La Roja’s decline
The 21st century has been a witness to breathtaking football over the years. Spain’s golden generation, undoubtedly the most dominant force in world football at the time, etched their name in football folklore after their victory over Italy in the final of the UEFA Euro 2012. With successive triumphs in the UEFA Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, the Spain national football team were being dubbed as the greatest team to grace a football pitch. But all good things must come to an end, and such is the story of La Roja.
It was at the Confederations Cup final in 2013, a tournament considered to be a dress rehearsal for the World Cup finals, where they looked like a side that were in danger of losing their ascendancy. An early cross and a goal-mouth scramble saw Brazil take the lead at the Maracanã, just two minutes into the game. As the match progressed, Brazil added two more goals to the scoreline and won their third consecutive Confederations Cup. The ease with which the Canarinha broke down Spain’s renowned tiki-taka was a matter of grave concern among the Spanish media. What seemed like a minor blow to their ceaseless dominance, turned out to be the beginning of their decline.
After securing qualification by winning their group, Spain kicked off their World Cup campaign against the Netherlands in Salvador, Brazil. In the much-anticipated rematch of the finalists from the 2010 World Cup, Louis Van Gaal opted for a system with three centre backs and two wing-backs for the Dutch. The flaws in this set-up were exposed time and again in the first half by Spain. Diego Costa capitalized on the poorly maintained high line and won a penalty, which was converted by Xabi Alonso. The game was going Spain’s way up until Robin Van Persie headed home a stunning equalizer just before half time. The match then took a sharp turn, and the Oranje ran riot in the second half. Alonso and Busquets, playing as a double-pivot, gave the Netherlands the freedom to attack through the wide areas. The Spanish centre-backs were put under pressure and were compelled to deal with the Dutch counter-attacks. These tactics prompted their break down, and the match ended 5-1 in favour of Van Gaal’s side.
This was followed by yet another defeat at the hands of Jorge Sampaoli’s Chile. Sampaoli went for a 3-4-3 formation with Vidal as a false nine behind Alexis Sánchez. An effective high tempo pressing technique, with a defensive overload in the middle of the pitch, exhausted Spain and they lost the match 2-0. Del Bosque’s side followed a path similar to that of Italy’s in 2010 and were eliminated as the reigning champions in the group stages of the tournament. A 3-0 victory over Australia spared Spain’s blushes, and they went back home with just three points.
It was time for Spain to defend their European Championship in the UEFA Euro 2016 held in France. Heading to the tournament with a suitable mix of young and experienced players, Vincent Del Bosque’s Spain looked like a different side having gone a year without tasting defeat. The opening match against the Czech Republic was a hard-fought victory for the Spaniards. The lack of goal scoring opportunities did not put a stop to their possession-based approach. An Andrés Iniesta masterclass equipped the guile and execution for an 87th-minute winner by Pique. A 3-0 win over Turkey in their second game, saw Spain sit comfortably on top in Group D with six points.
However, the last match of the group stage against Croatia was anything but elementary. Croatia decided to adopt a system similar to that of Chile and started the game with an intense high press with the help of Rakitic and Kalinic. But these tactics were mitigated by Spain due to a lack of ball pressure and compactness from the Croats in the first half. Nonetheless, the second half saw Croatia sitting deeper and allowed Spain to hold the ball. This tactical change by Ante Čačić proved to be the difference as Croatia were decisive on the counters and humbled Spain by winning 2-1. This loss meant that the Spaniards had to play either Italy, Germany or France in the round of 16.
As destiny would have it, Spain faced Italy in a rematch of the Euro 2012 final. Only this time, it was Gli Azzurri who had the last laugh. Antonio Conte went with the 3-5-2 formation, which he often advocates. This formation transforms into a 3-4-3 while going forward, with Florenzi and De Sciglio occupying spaces in the attacking third. A packed midfield frustrated the Spanish playmakers and foiled their efforts to build through the middle, leaving them with no solution to a defensive masterstroke by the Italians. Goals from Giorgio Chiellini and Graziano Pellè put the game to bed as the reigning champions were sent back home yet again.
Spain were impeccable in the lead up to the 2018 World Cup, under Julen Lopetegui. After being unbeaten in the qualifiers, Lopetegui’s side looked destined for the stars. But all hell broke loose when Real Madrid announced that Lopetegui would step in as the new manager after the World Cup campaign. He was sacked by the Spanish Federation on the eve of the World Cup and Fernando Hierro stepped in as head coach.
The opening game against Portugal was one for the books. Cristiano Ronaldo stole the headlines as his hat-trick salvaged a draw for Portugal in a 3-3 thriller. Spain went into the game with a 4-3-3 formation, which saw Isco and David Silva on either side of Diego Costa in attack. The inverted wingers were typically cutting inside, allowing the full-backs to assist the attack out wide. They were spot on tactically, but a late equalizer from Ronaldo precluded Hierro his first win at the helm of the national side. A 1-0 win and a 2-2 draw over Iran and Morocco helped Spain advance to the knockout stage as the winners of Group B.
Their round of 16 clash against hosts Russia shook the world. Hierro switched the formation to a 4-2-3-1 with Busquets and Koke as the double-pivot. La Roja managed to register more than 1000 passes, but it proved to be ineffective against Russia’s low block. The match headed to penalties and the hosts knocked out the 2010 World Champions.
After a poor run in three consecutive major tournaments, it is conspicuous that the era of Spanish dominance has come to an egregious end. The team has now been reduced to a shadow of their former self. With opponents now finding a way to counter their style of tiki-taka, adoption of a new gameplan could help Spain return to former glory.
Written by Rohan Ajit | Feature Image by David Ramos/Getty Images
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