Ahead of the showpiece final, a tournament which started well has somewhat limped through the knockout stages. With the exception of the two games involving Germany, the business end of the tournament has not really been what the neutrals were so pant-wettingly excited for. The defining memories of Euro 2012 are likely to be disproportionate fines and of course false nines. That even rhymes. I’m a poet and I di….. You get the picture.
After several agonising conversations this week trying to explain why a false nine works so well for Barcelona but looks, well, rather dull for Spain I decided to try and put some words on a page. It might sound simplistic but the first answer is Lionel Messi. When Pep Guardiola took the reins at the Catalan club Messi had played almost exclusively as a wide attacker in a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation. In the Spaniard’s first season as manager he won the treble of La Liga, Copa Del Rey and Champions League with the prodigious Messi bagging 38 goals. Another trophy laden season later and Guardiola noted two things, that Messi was capable of scoring even more goals and that he wanted to create more space for his key man and prevent him being doubled up on or predictable to mark. Messi was to become his immarkable object.
After Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o had all left the club Messi’s permanent role as the false nine was confirmed. The significance was that he was capable of moving around the pitch into pockets of space in central areas or drifting wide, neither a defender’s or midfielder’s responsibility but a worry to both. Do you follow him and risk ending up out of position? Do you pass him on to the nearest player while holding your shape? Do you man mark him and risk taking a man out of your own team’s gameplan? All valid questions until you remember that any decision you make is likely to open up space for his star-studded supporting cast. And it is this supporting cast which makes the formation even more effective for the Catalans.
Messi’s Ferrari-esque ability to go from 0-100mph before you’ve had time to shout ‘stop him,’ means he’s capable of scoring from anywhere he picks up the ball (just ask Arsenal). But the space at the top of the pitch created by his constant darting forwards and backwards is the second part of the ploy. In the likes of Perdo Rodriguez, David Villa and Alexis Sanchez Barca have players who are comfortable moving into central attacking roles. The space vacated by Messi and any defenders drawn to his Pied Piper routine is both noted and gleefully exploited by these wide players. Their natural inclinations is to find goal scoring positions and to score goals.
Added to this conundrum for opposition defenders is the Dani Alves factor. The Brazilian plays so high up the pitch that he offers the width to pull the fullback out of position to cover him, allowing the right sided winger to move inside into the space vacated by the false nine (are you still with me?) for goalscoring opportunities. The fact that the forward line is so fluid and with a helping hand from Alves means teams often end up outnumbered in wide areas if Messi decides to drift there and it becomes a tactical nightmare.
The last point on the Barca style false nine is the importance of the midfield. For me Barcelona are at their most dangerous when Iniesta plays centrally at the peak of the Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta axis. Aside from his passing being more effective from there, his ability to drive from midfield and commit players opens up space and opens up games. With both Messi and him operating through the middle and drifting wide as they see fit multiple defenders can be taken out of games in one movement from either of them. This once again means more space for the wide players drifting infield into the vacuum of space around the 18 yard line but also means when Don Andres has the ball defenders are worrying about him and take their eye off Messi. As we’ve seen on many occasions even when Messi does drop deep he times his runs brilliantly to get into the box and has some of the best passers in the world to find him.
Iniesta being more central than he plays for Spain or indeed has played for Barca for much of this rare fruitless season (coincidence? I think not) also means in the final third he is capable, no comfortable, getting beyond Messi and finishing moves (see video below). It also gives Xavi the space to dictate the tempo and link play from both deep as well as moving further forward, something the presence of Xabi Alonso in the Spain team doesn’t allow him to do. Instead Xavi finds himself playing more as a ‘traquertista’ than an all round central midfield playmaker in the national side and truthfully he is much less effective here than as an overall creator.
Which leads us neatly on to the Spanish system. To say it raised a few eyebrows when Cesc Fabregas started Spain’s first match as the furthest man forward is an understatement of Martin Keownesque proportions (he quipped this week that Spain tend to play a passing game – thanks Martin). But he has played that role for Barcelona this year. However while Fabregas is a very good player he doesn’t offer anywhere near the same level of penetration and spacial appreciation Lionel Messi does. That’s not doing Fabregas a disservice, there’s not many players in the history of the game capable of doing some of the things Messi does, that’s a fact. Defenders won’t be drawn to him in the same way they are to Messi for the simple fact that Cesc Fabregas turning and running at your is a lot less frightening than Lionel Messi doing the same. The former Arsenal captain can pick a pass with the best of them but he’s never going to score goals like:
As touched on earlier, Fabregas’ arrival at Barcelona saw Iniesta spend much of the 2011/12 season on the left of a forward three where he plays for the national side. For me this stifled much of Barcelona’s creativity but that’s a story for another blog. While he’s still a good player there he can’t influence the play with his trademark driving runs and slipped passes from this area in the same way he can when he links up with his Catalan team mates centrally. David Silva offers much the same issue on the other side. While he’s a wonderfully talented footballer, he wants to drift infield and link up play and look for through passes to set up chances. In the absence of a Fernando Torres, David Villa or even Pedro, Spain with a false nine have no one naturally inclined to make that run into vacated space and it remains, vacated space. Everyone can and wants to make the killer pass but no one has that natural desire to keep making the runs to get on the end of these balls. Watching Spain at the moment feels a bit like hearing an unfinished Mozart symphony, it’s beautiful but something is clearly missing.
Del Bosque’s continued inclusion of both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets as anchoring midfielders differs vastly from Luis Argones’ team at Euro 2008 which had a place for both Torres and Villa in the starting XI. Alonso has a natural inclination to play longer balls and tends to take more time before making his first pass. Again as mentioned earlier this presence means Xavi plays further forward and spends much of the game higher up the pitch rendering him unable to play the same slick, progressive pass and move style or the same number of incisive forward passes that have been a hallmark of his play at club level. He has never been a consistent goal threat and the fact is that when Spain play with a false nine, ahead of him are only has midfielders who like to operate in the area he currently occupies.
Dani Alves is an obvious absentee, particularly with Sergio Ramos playing in central defence and the rather pedestrian Alvaro Arbeloa at right back. The runs Alves makes, even when he doesn’t receive the ball, pull defenders out of position and create even more gaps to be exploited by runs in behind. While the possession game remains, the movement of players behind defences is either absent or unnatural for a ‘strikerless’ Spain. Is it easy to defend against? No. When a team have the ball for so long it’s nigh on impossible to remain focussed and mistake free for 90 minutes. Is there less penetration? Yes. Is it less exciting? For me, yes. In the absence of Villa and while Pedro and Jesus Navas sit on the bench, the goals won’t be as plentiful but it’s still an art form to move the ball so well. Spain’s version of a Barcelona blueprint geared up to create space for the world’s best player might not be as entertaining, but come Sunday it could prove just as effective. An unprecented third consecutive international title would see to that.
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