Spain, ‘boring’? Don’t blame them for being the best soccer players around

June 29, 2012

Michael Madero

As Spain prepares to take on Italy in the final of this year’s European championships, catcalls are pouring in from the terraces and living rooms around the world. Winning by playing possession-style soccer, it seems, is not enough for some. Tribes within the global audience want end-to-end action -- bursts of running and screaming and shots on goal, and that’s not what they’ve been getting from the Spanish team. (More like the English Premier League, please. Not to mention the fact that whichever team wins the championship will have played six games in 22 days!)

While Spain has played a bit sub par compared to the team’s impossibly high norm and has lacked a tip on the end of its sword, the team’s possession (68 percent) and web of intricate passing has seemingly lulled viewers to sleep; 1-0 games are not exciting enough, they complain.

I have a few replies to this.

Spain is not boring  it is the opponents!

Yes, that’s right! It’s not that Spain is boring; naysayers should say it’s boring watching an opponent play against Spain. The Spanish win 1-0 because the other guys just pack it in. They are timid; or they are playing “tactically.” Yet, Spain is labeled a snoozefest. C’mon.

Call it what you want, but the Spanish players are better and their opponents in respecting their abilities. Every team adapts their game to defend against the Spanish. They have to. If they open up the game and move players forward, they risk a four or five goal drubbing.

So what we see are these incredibly compact games where there is very little space to create chances on goal. And there is only one team playing; the other team is just chasing and trying to disrupt the game.

The Spanish control the game. They keep their composure and connect ten, 15, 20 passes.  They probe, dart and needle their way into the 18-yard box. 

Any one of their forward players is one touch away from the sublime. You only need to think back to Silva’s deft pass to Iniesta for the goal against the Italians in their first game of the tournament.

Their opponents, even at their best, defend resolutely and look to make the best of the few moments when they win possession. Hopefully they will have someone of Rondaldo’s stature to execute the few opportunities that come their way. (In fact, the Portuguese were magnificent in their central defense and menacing runs. Cristiano unbalanced the Spanish on numerous occasions.)

What fans forget

Spain has conceded one goal all tournament. (It was made by perhaps the tournament’s best player, Italy’s Andrea Pirlo.) In those rare moments when the Spanish lose possession, watch the kind of zeal they employ to win the ball back.

Perhaps what has set this generation of players apart from their predecessors is not just their cultivated skill or the fact that the core of the team plays the same way at Barcelona; it is their mental strength.

Even when they are being hacked, pulled and kicked all over the park, Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Fabregas et all keep their cool and continue to play their game with the confidence that the goal will come.

This resilience was very apparent in the semi-final against Portugal. After countless yellow cards and constant stoppages in the game, Spain excelled in extra-time creating several quality chances. They knew the Portuguese would grow tired of chasing the ball.  Suddenly, there was more space to play into and, with the aid of substitutes Navas and Pedro, the Spanish tika taka soccer burst into dangerous attacking sequences.

They prevailed in penalties. Perennial underachievers in the past, now Spain just win; even when not at their best. 

See the beauty, appreciate the artistry

The other defense I would put forward in the case of Spain is one based on the technical ability that makes the Spanish players so easy on the eye.

Great technical players share a vocabulary -- a special grammar. Many players in the Spanish squad come from the club side FC Barcelona where they have spent years (in some cases over a decade) in the youth academy, on the reserves and on the first team practicing and adhering to a possession-style philosophy.

Xavi. Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro and Busquets play in triangles, always moving and creating space and passing angles. They keep the ball only as long as needed until it is moved to a teammate. They wait for a defender to step wrong or to become unbalanced before delivering a dagger pass into the 18-yard box.

Xavi, the leader and orchestrator in the midfield, has a soccer IQ that is off the charts.  Much like a champion billiards player, he can see the game unfold many sequences in advance. He instantly assesses the movement of players and the time and space that is available and makes a pass that, by virtue of its weight and placement, predicts the next play.

In terms of cognition, the level at which these Spanish players are able to survey and identify and use their working memory to multi-task and problem solve is extraordinary.

Add athleticism and exceptional mastery of the ball, and you have a team that not only can discern the texture of game’s movement, but also one that has the ability to execute the kind of play that is required.

The final

No team is complete without overwhelming desire and a clear sense of purpose. The Spanish are a team (not just a collection of individual talents) whose greatest strength lies in their collective understanding of each other and in their shared responsibility to the way they play. There are too many great players for anyone to have an over-sized ego.  Instead they play for each other and for their country.

They understand the expectancy of history that awaits them in the final game.  If they win, they underline their claim to dynasty by claiming a World Cup title book ended by two consecutive European championships. 

Finally, we may never see a team like this again. Spain (and by extension Barca) has internalized a style of play that is so discriminative and uncompromising, exalted by so many technically gifted players, that they should be considered artists.

At their best, they are proselytizers for the imagery and achievements of the highest order of the game.

And the winner is. . . .

The skill, coherence, intelligence and mentality fortitude of the Spanish should see them win an unprecedented third major title in a row.

Only skill and intelligence of equal measure from Andrea Pirlo, the cleverness of Antonio Cassano, or few spasms of brilliance from Mario Balotelli, will dethrone the current overlords of the game. Or maybe an untimely slip on a wet surface, a wayward hand in the penalty box, or a tearing of a few muscles from one match to many at the end of an already too long season could do in La Roja.

If Italy plays attacking soccer like they have for the better part of the tournament, then this conversation about a boring Spanish side will be put to rest. Goals and waves of scoring chances will flow through the game.

But if Italy, ever the strong-minded and clever tacticians that they are, sit deep in their own half and defend, remember that was not the Spanish passing orchestra that decided that the game would look like this. 

Take delight in the courage Spain possess to not compromise their ability and their style of play in what is to be sure a most provocative affair.  All of their skill, intelligence, charisma, and confidence will be laid bare -- for better or for worse.

One thing is for certain, though. It will not be boring!