Tuesday, June 8, 2010

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment