It’s become the anoraks footballing pornography. Tactics. Formations. False Nines. Inverted Wingers. Deep lying Playmakers….no stop it!
There’s been a sudden upswing over the past few years in the interest in how teams set themselves out; how they play; the science behind the structure. This is a good thing. For too long football, in my world at least, has been get it wide and put it in. No more. Now we are obsessed with Tikka Takka, and pressing, and playing out from the back. It’s become football porn. Tactical titillation.
It came to a climax, so to speak, when the team sheet came out for the Spain v Italy Euro 2012 match. The Italians careering back to the future with a sweeper and two strikers, aimed squarely at negating the Spanish passing game. As a repost, Vicente Del Bosque decided to do away with the strikers. 6 midfielders – 4 of them pure fantasy players. 4-6-0. Fabregas a nominal false nine.
Twitter was abuzz. This was the tactical climax that the laptop warriors had been straining for, had been waiting years for. Finally they could put down their dog eared copies of “Inverting the Pyramid”. This was the moment. Nirvana.
Now we’ve seen this before with varying degrees of success. Ajax played it in a Champions League match this season, smashing Dynamo Zagreb as the fluidity of the system proved too much. Of course closer to home, we’ve seen the opposite. Pim Verbeek pioneered the 4-6-0 in Durban against the Germans, with Richard Garcia perhaps the falsest of false nines in football history. That system was designed to flood the midfield, restrict the Germans and look for a counter. Trouble was the Socceroos never kept the ball, played a suicidally high line (who’s idea that was is open to conjecture) and had ageing defenders who were torn apart at will.
The Spanish though, decided that this variant of the system was an attacking measure, aimed at counter acting the Italians traditional fearsome man marking. But it didn’t quite work.
Again, possession was plentiful, but as had happened recently when Barcelona faced limited but organised opponents, it fell into a heap at the last. Indeed the presence of two strikers for Italy went some way to disrupting the chain for Spain, with Cassano in particular an irritant. Italy may have achieved more had his successor as Azzurri infant terrible Mario Balotelli brought anything like his A game.
Time after time though the effort of Iniesta, Fabregas and Silva floundered on the Italian back line marshalled superbly by Daniele De Rossi, an inspirational figure who’s misdemeanour at Germany 2006 seems a lifetime ago.
Normality was somewhat restored in the second half, as natural goalscorers appeared. Di Natale for Italy, and Torres for Spain. The Udinese man continues a prolific season. The Chelsea striker continues his difficult one. Chances came, chances went. Honours even, but moral victory for Prandelli’s boys in blue.
So what began as tactical Utopia ended in a rather timid draw. Spain’s striker-less experiment may have done it’s dash. The problem with it appears obvious. In a team stocked with the best of the Madrid and Barca orchestra, the side doesn’t have the lead conductors, Messi and Ronaldo. Over 100 goals between them, playing in wide attacking roles. The game is a little easier with those two.
So what do Spain do? The much talked about “Plan B” that Barca apparently don’t have? Well that would be Llorente. A fine footballer, who is wedged into the “Plan B” mould due to his physique. Or Torres? Improving in the latter part of the season at Chelsea but a shadow of the man who won this tournament 4 years ago.
The fact is Spain miss David Villa enormously, as did Barcelona. A pure goalscorer. Diminutive, skilful, and a predator. And a man who fits into the system like a glove. He is the real nine that Spain require.
It’s interesting to look at the trends of strikers across the tournament. Lewandowski and Gomez represent classic number 9’s. Van Persie is central for Holland, but they were a frustrating attacking mix, with Van Persie’s ability to drop deeper or wider and create, nullified by his need to stay central, as Robben wasted opportunities at will. You can’t help but feel Huntelaar central, playing his natural game would benefit the Dutch, and also release Van Persie into a wider or deeper position where he can wreak havoc. That would leave Affelay on the chopping block as Robben appears cast in stone on the team sheet.
The Russian Dzagoev is a deeper attacker, a position Wayne Rooney excels in. Benzema will be the French Nine playing high with a bevy of playmakers behind and wide.
It seems the trend is to have a natural focal point, and thats the key, a player playing his natural game in the 9, and then allow the freedom behind. Whether that natural game is holding it up, running behind, dropping deep. The square pegs are getting a workout in the round holes.
Its something Del Bosque and Spain have to consider when they face an Irish side that will surely defend deep and in numbers later this week. They should prevail, but to win the Euros Spain may need to bring a 9 into 12.