There seems to be an agreement over the best way to play against Spain; pack the midfield to suffocate the creative dictators, narrow your shape to force the play out wide, use wingers as auxiliary full backs, hope the Spanish have an off day and when a chance comes – pray that it’s taken.
That seems to be the common consensus because that is how every team lines up against them, albeit with some tweaks here and there. Laurent Blanc’s France were the latest to follow this pattern, abandoning their usual style and shape which brought them into the tournament without a defeat in 21 games. Florent Malouda replaced Samir Nasri to provide more discipline and structure in midfield (although surely Alou Diarra would have been better equipped) and Anthony Reveillere was brought in to play behind Mathieu Debuchy on the right, in an attempt to limit the damage from Jordi Alba.
The result was the same we’ve seen time and time again. You can try and suffocate Xavi all you like but he only needs a fraction of space to operate in and he’ll find it. Get close to Iniesta but he’ll glide away from you, while Xabi Alonso will always somehow find himself as the free man. From the offset the result was inevitable as Spain dominated possession and France never looked like troubling Iker Casillas. Despite playing with two right-backs, the goal still came from Jordi Alba and Laurent Blanc’s best laid plans to stop Spain ended in a meek submission.
Einstein famously said the definition of insanity was repeating the same thing over and over and expecting different results, yet this is what we’ve seen for the last six years. Spain have not even conceded a goal in a knockout game of a major competition since Zinedine Zidane’s strike for France in 2006, so surely we have reached the point where a team needs to break the mould and try something different. It would be foolish to not pay any respect to this Spain side; they are one of the best international sides we’ve ever seen, but this can still be done without abandoning your own strengths and principles.
Next in line to try and end the Spanish procession to the final are Portugal, who play with a counter attacking system naturally suited to the possession based style of Spain. Tactical adjustments have to be made, but for Portugal to be successful they must stick to their own beliefs.
The group stage victory over the Netherlands should provide a blueprint to their approach against Spain. The midfield trio of Veloso, Meireles and Moutinho can afford to sit a little deeper and operate as a more compact unit, but Paulo Bento has to be brave and keep with his front three. The temptation to use Ronaldo as a lone striker where he’ll become isolated should be avoided and either Hugo Almeida or Helder Postiga should be retained, tasked with occupying the Spanish centre-backs.
Alvaro Arbeloa has received a lot of criticism in Spain – some of it harsh – but he is the weakest link in the team. Give Ronaldo the freedom to isolate and attack him and, since David Silva doesn’t like to defend, this should drag Sergio Busquests out of position to cover. Nani should be encouraged to play on the front foot and push Jordi Alba back, preventing those marauding runs and so neutralising that threat. If Portugal can affect Spain’s shape they may be able to affect their rhythm and unsettle them, for too long Spain have been able to play as they please.
Portugal have the weapons in their armoury to trouble Spain but they must utilise them. Follow the mistakes of those in the past and, as Einstein told us, you’d be insane to expect a different result.