the right side, but is wont to make runs across the pitch, back to the midfield and to goal. Like the other attacking players, he is great at finding holes in the defense and making runs into them. Iniesta provides width on the left. If the ball is in the middle or on the right, you can expect him to be very close to the left touchline, outside of the opposing right back. He moves off that line when Spain get the ball forward on the left, especially when it's played to him. At that point, the attack becomes more fluid. Like Silva, he takes advantage of his knack for finding holes in the defense and incredible vision to find teammates making runs. A recent example of this was the second goal against Poland.

Midfielders - I didn't bother to draw the arrows for Xavi, but they would be in every direction. The same is true for Alonso to a lesser extent. The two of them move all around the middle of the park, exchanging positions often. Xavi is typically the more advanced of the two, but when Spain have the ball Xabi Alonso goes forward to support the attack as well. Busquets will also move up on occasion, but not often. He has a more defensive role, playing deeper and getting fewer touches.

Defenders - The center backs play pretty typically. The only thing worth commenting on is that they will slide out pretty wide when the fullback on their side makes a forward run. Both fullbacks push forward. When the ball is on the other side, they provide midfield width. For the most part, they only make runs into the attacking areas when the ball is on their side. They also rarely make surging forward runs with the ball, like you'd typically see Brazilian fullbacks do.

Here is a short clip showing what happens on the pitch. It's short, but there is a lot to see, so I'd recommend watching it a few times.


It's set to loop, the start is frozen for a few seconds with the names. Just before this, the ball was played by Casillas to Arbeloa, who took a couple dribbles forward before playing it over to Busquets. Busquets took one touch and is about to pass the ball forward to Silva, as you'll see.

The first thing to notice is where Iniesta is. The ball has just moved from the right back to a midfielder and yet he is within a couple yards of the left touchline. In previous formations, he would have been somewhere around a couple yards deeper than Villa's position. Xavi's positioning and movement are pretty typical as well. He starts in a fairly advanced position for him, in position to receive a pass from Arbeloa. Once Arbeloa plays it in to Busquets he waits for Silva to finish his run before moving into the hole created by the defender following Silva out.

Silva's positioning and skill both on and especially off the ball are on full display. He has dropped back and into a more central location at the start, before making a short run even deeper to find some space in the middle. Never stopping his run, he is able to two-touch it right to Alonso's feet. He then turns and makes another run up and to the left, again finding space. His ability to make these sorts of runs in the middle, as here, and further up the pitch are a huge part of Spain's success.

Notice that for Poland all six midfielders and forwards are defending in the area and they are still getting overrun by four Spaniards because of the passing skill and, as importantly, movement. In this case it was Silva and Xavi, but it could easily have been Xabi Alonso, Iniesta or Fàbregas. You can see why they are capable of playing their most defensive formation without having much of a dropoff in scoring. The most impressive thing about this clip is that something like this probably happens 50 times a match.

4-3-3, Villa on the Wing

I think this is the most likely formation that involves both Villa and Torres being on the pitch together. That doesn't make the debate about having just one or both of them moot, but it does change it. There are still some benefits and drawbacks, but instead of discussing whether it's better to have two center forwards or just one it really comes down to Villa vs. Iniesta on the wing. As a sidenote, this will likely be a very important issue for Barça, especially if they don't sell Zlatan.

The other players have similar roles as in the 4-3-3 above. The only one that is different is Capdevila, whom we can expect to be even more aggressive in his forward runs. Look for him to overlap when Villa gets the ball. Without the ball, Villa has the same job as Iniesta - provide width. When it comes to his side, he's going to be more direct, looking for space in scoring areas. He is also capable of setting up teammates.

Obviously Villa is much more of a scoring threat than Iniesta. When the ball is on the right or in the middle, this presents the other team with a Sophie's choice that wouldn't be nearly as tough with Iniesta. If the defense stays compact then Spain can play it across or diagonally to Villa, who may find himself with the ball and only one defender near him - scrambling to get in position. That's pretty devastating. However, if they stay spread out then that leaves a lot of room for Silva, Torres, Sergio Ramos and whichever of Xavi and Xabi Alonso are in position to make a forward run. When the ball is on Villa's side it's still an issue. He often proves too much for the fullback. The defense has to decide whether to have a center back in position to help, which opens up space for Silva, Torres et al in the middle. If they don't then you can expect Villa to have a big night.

