For all Spain’s intricate passing, dominance of zones and aggressive defending what destroyed Irish hope was a simple spear thrust – a Fernando Torres straight through the heart. Despite the romantic image of the nation, Spain play football like the Borg would if they ever assimilated the game. There is something devastatingly robotic, and hypnotic, about their play. They keep the ball tentatively out of your reach. They rock you from side to side like a babe-in arms. They lull you into a kind of dazed weariness and then suddenly pounce with either a precision pass to the feet of a man between the lines or a through-ball of the kind Torres put such a superb finish on for the 3rd goal.
It’s telling that the Spanish nail in Ireland’s expertly-laid coffin wasn’t hammered in until the 49th minute. Spain are in no hurry to finish you off. They’d rather wear you down and let you finish yourself off. Like a boxer with the longer reach already ahead on points they’ll shield themselves from your flurries and simply wait for the opponent to force their guard down, in this case an opponent attempting to painstakingly form a small, green rectangle every time Spain stepped forward. Xavi, Iniesta and Alonso all personify this approach, players who value possession like a philatelist does a penny black, artful yet full of repetition, low scoring yet absolutely devastating.
Then there’s the Spanish defence. I can already hear a generic British pundit scoffing about their ‘get-at-ability’ but the fact is that their back four isn’t intended to defend as other nations do. The Spanish philosophy is ironclad within its supposed flexibility: they will not compromise on pressing, on possession, on defending with a high-line – and why should they? They are the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, having unified all the belts. Seen in this light Arbeloa, Ramos, Pique and Alba all fit like gloves. All have recovery pace. All keep possession with monotonous reliability. Three are genuine threats in attack, Arbeloa the slouch in merely being decent, consistent and occasionally dangerous. Even then, he’s a phenomenal defender by any standards, new or old, with a solidity and level of concentration few can match. How many can claim to have kept a Messi, even if a 90% fit one, in their pockets?
Torres is the black sheep of this family. In a Borg football team, he’s a man with a spear in the final stages of a hunt for dangerous prey. When he hesitates, he fails. He must act with absolute faith in his instincts, and when he does we all know why he is such a born killer: because when he is in that zone, his instincts almost never fail him. But even instincts must be honed. In this, Torres has Rafa Benitez and Xavi Valero to thank for the intellectual honing of his finishing at Liverpool. His first goal spoke not only of the power of instinct, but also of Valero’s dossier of goalkeeping weaknesses. Given was exposed at the near post, caught flat on his feet. A static keeper of the old school outdone by the early shot.
The dilemma for Spain is that the thrust in their system usually comes from the ‘3’ in the ‘4-2-3-1’, and this tends to work better when the front man is also a player who hoards possession when it comes into feet. It sucks the defenders towards him when the ‘1’ drops off the line, creating space for the ‘3’ to run into. With Torres up front they often struggle to find their rhythm. Torres is playing his own, ancient, deadly game but the regularity with which he gives it away is a problem. Very often his best contribution comes by not touching the ball at all –moving constantly to provide the ever-present shadow of a threat in behind.
What perhaps made the key difference today was the way Spain interpreted their 4-3-3 formation, with Iniesta, Silva and Torres almost forming a diamond shape with Xavi playing more, but not quite, like a No. 10. With the solidity of Alonso and Busquets in front of the CBs Arbeloa and Alba were to all intents and purposes playing as traditional wingers but for one crucial difference – a favouring of possession over crossing, which is a very low-percentage pass.
Time after time, Ireland punted it forward vaguely towards Keane only to have a Spanish head or foot intercept it around the half-way line, and send it neatly on its way to another Spanish foot. If you’re going to play this way, and against Barҫa it’s surely as good a bet as any, then you need to go all out for it. Look at Stoke. They barely have a player who doesn’t look like a body double for a Rocky training montage, and only a handful less than six feet tall. They ignore midfield, the players there almost becoming auxiliary centre-backs.
They have pace on the wings, consistent crossing, a big tall guy who can keep it and a big tall fast guy who can smack it one. It’s brutal football, but like a club to the head it isn’t pleasant to be on the end of. Ireland never had any kind of chance by in any way trying to meet the Spanish on their terms. This Spain team, and the players at club level, face an Ireland pretty much every single time they play. They’ve gotten very, very good at opening one up, letting it twitch for a bit and then stabbing the bit that makes it all work.
Jack Charlton and Niall Quinn would most likely still have lost, but at the very least Spain would have been wary of giving away set-pieces, and on the stereotypical rainy night, with a weak, lenient and underdog-friendly ref, Charltonian tactics could have worked. Keane up front alone was never going to score without a player of surgical precision behind him. The only player I can think of for the Irish who matches that bill is Stephen Ireland, and his mentality has gone on vacation to the extent that he didn’t even make it into a very skill-deficient Irish squad.
As it was, the Irish huffed and puffed a bit, showed enough resilience in the earlier stages to retain their dignity, but ultimately went out as everyone, themselves likely included, expected. Meanwhile Spain look a dead certainty to reach the final again, quite possibly to meet Germany in a reprise of 2008 .
Meanwhile Spain still have their primitively artful enigma to consider. When they’re in synch, Torres and Spainp rovide a combination of astounding lethality, the dark magic of deadly instinct courting the hideous efficiency of a machine-mind. Today’s formation might make the relationship a wedding, and if that happens both Chelsea and Spain will remain teams to be feared.
It is heartening to see Torres back, though. As a Liverpool fan I should theoretically be feeling some sort of betrayal or hatred towards him but, seriously, he plays football like the kid inside you wants to play football. Same as Ronaldo or Messi. If the part of your soul that still loves the game like you did as a child doesn’t rejoice to see Torres’ little skip to get it onto his right foot for his sublime 2nd then it must surely have died long ago, and if that’s the case, why continue to torture yourself with a sport devoid of all joy? Spain play football like an old-grand master plays chess, and yes, they will always be more deadly, but a lot of their deadliness lies in their ability to wield those human spears. To put those kinds of players in positions where their instinct can’t help but take-over. To weld the primitive to the futuristic and create a hybrid of the kind that lives through the ages.
Posted by Seb Crankshaw