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.


  1. "While Villa and ESPECIALLY Torres made occasional runs out wide, they both stayed pretty narrow for the most part. "
    "In this shot, Villa has moved out wide. He did that RARELY, though Torres did it on occasion."

    I think you're wrong about this. ZonalMarking got it correct. Villa plays a bit behind Torres and drifts to either wing (usually the left). The Torres playing as a SS theory comes up only because the English media can't understand why Villa scores more than Torres.

    David Villa himself says: "If I play alone up front, then I tend to play central. But if there is another striker, I don't mind shifting to one wing." (Link: http://www.fifa.com/worldcup/news/newsid=1223113/index.html )

    I think the best example of this would be Spain's match against Russia at the Euros in the group stages that ended 4-1 with a hat-trick by Villa. Most of the game, Villa played behind Torres and sometimes even recovering balls in central midfield.
    Villa said about Torres after the match:
    "I dedicate my goals to him," said Villa. "He made my first two goals with his pass and by creating space, so it was because of him I scored a hat-trick."
    I also remember him saying something like Torres draws out defenders, so he is able to score more, but I can't find the link.

    But of course, Villa is able to score when he is alone up front as well.

    David Villa has much experience playing in other positions. At the 2006 World Cup, he started on the left-wing most of the time. He also played the whole 2006-2007 season for Valencia in the whole, making the most number of assists (Link: http://soccernet.espn.go.com/columns/story?id=439749&cc=4716 )

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    It's certainly possible Villa was more inclined to go out wide than I remember. I may have put too much attention on the semifinal against Russia, when he stayed pretty central the 33 minutes or so he was on and Torres made a handful of runs out wide to the right. That was the main match I focused on when writing the article as the difference between them with both Villa and Torres and just one of them was so dramatic.

    I still maintain the overall point that they had attacking-width problems, at least compared to a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 or even a typical 4-4-2. These problems went away to a large extent when Cesc came on because the extra man in the midfield forced Iniesta and Silva out due to natural spacing.

    Your point about Villa playing on the wing is completely correct. I wasn't trying to suggest that he can't play out there and hope I didn't come across that way. As I said in part 3, I think Spain's best formation is a 4-3-3 with him in a dedicated wide role on the left wing and Silva on the right wing with a lot of freedom. Based on yesterday's match, Jesus Navas might be better than Silva but in any case I like Torres in the middle and Villa on the left wing.

    Thanks again for the comments.