To summarize, putting Villa on the wing makes Spain both more direct and more dangerous in the attacking third. With Iniesta they put pressure on waiting to exploit a defensive mistake, with Villa they force the issue. The drawback is that they will control the ball just a bit less - Villa is not as good as Iniesta at moving the ball. They will still dominate possession, after all Silva, Xavi and Xabi Alonso are still on the pitch, and this effect is lessened by Iniesta playing the super-wide role. He's not helping with the short-passing game on the right.

Here is a zoomed-out shot of how it looks on the pitch and a clip that shows how tough it can be to defend.



Sorry for the poor quality. Just before the clip, it's a fairly standard buildup. After knocking the ball around on the right, a center back has played it up to Silva from just ahead of the center line. Silva is cutting in with the ball. Torres fills the space left behind him while Xavi makes a forward run into the middle of the defense. You can see that David Villa has nobody within a dozen yards of him and has both arms out calling for the ball. When he gets it, Capdevila makes a strong overlapping run which pulls the center back out, giving Villa more than enough space for the nice finish. Once Silva made his run the defense was left to pick its poison. Had they been in better position to deal with Villa then Torres, Xavi or Silva himself would have had a great chance to score.

To be honest, I started out with the view that playing only one of Torres and Villa is the way to go but after watching matches and giving it some thought I think this is the best formation if Torres is fit.

Formations with Only One of Busquets and Xabi Alonso


This is the quickest one to cover - it's a pretty standard fluid 4-2-3-1. Xavi joins whichever of Xabi Alonso and Busquets in the central midfield. It's basically the same as when they used it in Euro 2008. Iniesta, Fàbregas and Silva move around in the attacking midfield. Other than getting all three of these great players involved, the strength of this formation is that it's unpredictable. Any of them could make that forward run and, of course, the defense has Villa or Torres to worry about up top plus Xavi and the fullbacks coming forward.

4-3-3/4-4-2 Hybrid

This formation is pretty interesting. I call it a hybrid of a 4-4-2 and 4-3-3. The three midfielders, Xavi, Alonso and Silva in the diagram above, play more or less like a normal 4-3-3 midfield while the left winger and forwards, Iniesta, Villa and Torres, play how you would expect them to in a traditional 4-4-2. You could call it a 4-4-2 with a tucked in right midfielder playing deeper than typical, I suppose. In this formation, they don't completely abandon the right side - Silva or Xavi often go out there and the fullback provides support as well. Ramos tends to go further forward, including some forward runs looking for a diagonal ball from the other side of the pitch. However, there is very rarely someone up near the defensive line giving the opposition left fullback something to think about. In contrast, the left winger is consistently very wide much like I described Iniesta in the first formation above.

This asymmetry leads to an interesting dynamic where their attack is very compact on one side, but they spread the defense out on the other.

Here are two shots of it in action against the United States in the Confederation Cup.


In the top shot, you can see their locations when the ball is on the left-hand side. Cesc, listed as the right midfielder, is just to the left of center. The only player on right half of the pitch is Sergio Ramos. For that matter, he is the only player for either team more than a couple yards to that side of center. In the bottom shot, the ball has just been played to Capdevila, I believe from Alonso. The players haven't had a chance to move, so this captures their position when attacking the right side. Riera is not only on the other side of center, he appears to be on the other side of the 18-yard box. Notice how much more spread out the defense is in the bottom shot.

To be honest, I'm not sure how much I like this formation. Since there is an extra man on the left, that is the side they tend to attack. It is also the side where the defense is pretty tight. That's common to all of these formations because Silva is given the free role. However, it's worse in this case because both Torres and Villa are in there taking up space. When there is only one of them, or Villa is on the wing, there is more room to make runs with and without the ball. Also, the results aren't great. This is what they used in the Confederations Cup. The Confederations Cup isn't all that valued, but much more so than a friendly. I think we can take something from it and Spain had some pretty bad results. Obviously there's the loss to the US, but they also beat South Africa 2-0 and Iraq only 1-0. Crushing New Zealand 5-0 was the only match of the four that went as well as expected.

The formations with both Xabi Alonso and Busquets give them more protection from counterattacks and with the 4-2-3-1 they have a more free-flowing attack. Given Torres's fitness concerns and Jesús Navas emerging as a great sub option and even potential starter, I don't think we'll see this formation.


Who the subs are depends a lot on the starting formation. I strongly suspect that Del Bosque will use one of the first two as his basic formation. That leaves one or both of Iniesta and Cesc starting out on the bench. This seems crazy, but it's tough to find an alternative that is as balanced. I think Xabi Alonso will be the key because he is essentially replacing one of those great players. If he can provide the defensive support expected of him and help to push the attack alongside Xavi then it will all work out well. If he struggles with either of those then Spain will struggle and either he or Busquets will likely come off at halftime.

