Vicente Del Bosque has used his press conferences in recent weeks to try and shake off the “favourites” tag which has been attached to his side ahead of the World Cup, something he sees as an unnecessary burden upon the shoulders of his players. Superlative performances such as last night’s 6-0 demolition of Poland in Murcia, however, will hardly serve to dampen the expectations surrounding this beautifully balanced and cohesive Spanish team.
Set-up in the 4-2-3-1 system the Coach has favoured in the pre-tournament friendlies, with Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso both deployed as holding players in the midfield, Spain went about unpicking Franciszek Smuda’s side with the domineering possession football and exquisite passing we have come to expect from La Furia Roja.
Indeed, the team that took to the field last night was very close to being the eleven that is expected to take to the field against Switzerland in Durban a week on Monday, with Sergio Ramos coming in for Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back being the only likely change.
One of the most notable elements of Spain’s play was the regularity with which David Silva and Andres Iniesta, the team’s nominal wingers, cut inside to link up with David Villa in attack, with Alvaro Arbeloa and Joan Capdevila – full-backs of an adventurous nature – given extra space into which they could get forward and overlap, providing secondary width to the attacks and causing their opposite numbers to be overloaded in defence.
This additional width has made and continues to make Del Bosque’s team a fearful prospect for opposing defences and played a significant role in the goals of Villa and Fernando Torres, both of which saw the Polish full-backs pulled out of position and exposed by the rapidity of the Spanish pass-and-move game.
It was also interesting to observe the roles which were adopted by the three central players (Busquets, Alonso and Xavi), and how they altered over the course of the game. Xavi, of course, played far enough advanced to make the system appear more of a 4-2-3-1 than a 4-3-3 (although the formation could, at times, be seen to be the latter), pulling the strings roughly 30-40 yards from goal as he has done so effectively for Barcelona for more than a decade now, and acting as the fulcrum through which the team’s creativity is channeled.
Both Busquets and Alonso, however, played from a deeper position, taking it in turns to get forward when required, with the Real Madrid player adopting the more active role in build-up play, spraying diagonal balls to the flanks in the “quarter-back” fashion that has become increasingly popular of late. Of the two, it was Busquets who was given slightly more defensive responsibility, almost becoming an auxiliary centre-half on those rare occasions when Spain gave the ball away and were forced to defend Polish set-pieces.
Such is the breathtaking strength-in-depth of this Spanish squad, the replacement of Xavi with Cesc Fabregas mid-way through the second-half saw no break in the rhythm and fluency of their passing, with the Arsenal playmaker excelling and even getting himself on the score sheet, a major positive for Del Bosque considering the concerns over Cesc’s fitness in the build-up to the World Cup and the possible need for an understudy to Xavi, a player who is not 100% fit himself. The Coach will also be buoyed by the goalscoring return of Fernando Torres – who made his first appearance since recovering from his own recent injury problems – and Pedro’s first international goal, a deft chip over the helpless Tomasz Kuszcak to complete the six-goal rout. It may have “only” been a friendly, but Spain will take a great deal of heart from last night’s performance, a performance which showed the team at its very best in the wake of two slightly below-par displays against South Korea and Saudi Arabia.
Del Bosque’s men, with their aesthetic brand of football (see David Silva’s goal below for a prime example) and strong team spirit, will travel to South Africa on Thursday as the deserved favourites to lift the World Cup for what would be the first time in their country’s history. If they continue to play as they have been for the last three years, then surely only Dunga’s Brazil and, perhaps, the weight of history can stop them now. Spain expects, it’s up to the players to deliver on the biggest stage of them all.