Saturday, July 7, 2012

Many Lessons for USA to Learn from Spain

In defeating Italy 4-0 in a thoroughly dominating performance that could have yielded an even wider final margin, the Spanish national team demonstrated not only its superiority in Europe, but also that conventional soccer wisdom might well be on its death bed.  For soccer fans in the U.S., that could be either welcome news or a sign for concern.

Playing without a striker, in the face of much media criticism in Europe, Spain demonstrated that there is no one set approach to fielding a team.  One would have thought that this already had been demonstrated by the Dutch with its successful inter-changing positions approach, but apparently that was not the case.  In the wake of Spain's complete dismantling of Italy, however, it now should be evident that the primary requirement for maximizing team talent in soccer is utilizing the talent on the team in a manner that best meets the circumstances.

For Spain, utilizing talent in the 2012 Euros when Fernando Torres was not on the field, meant playing with a collection of fullbacks and mid-fielders.  It helps that Spain has some of the top mid-fielders in the game, particularly deserved Euro MVP Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez, Cesc Fabregas, and David Silva.  But the true key was in resisting the label of mid-fielder cum mid-fielder.

As Spain brought the ball up field, they controlled the ball on the edges and in the middle with foot-to-foot, one-touch passing around defenders until the ball was at the edge of the box.  From there, Spain picked its spots, with all but Iniesta testing the box.

This was not long-ball soccer.  It was not counter-attack soccer.  It was not set-piece soccer.  Rather, it was soccer as soccer was designed to be played but as it rarely anymore is played in some quarters in favor of a "waiting for the opponent to make a mistake" approach--the kind of approach that made WC 2010 the bore that it was.

With several promising young players and a roster loaded with experienced talent only now in its prime, Spain has made clear that the conservative, pack-it-in style of soccer is not a logical course of play for any team reasonably hoping to win a title.  Now, as Italy was forced to do in the Euro final, teams must take their chances and open up play.  That's not just great news for the likes of Spain and Brazil, but even better news for the world of soccer.

The news is mixed for the U.S. men's national side, however, as it offers a contradiction.  On one hand, the U.S. needs to rethink its formation model and who plays where.  That might mean playing Landon Donovan and Michael Bradley at fully new positions or even using three strikers, three backs, and four mid-fielders.

On the other hand, current head coach Jurgen Klinsmann is a product of a German side once regarded as among the most traditional of the traditional teams, with a set spot on the field for each player and set zones of play for each player.  There are signs that things are changing in Germany, permitting the Germans to keep pace with teams such as Spain, but Klinsmann is not necessarily part of this movement.

At a minimum, however, Klinsmann has the U.S. squad passing to feet and in space far more often and far more impressively than the team ever did under either Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley.  What remains far too often lacking for the U.S., however, is a sense of direction in this sub-game.  For Spain, short passes and back passes are all designed to set-up the defense and convince the defense that the next series of passes will be in one direction when they really will be in another.  This is all by design and well rehearsed.  The U.S., at present, too often appears to be passing for the sake of passing.  That must change, or the U.S. will be merely fortunate to keep pace with the likes of Spain.

Up Next:  More Qualifiers.