I'm biased since he's my favorite player and plays for my favorite club, but I think Jesús Navas could potentially be the most important sub for any team in the competition. His pace, energy and runs with the ball bring something the starters don't have. Especially against the kind of disciplined, patient sides that give Spain problems his spark coming in off the bench could be just what they need to turn a game around or break the deadlock. The same is largely true of Mata, but Navas seems to be in better form at the moment and the more likely of the two to be brought on.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

World Cup Preview: Spain part 2

On Spanish Tactics

Firstly, I would be remiss if I didn't mention two fairly recent discoveries. The first is the book by Jonathan Wilson called Inverting the Pyramid. It is best described by its subtitle "The History of Football Tactics". The other is the fantastic blog zonalmarking. Reading them has changed the way I watch the game, for the better. For those familiar, the influence should be pretty obvious in what I'm writing here.

Two Questions

There are two important questions, assuming all relevant players are fit. Should Spain start one or both of Torres and Villa? Should they start one or both of Busquets and Xabi Alonso? I'll address the second question in the next part, coming shortly.

For the first question, the prevailing opinion by those not in charge is that Spain are better with just one. I both agree and disagree with this - I think Spain under Aragonés were much better with just one of Villa and Torres in the lineup but under Del Bosque it doesn't matter as much. I'll discuss this in detail later in this article and in part 3.

What Does the Data Say?

Firstly, lumping together all their matches data give some support to them being better with a lone striker. To test this I did something similar to the analysis of how valuable Cristiano Ronaldo was to Real Madrid. Essentially, it's comparing the results when Spain run one of Torres, Villa, Güiza and Morientes and when they have one of those. As usual, especially with national-team results, the sample sizes involved are very small - don't take this proof of anything, but rather a bit of evidence supporting the claim. In qualifying for South Africa and in the European Championships, both qualification and the finals, Spain have played 28 matches. In 15 of those, two of the strikers started and played at least the first half. In 11, they started with only one of those four strikers. The remaining two matches are perhaps the most interesting - they started with both Villa and Torres but Fàbregas came on as a sub fairly early in the first half. In both of these, their goals all came with only one striker on the pitch so I'm counting them in the one-striker group.

That gives us a sample of 15 matches with two strikers and 13 matches with just one. I'm excluding friendlies for obvious reasons. The Confederations Cup would be more reasonable to put in but I think it's impossible to rank accurately national teams from different confederations in a model as I will do later, so I exclude them. Because their results there were subpar and they played with both Torres and Villa in every match, including the Confederations Cup would make the result even stronger.

In the matches with two strikers, Spain scored an average of 2.4 goals per match and conceded an average of 2 goals every three matches, for an average goal differential of about 1.73. When they played with just one of those four strikers, they averaged 2.08 goals per match and conceded a scant 0.46 per. That gives them an average goal differential of 1.62. At first glance, it comes out about what you might expect - they both scored and conceded fewer goals on average. Their average goal differential was actually higher in matches where they had two strikers and yet I'm saying the data suggest that they are better with 1. The reason for that is that their opponents were much better on average the times they played only one up top. In qualifying for the World Cup, for example, they played with only one against Bosnia-Herzegovina both times and Belgium, Turkey and Armenia once. They played two strikers in both matches against Estonia as well as one of them against Belgium, Turkey and Armenia.

Running them through the averages model, which takes into account where the matches were played (home/neutral/away) and opponent strength, it spit out that they are just slightly better at scoring - roughly 1 more goal every 11 matches - and much better defensively - over half a goal fewer conceded on average per match. I think that defensive number is exaggerated - they did better over that small sample of matches than they would if they played those teams in a million parallel universes. As I said, it's not conclusive, but there is some evidence that Spain are better with just one striker.

Del Bosque's Spain and Aragonés's

As I hinted at above, Spain under Del Bosque is different than Spain under Aragonés. The difference mainly comes down to attacking width. For the rest of this article, I will discuss Spain's tactics from Euro 2008. While I think this is interesting and relevant to the discussion of what Spain should do tactically, it is largely background or information. If you are only interested in a discussion of the formations Spain will use in this World Cup, go ahead and skip this part and go to part 3 (coming soon) which will discuss that.

