Blog Written by Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial):
As the final embers burnt out off the flaming dumpster fire that was the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, the Spanish National side was forced to look in the mirror.
After winning an unprecedented three major international tournaments in a row, tiki-taka had finally been caught up to and old veterans, who were once so vital to the side's success, were just that, old. With two years to get ready for Euro 2016, coach Vicente Del Bosque would have to go back to the lab and alter his monster.
The first order of business was to decide on a striker, or let alone use one.
Anyone with a pair of functioning eyeballs could see that the Diego Costa experiment was an unmitigated disaster. Costa's aggressive battering ram approach was completely counter-productive to the Spanish system. This involves a short passing game that depends on fast, accurate, non-stop passes to draw defenders out of position and force opponents into making errors, while Costa wants the ball played over the top to chase like a dog after the postman.
Much of Spain's Euro 2012 success was owed to the brilliance of players like David Silva, Cesc Fabregas, Andres Iniesta and Pedro, who brought the "false-nine" and made it a household name. Rather than having a striker occupy the attentions of the defense, Del Bosque played none, giving Spain an extra man to pass the ball and, as we saw in the Euro 2012 final, gave Italy’s back line nightmares for years to come.
Still, that was 4 years ago and defensive systems have evolved.
Del Bosque instead decided to call-up a player who could pass and move -- an out-and-out striker -- Alvaro Morata.
Although the Juventus forward was relegated to reserve duty for most of the league season, his knack for coming up big on the brightest stages and general understanding of the Spanish system was crucial, evidenced further by his tie with Gareth Bale for the lead in goals at the Euro’s, each with three so far.
Another subtle, yet critical change was the way in which the attack would develop.
So far this tournament, Spain has made a concentrated effort to attack down the wings and not just from the fullbacks. They seemingly make a triangle on both sides of the pitch - Nolito, Andres Iniesta and Jordi Alba on one - and Juanfran, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas on the other. This allows short passing outlets and give-and-go opportunities that force the defense to remain focused at all times.
Also, instead of asking the central midfielders to fall back deep and start the attacks, Del Bosque has given more and more responsibility to the centre-backs. Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta now have to wait for the ball in between the lines instead of going into their half to participate in the build-up. This allows La Roja to keep the pace of play to their liking, giving the team more options to pass forward.
The midfield also seems to have been given direct instruction from the staff to become more aggressive. In years past, a common complaint from pundits, and fans alike, was that Spain had the tendency to over pass. Players are now taking more shots from outside of the box, opening up the possibility for rebounds or the occasional goalkeeper mistake.
Unfortunately, the Croatia game revealed old habits.
Few saw this coming, as Spain had delivered two convincing wins and had neither dropped points nor conceded a goal in 10 competitive matches. Vicente del Bosque also kept his lineup intact from the previous two games, whereas Croatia made five changes from their strongest XI, with Luka Modric and Mario Mandzukic out injured.
It appeared to be business as usual, when in the 7th minute David Silva moved from the right to the infield, before laying off a beautiful through ball to Cesc who chipped it over the keeper to find Morata at the far post. It was a beautiful goal and one that had earned the Spaniards the favourite’s tag once again.
From there, Croatia altered their philosophy, amping up the pressure and closing down the space for Spain’s midfield to navigate. Whether it was fatigue or just old legs, Spain reverted back to it’s passing without movement becoming almost complacent. Croatia's quick transitions and wide play abused the high positioning of the Spanish fullbacks, with nobody taking advantage more than Ivan Perisic.
The loss was a crushing blow for the Spanish in more ways than one. The top spot in Group D was lost, as well as a place on the “easy” side of the bracket. Instead, Italy awaits on the horizon, with the prospect of Germany and France looming in succession.
Yeah, about as fun as eating a ghost pepper.
So, was this just a bump in the road or a blueprint of things to come? I’d be lying if I had the answer, but I do know this.
The final at the Stade de France feels further away now and their body language hinted at defeat. It was, oddly, like they were already eliminated. Perhaps because of the moment and the manner in which they lost. David De Gea’s performance didn’t help instill much confidence either.
"This is not the path we wanted, it is true," Del Bosque admitted. "We have to change this but we're still in the Euros and we can turn this situation around.”
Spain’s international resurrection began 8 years prior at this very tournament, and against this very opponent.
What better time to repeat history once again.