Getting annoyed by that bloody Octopus? Our Columnist Tom Smith is, here he gives you the proof of Spain’s talent. More than any Octopus could give you.
Spain are the best team in the tournament and have deservedly won a place in Sundays World Cup final with Holland. This isn’t supposition or just my opinion, its as close to footballing fact as you can get.
They work on the simplest of premises. You can’t score if you don’t have the ball. To do this, they first try not to loose it but once they do they are perhaps are not given the credit they deserve for pressuring the opposition to coughing up the ball sooner or later.
For starters, Spain have attempted the most passes (4206) with Holland and Germany closest behind (3366 and 3357). However that difference amounts to almost the total amount of passes attempted by New Zealand, Honduras orNigeria in all of their groups games. The gulf between the rich and poor is as stark on the football pitch as it is in South African society.
It’s no surprise to anyone who has watched the Spanish play that they also have the best total pass completion rate, with two thirds going on medium range passes, for which they have an even better completion rate. The FIFA statistics also show they have attempted the most long passes, with their opponents in the final only just behind. However Spains completion rate when hitting the ball long is almost 20% better than Holland’s and 20% is not exactly a tight margin!
The Spanish are not toothless sideways passing addicts either, their possession dominance allows them to top the charts with the most shots, only Germany have had more shots from inside the box, and are ranked third in shots from range. They have the most crosses with 146 with Germany a long way behind on 114 and Holland crossing only 87 times. It’s a similar story with corners and corners completed. They cover the most distance when in possession and get forward; tonight Germany looked exhausted in the last 15 minutes having to chase the ball.
The always excellent German Captain Phillip Lahm cut a frustrated figure towards the end. When you understand Lahm is still only 26 and has been nurtured through a German football education that has tried to mirror the Spanish school, it’s easy to understand his disappointment. His Bayern Munich coach Louis van Gaal (a former Barcelona Coach and part of the Dutch mafia that has created the current era of Spanish domination) has been explicit on his determination to mould Bayern’s future on the products coming out of La Masia. Schweinsteigers growth from wing wizard to midfield general has been an undoubted success. His technical ability (well learnt as a tricky and pacey attacker) has been transferred to centre midfield in a reflection of the Xavi Hernandez style of having your most talented player to play as your fulcrum. It’s in this position after all that the ball is seen the most. (This is the same school of thought that Alex Ferguson was a member of when he attempted to turn Alan Smith from a not-so-prolific striker into a replacement for Roy Keane. You have to applaud the vision if nothing else).
A friend of mine, the day after the game updated his Facebook status with the thought that the real architect of Spain’s World Cup final appearance is Pep Guardiola. Now you would think this to be true if you had begun watching football in only the last 2 years or never read a book on Barcelona, Spanish football. Or, were just ignorant of the Dutch methodology employed in Cataluña since Johan Cruyff returned as manager in 1988, winning 4 league championships and all 3 major European competitions. (Previous to that Barca had endured the stewardship of Terry Venables and Louis Aragones, they were indeed strange times)
A Catalonian version of Total Football imported with a Latin twist from the Ajax school has blossomed ever since. Custodians of the mantra have come and gone, Bobby Robson for a year (’96-’97) where he won the European Cup Winners Cup, Van Gaal and two his La Liga titles followed and Frank Rijkaard whose successes have continued under the family tradition with Guardiola.
Spain, with 7 of its starting 11 last night hailing from Barcelona, are simply an extension of this philosophy and structure. Throughout the tournament there have been omnipresent faces of Casillas, Puyol, Pique, Capedvilla, Ramos, Busquestes (who is still only 21!), Alonso (who had his best game so far last night) to form a brilliant defensive unit that is without doubt the most skilful in the world. Add to this, Xavi, Iniesta and Villa going forward and you have 10 players who pick themselves.
That precious remaining slot was rewarded to the 22 year old Pedro Rodriguez, another Masia graduate, who did his best Joe Cole impression last night. On any other occasion, that slot could have gone to Fernando Torres (who is the oldest of the contenders at 26), Cesc Fabregas (23), Juan Mata (22), David Silva (24), Jesus Navas (24) or Javier Martinez (21), all phenomenally talented and the term rich pickings hardly gives the Spanish the credit they deserve.
Say what you like about FIFA and Sepp Blatter (and I say more than most) but it looks like this tournament will do exactly what it should, for the good of the game and give us the winners who play the best football (at least by any measure that’s worth taking).