Aragonés's "4-4-2"

Here is how Spain played in Euro 2008 when both Torres and Villa were on the pitch:

This is different than how they lined up at the start and how most described the lineup. Actually, I don't recall anyone describing it this way, but to me the formation was more like a Brazilian 4-2-2-2 than a 4-4-2. Silva started and was listed on the left, but played on the right side of Iniesta most of the time. Both of them drifted from wing to wing and tended to actually be close together. Neither came close to playing in a traditional winger role that you'd typically see in outside midfielders in a 4-4-2. While Villa and especially Torres made occasional runs out wide, they both stayed pretty narrow for the most part.

I think Jonathan Wilson described the system well in Inverting the Pyramid, though he was talking about 1982 Brazil: "The formation was thus a 4-2-2-2, with a strong central column flanked by two marauding fullbacks in Leandro and Júnior. In a European context, it would have been perceived as lacking width, but this was a team of such fluency and poise in possession that they created it with their movement." (Inverting the Pyramid, page 263)

When someone says something like "Jesus Navas provides width", they typically mean that he plays in a wide attacking role. He stays out there hoping to receive the ball in a dangerous area with the defense out of position because they are more concerned with the other side of the pitch where the main attack is coming from. Because this would be devastating for the opposition, his positioning has the benefit of pulling the defender wider creating more space for the attacking players in the middle. Spain under Aragonés didn't really do that, and not at all in this formation. Despite that, it's a bit misleading to say that they were lacking width.

Spain's mission was to methodically break the other team down using possession and ball movement. They would attack on one side, putting pressure on the defense, poised to take advantage of a mistake. When nothing opened up, they would drop it back and switch the play, moving the attack to the other side or perhaps giving right down the middle a go. Switching the field, even slowly through a series of short passes many of which were backward, forced the defense to rotate. This potentially opened up some holes that Spain could exploit. In other words, they used width in the midfield area instead of using a winger to pull defenders wide or be in a great attacking position if they sagged too far in.

Here are a couple pictures of how it actually looks on the pitch.

In the top one the ball has just been passed up from one of the center backs to Senna, who has just played it over to Xavi. Note how close to the middle Iniesta and Silva are. In this shot, Villa has moved out wide. He did that rarely, though Torres did it on occasion. In the bottom frame, Xavi has just played a free kick to Ramos after a foul about 5 yards back from where he is. You can see that both Iniesta and Silva are on that side and there isn't a single Spaniard on the opposite side within 45 yards of goal.

Aragonés's 4-2-3-1

When Fàbregas came on for Villa, Spain played a pretty standard fluid 4-2-3-1. Cesc, Iniesta and Villa moved around a lot and could be anywhere from either flank to up next to Torres to in a 10 position in the hole to back in the central midfield alongside Xavi, who at times jumped up into the attack as well. Keeping with the width theme, this made them much more spread out in attack. When they attacked down the left, one of the midfielders would be where you would expect the left midfielder to be in a real 4-4-2 - maybe not right out by the touchline but at least as far out as the fullback on that side.

Here is a screenshot shortly after the substitution.

I may have Torres and Silva reversed, it's hard to tell in the video I have. Just before this, Fàbregas made a pass to Sergio Ramos from where Xavi is, Ramos took a couple touches forward and has played it back to Xavi. As you can see, Iniesta is in a much wider position than he was before. He could afford to be because Senna, Xavi and, in this case, Fàbregas dominated the midfield. Silva dropped back shortly after this as well.

The benefit of going with only one striker over the formation above with 2 is that they controled the play even better and had more (some) width in the attacking third. They were also less predictable in attack than with two center forwards. The drawback was obviously that Silva, Iniesta and Fàbregas don't have the positioning or finishing skills of Villa and Torres so the conversion rate was lower on the chances they created.

Under Del Bosque things are different because they have used at least one dedicated wide player - usually on the left wing. That changes the equation, fixing the width issue but creating others. I will discuss the different formations Spain have used in qualifying in part 3.

World Cup Preview: Spain part 1

I'm back. I'll get back to my predictions and some of the old stuff later. I was happy with some of it, but was horribly wrong on other stuff - most notably in failing to predict the collapse of Bordeaux, Leverkusen and Juventus. Right now I want to get some World Cup previews out there while they can still be called previews. As you'll see I'm going to go for depth over breadth. I have a lot to write about Spain, so I'm covering them first.

