After the opening match tie that both Italian and Spanish supporters believe left their side suffering, commentary quickly refocused itself on the Spanish lineup and Fernando Torres. On the eve of Spain’s second group game, it’s important to pay close attention to the lineups forthcoming and the ensuing and continuing debate.
After the controversy about “would he or wouldn’t he” be called up to the national team for the Euro after a precipitous decline in form since his move to Chelsea, Fernando Torres started the campaign on the bench. Due to an injury keeping Spain’s top goal scorer out of the tournament, David Villa, it seems that Vincente Del Bosque is content not playing any striker at all.
La Furia Roja’s first group game against Italy featured four in the back and six (!) midfielders with Cesc Farbregas featured as the “false nine.” For those unaware, a “false nine” is basically a midfielder in striker’s clothing, who still plays deep in the midfield but serves as the team’s only striking option on the pitch. Many football fans erupted on twitter that this was such a departure from the norm that even the talent rich Spain would have difficulty scoring. However, Del Bosque’s move was not that unconventional if you consider the success that Barcelona has enjoyed playing with Leo Messi in a similar role. Spain’s greatest assets remain in its’ midfield and Del Bosque’s approach to Italy with a 4-6-0 was clever. Cesc Fabregas’ club season showed a drop in form and finishing ability as the season continued, however he did end with 15 goals and 20 assists, both higher marks than Torres could achieve with a Champions League winning side.
Del Bosque was vindicated when Fabregas scored Spain’s lone and equalizing goal, however his decision to sub Torres on for the Cesc shortly thereafter demonstrated a scintillating strategic move on the Spanish coach’s part. The former Real Madrid manager realized that as the Italian defense grew more weary, they were more susceptible to runs in from behind–a skill at which Torres excels. Spain’s number 9 proved to be up for the challenge of making these darting runs, forcing a great tackle to avert Italian disaster from Gigi Buffon and also just nearly missing a winner with a chip shot above the keeper and the crossbar. The latter, an attempt on goal that had it found the back of the net, many would be considering it the goal of the tournament and herald the return of “El Nino” Torres.
Torres could not bring Spain the three points, but he did bring something that they desperately needed. Spain wasn’t threatening to score goals all game but with Torres on they were much more dangerous, say what you will about his finishing. However, his chances would not have been possible without the grinding work that the Spanish midfield put in on their first 70 minutes of the match. Spain suffered to not score more, but that is no fault of Torres, but rather the failure to open up Italy’s wings earlier in the game. Right and left backs Arbeloa and Alba, respectively, did not penetrate the Italian defense as much as they needed to. Both needed to mimic Dani Alves’ approach on Barcelona as a free wheeling presence up and down the touch line. Any defensive fears in this approach should be eased in considered the presence of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets in the defensive midfield. Sure, Spaniards would feel more comfortable with pressure from their defensive wings if Puyol were able to play in this tournament, however Pique and Ramos need to be tested and trusted. The lack of attack from the defensive backs are what kept the midfielders playing with possession for much of the game and not generating enough goal scoring chances.
Look for the 4-6-0 again today against Ireland, but depending on the form that the Irish national team manager Giovanni Trapattoni, an Italian, has his defensive units in it may not yield the goal scoring brilliance we’d expect from the reigning European champions. If Spain’s defensive back do not attack and stretch the Irish defense, Del Bosque will be quick to call on Torres again and he won’t be wrong in doing so. Even with a poor display from Torres, he has the capable Fernando Llorente waiting as well. However, until either of these players are subbed in, Spain should refrain from playing long corners and stick to lulling the defense to sleep with possession and making the pass unseen that unlocks any of the other midfielders to score.