Control Freaks Out

Analysis

  • An exciting World Cup has no place for risk-averse Spain
  • Under Vicente Del Bosque, Spain became conservative – and boring

One week in and the champions are out. Is it really a coincidence that as this most-exciting of World Cups gets into full swing, Spain are going home, discredited, exhausted, and spent?

The Spanish side of 2008 was an effervescent, attacking team, entertaining and effective in equal measure. By 2010, expectation had taken its toll and they toiled to four consecutive 1-0 victories to clinch a maiden World Cup. The superior technique and method of the Spaniards gave rise to a snobbery of analysis. Spain, we were told, were a “proactive” team because they hogged the ball, recycled it, and kept it, eventually wearing down their bewildered opponents to score the one goal that would take them through to the next round.

Many people found this boring – which is a valid subjective response to what is, after all, a matter of style. Others railed at the sheer effrontery of such an impertinent notion. Spain were superior. It was the fault of other teams who, in the parlance, “parked the bus” and so subjected the watching millions to the tedium of the menacing merry-go-round of tiki-taka.

Yet, the reality was that Spain were as “reactive” as counter-attacking sides such as Germany. That’s because, for Spain, possession wasn’t an attacking, “proactive” imposition of creative intent. It was a negative, defensive tactic designed to maintain “control” by denying the opposition the chance to hurt them. Without the ball, even the thrilling, visceral brilliance of Joachim Loew’s team was rendered impotent. Spain’s sterile domination¬†neutralised all-comers.

Unlike Luis Aragones’s 2008 vintage, Del Bosque’s team monopolised possession as a spoiling tactic – and it was a spoiling tactic because they so rarely sought to use it positively by penetrating opposition defenses, largely because that increased the chances of losing it. That’s what made Spain boring. The intent was to control – and control is about minimising risk. Without a Lionel Messi to break deadlocks, Spain settled for sterile control and wore down opponents, striking only when they’d nodded off, drugged into a groggy submission.

Pep Guardiola has taken this risk-averse control-freakery to new heights at Bayern Munich this year. But the emperor has no clothes as his defenestration at the hands of Real Madrid confirms. The irony is that Spain’s era of domination was not ended just by a counter-attacking northern European team like Holland, but also by a hungrier South American version of itself. Chile, energetic, and suffocating, beat Spain at its own game.

Sated by years of being feted as legends, Spain’s greatest players finally keeled over, bellies full, satisfied with their own monumental achievements. Without the desire, they couldn’t rouse themselves to compete with the intensity of yore and have gone home a busted flush.

Make no mistake. Spain 2008-2012 was as good a team as modern football has seen. But it was Aragones’s version that will be most fondly remembered. That incarnation was hungry, ravenous, and penetrative. They sought possession so that they could take a few risks with it. That’s the way we should remember them.

 

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Filed under 2014 FIFA World Cup

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