Form or Recent Results

It's always tough to talk about form with national teams because they play so rarely together, but Spain are coming in off the best results of any side in the competition. The only blemish in the last 2 years is the Confederations Cup semifinal exit at the hands of the United States in a 0-2 upset. In qualification for the World Cup, Spain's group was about average for UEFA with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey, Belgium, Estonia and Armenia. They completely dominated, with a perfect 10-0-0 record and a goal differential of +2.3 per match. Excluding stoppage time, they led for 437 minutes, spent 397 minutes even with their opponents and trailed for a total of just 66 minutes. The core of the current squad goes back to Euro 2008, which they won in impressive fashion.

In the European Championship, both qualifying and the finals, and World Cup qualifying Spain carry a record of 25-1-2 or 24-2-2 depending on whether you prefer to count the win over Italy on penalties as a win or draw. Either way it's quite impressive, as is their +1.67 goal differential per match. Obviously it's a different format and team strengths and so on, but to give you an idea, in the Primera, Serie A, English Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 the only clubs that had a higher average goal differential this season were Barcelona (+1.95 per match), Chelsea (+1.87) and Real Madrid (+1.76).


Spain will start every match with the second best midfield in the competition… on their bench. They have an unbelievable pool of ball-moving midfielders that allows them to dominate possession and control the action no matter whom they are up against. Unlike recent selecciones, they have two great wingers, Jesus Navas and Mata, available to come off the bench to change things up. Villa and Torres give them two world-class strikers and they have arguably the best keeper in the world in Casillas. Their defense is the obvious weakness, but that's because it's the only group of players that doesn't jump out as incredibly strong - all defenders in the squad are perfectly adequate. In any case, they don't have to do much defending because of the way they dominate possession. I will discuss specific players and how I see them, or more accurately would like to see them, lining up in the next article, which will be an in-depth discusses of their tactical issues.

The Draw

As I said in the post I made after the draw, in my view Spain were one of the biggest losers in the draw. This may seem shocking because they don't have an especially tough group. Chile did quite well in qualifying but are lacking in World Cup experience, Switzerland are one of the weaker sides from UEFA and Honduras are just happy to be there. This all ignores the most important factor - Spain's goal is not to get out of the group but to win the World Cup. Given that, the group is relatively unimportant. The important matches are in the knockout stage and that's where Spain has it tough.

Assuming they win the group, the Spaniards will face the second best out of Brazil, Côte d'Ivoire and Portugal which are most likely the toughest second-place team to advance. In the quarterfinal, the most likely opponent is Italy. Considering overall quality, Italy should probably be around average for the last eight, but they match up very well with Spain - more on that later. Speculating on the semifinal opponent is ridiculously premature, but eyeballing the groups and bracket for the knockout rounds it looks like Spain would likely face the weakest or second-weakest semifinal team unless there is a big upset somewhere.

Good and Bad Matchups

From the last few years we have a pretty decent idea what it takes to beat Spain. The most obvious place to look is the loss to the United States in the Confederations Cup. The only other blemish in the last 2 years was Italy holding them scoreless for 120 minutes. Thinking outside the box, by far the most similar side to Spain is Barça. There is obviously a lot of overlap in the squads and the two play a pretty similar style. The sides that have had success against Spain and Barça have a lot of similar qualities. They are disciplined, well organized, and comfortable playing very defensive football if that is required. Something that needs to be said is that they also generally had a lot of luck, had a very high conversion rate on their own chances and some amazing play from their goalkeeper and center backs. It's not easy or even likely, but that seems to be the formula. In contrast, teams that are accustomed to open, attacking play that aren't the most solid defensively have tended to get destroyed. Examples include Russia at Euro 2008, Arsenal against Barça in the Champions League and Real Madrid during the 2008-2009 season.

In this competition, let's compare the Netherlands and Italy. These are two potential quarterfinal opponents if the group stage works out the right way. The Dutch are more heavily favored compared to Italy by the betting markets and were much more impressive in qualifying. If the 32 teams played out a league, I think the Dutch would be heavy favorites to finish above Italy. However, Spain would much prefer to play the Netherlands in the knockout round because they match up so much worse against Spain than Italy do.

The Group Stage

Looking at their group, the first opponent will be a good early test. Switzerland should be completely outmatched, but they are just the type of team that match up relatively well against Spain. Expect them to keep a lot of guys back. Honduras the second matchday should present no problems whatsoever. Going into the third match, Spain should have already won the group so we should see mostly substitutes. That match is against the most interesting opponent because Chile play a fairly unique 3-3-1-3 formation.

The next article will discuss the issue of starting two strikers or one, going back to Euro 2008. Here is the link.