One way to understand the lack of excitement produced by Spain in the comfortable march to its third major international title game in just four years is that we’re watching the equivalent of Barcelona playing without the goal-scoring magic of Lionel Messi. A Spanish team built on the sumptuous midfield talents of the Barcelona quartet of Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets and Fabregas — complemented by Manchester City’s David Silva and Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso — plays the game in a broadly similar way to the Catalan giants. It plays keep-ball, both as a defensive strategy to deny opponents the opportunity to attack, and as a way of breaking down the organization and concentration of the opposing defense by attrition. Barca’s typical attack is rarely the lightning charge, as much as the siege, in which the opponent watches the trebuchets and siege engines being wheeled slowly, menacingly into place, but can’t do much to alter the battlefield.
Wednesday’s penalty-shootout victory over Portugal was the ninth consecutive game Spain have completed in the knockout phase of international tournaments without conceding a goal. Portugal, in fact, failed to produce a single shot on target, and most neutrals would agree that although penalty shootouts are like settling a football match with five rounds of rock-paper-scissors, a Portuguese victory in that contest would nonetheless have seemed a travesty.
That, of course, is if the neutrals were still awake to watch that shootout. While Spain had neutralized Portugal’s attacking threat for much of the match — although the Portuguese did show that La Roja could be rattled by pressing high up the pitch which gave them little time on the ball and hurried them into sometimes ineffective passing – it all too rarely threatened the Portuguese goal, only managing four shots on target over the course of the 120 minutes. Indeed, despite their dominance over the past four years of international football, Spain’s signature result in tournaments appears to have become the 1-0 victory. That was the margin by which they beat Germany for the Euro 2008 title, and also the margin by which it bested Holland to take home the World Cup in 2010.
Curiously enough — and, some claim, not unrelated to Spain’s typically low goals tally — the one position that coach Vicente del Bosque has failed to resolve in Spain’s lineup at Euro 2012 is that of striker. He caused a stir in the opening game by starting without one, fielding six midfielders in heavy rotation. He couldn’t easily rely on the strikers that had served him so well in 2008 and 2010 — David Villa has been out injured for six months, while Fernando Torres has suffered a precipitous collapse in form and confidence.
Still, Torres got the nod against Ireland and bagged two, although the dire Irish defense flattered the Chelsea striker. Torres started again against Croatia, but was ineffective and made way on 60 minutes for the winger Jesus Navas. They went strikerless again to dispatch France 2-0 in the quarter-final, and then in the semi-final showdown with Portugal, they took to the field with Alvaro Negredo leading the line. But Negredo, too, proved largely ineffective, and eventually made way for the midfielder Fabregas.
Kicking his heels on the subs bench, the highly impressive Bilbao hitman Fernando Llorente must have wondered what he had to do to get a game. They all bring different qualities, of course: Torres made his reputation on lightning speed with the ball at his feet or hanging on the shoulder of the last defender to spring the offside trap; Negredo can play a combination of different roles, while Llorente is a big, physical player, deadly in the air (although very good with his feet, too).
But none of the combinations tried by del Bosque produced the sort of goal bonanza that Messi so frequently serves up for Barcelona in front of broadly the same midfield. Indeed, even Barca have struggled to integrate new strikers alongside Messi and that established midfield quartet. All have been prolific elsewhere, but at Barca Alexis Sanchez has struggled to score; so did David Villa (before injury ended his season) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic before him. Take Messi out of the equation, and Barca, too, might struggle for goals even as they continued to dominate games.
That’s a problem that will be addressed on the drawing boards of Barcelona and Spain in the months ahead. For now, Spain has a tournament to win, and as it showed at Euro 2008, and again at the 2010 World Cup, you win by scoring just the one if you prevent your opponent scoring any. But the Portugal game showed plenty to encourage either Germany or Italy in the final, particularly Germany because of its youthful energy and depth of quality in midfield and attack. The Germans, in particular, could certainly reprise Portugal’s success in hustling Spain to turn over possession in midfield, and the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Ozil and Thomas Muller may be able to do more to punish Spain when they have the ball than Portugal managed. And, of course, Italy ran them close for a 1-1 draw in the opening group game.
Whether it’s against Germany or Italy, it’s safe to predict that Spain will get its toughest test in the final. That in itself should make the final a more compelling spectacle than any we’ve seen involving Spain until now.