All the good times....they have to come to an end sometime. And so they did today for Spain, eliminated at the group stage from the World Cup for the first time since 1998. Before a partisan crowd in the Maracana, Chile took the match to La Roja from the opening whistle, and came away with a 2-0 win.
Coach del Bosque made a couple of changes, bringing in Javi Martinez for Gerard Piqué, and dropping Xavi in favor of Pedro. The first was presumably a response to the complete lack of understanding between Sergio Ramos and Piqué against the Netherlands; the second, an attempt to generate some width in attack.
But again, Spain looked flat, tired, and old. Chile defended extremely well, and outfought the Spaniards to the ball time after time. The first goal was set up by a giveaway from Xabi Alonso, and the subsequent incisive passing from Chile resulted in an easy goal for Eduardo Vargas. Chile's second came from a goalkeeping error (sigh) from Iker Casillas, who punched a ball to the feet of Charles Araguaniz, who fired it back where it came from and past the veteran keeper. This happened just before halftime, and Spain did little in the second half, Chile content to press high up the pitch, look for counterattacks, and generally waste time until the end.
What went wrong?
Vicente del Bosque is loyal to a fault, and that was a major problem, though not the only problem, here--Iker Casillas, David SIlva, and Xabi Alonso were significantly below their best, but youngsters like Jordi Alba had a horrible two matches as well. Of the veterans, only Andres Iniesta seemed to have any spark. And Diego Costa was not fit, or else the boos of the Brazilian crowd has mentally unnerved him. He has looked lost.
Yes, this team looked tired and old, unable to reproduce the high tempo that has been such a characteristic of Spain in recent years. But more than that, top-level opponents have changed their tactics.
Spain's success was built on width from the attacking fullbacks and attacking midfielders, quick passing around the opposition's penalty area, and a high defensive line essentially collapsing the play into half the pitch, coupled with an almost manic desire to win the ball back by quick pressing. That worked well for quite a while, as the haul of trophies attest.
But at the Confederations Cup last year, first in the semifinal with Italy and then in the final loss to Brazil, teams began to set up differently against Spain. Just as in basketball, a pressing team hates to be pressed--and so opponents have started pressing higher up the pitch themselves. This has had a number of effects.
First, it has tended to force Spain's fullbacks to sit further back, so attacks aren't spread so wide, nor launched forward as quickly (there are some personnel issues that have hurt, too).
Second, Spain's weak link--even in the 2006-2012 trophy run--has been their defense. The short possession game partly was designed to protect this weak spot--hence the importance of a player like Sergio Busquets, sitting in front of the centerbacks and shielding them from counterattacks--his interventions often gave Piqué, Puyol and the fullbacks time to get back into a defensive shape . But when the opposition creates a turnover in the Spain half by high pressing, there's less ground for the counterattack to cover, so less chance for the back line to quickly retreat into a defensive position. That's especially true when the opponents have an advantage in speed, as was the case today.
Third, when Spain were winning, they weren't winning big--usually 1-0, 2-0--and a surprising number of their goals came not from passing ad infinitum, but from winning back possession quickly around the opponent's box and pushing the ball forward in a quick, direct attack. Regardless of whether it was Cesc Fabregas playing as a "false nine", or David Villa in a more forward role, think of many of Spain's goals in recent years. Not so much passing the ball into the net as passing while looking for the incisive pass to create a scoring chance--all at a high tempo. This didn't happen in Brazil.
Part of the problem is del Bosque went for a different kind of directness, or hoped to, with Costa, which didn't work; but beyond that, Spain have quick players, technically skillled players, but not, by international standards, exceptionally fast or strong players--certainly not tall players. By pressing further upfield, opponents have limited the importance of Spain's skills (since they can still use their pace to cut off the danger, or make a physical challenge which won't result in a dangerous free kick, since it's not close to the box) while focusing attention on their weaknesses.
Well, most immediately, Spain have one more match, against already-eliminated Australia, and it's to be hoped del Bosque will treat this as an opportunity to play a different lineup. And who knows, he may well hand over the reins to someone else after this tournament. But beyond that?
Clearly, Spain has a playing style that has generally worked, at all age levels (U-17, U-19, U-21, U-23) so we should not expect major system changes. But I hope Spain uses the next two years (including qualifying for Euro 2016) to make wholesale changes in personnel. David de Gea, Gerard Deulofeu, Iñigo Martinez, Isco, etc....there are plenty of players who could potentially come in and make an impact over this time. And of course, there are plenty of players on the squad now who will continue to play. But the focus needs to be on remaking the side.
As far as tactics are concerned, I'm less sanguine, but I'd start with the observation that in both of these matches, Spain had between 55-60% of the possession at most, and this has been the trend of late (I believe this stat was similar against Italy and Brazil last year). So Spain are at something of a crossroads: do they accept this possession figure as roughly good enough, but try to figure out how to vary their approach, perhaps replacing Xavi with a more diagonal-ball/long-ball passer, like a Borja Valero, to link midfield to a conventional striker or strikers? (It might help if Spain could consistently figure out some set-piece magic in the air, too).
Or, do they try to rebuild the team with players who can compete better physically with the pressing, or have more speed to get behind teams that try to play a high line, so that the possession game again has more room to play in and possession percentages rise? Of course, the answer depends partly on personnel, but personnel decisions depend partly on tactics too. Whatever, it has been a great run, and it will be interesting to see what--and who--come next.