What Happened to Spain? #WorldCup2014

This is my amateur theory on why Spain got pummeled 1–5 by the Netherlands.

Spain’s philosophy is that the best defense is when you control the ball and the opponent doesn’t. Like Pep Guardiola says, the less time the other team has possession the less time they have to score on you. It’s a good philosophy. “Tiki-taka,” Spain’s short-pass centered possession game, gave Spain back-to-back European Championships and a World Cup; it gave Barcelona four La Ligas, two Champions Leagues, and two Copa del Reys, and countless other titles. People are quick to criticize “tiki-taka” because of the latest results (e.g. B. Munich 0–4 R. Madrid; Barcelona’s poor 2013–14 season), but maybe the criticism is misdirected.

The problem is focusing too little on how to play the game when you don’t have possession. Teams that defend well do so because they have disciplined defenses. A well ordered back line usually consists of two lines of four (or one of four and one of five,…). Spain’s defense against the Netherlands looked like a mob. Their was no organization to the defensive lines.

While it’s almost traditional that Spain’s defense to be weakly organized, compare Spain’s defending in its 2010 World Cup match against Germany,


I mean, Spain is no Atlético Madrid. But, it’s defending against Netherlands was atrocious.

I think Barcelona’s poor season is also explained, at least in part, by my theory. Something I noticed when I watched Barcelona play is their slow reaction time. Barcelona has a hard time counter-attacking, because Spanish teams can play well defensively — they can re-organize relatively quickly. Barcelona has a very slow pace of re-organization. It’s easy to catch them on the counter. When they play a team with an organized defense and a top attack, that’s when Barcelona (and Spain) get crushed.

Spain should still play a possession-focused game. This has been Spain’s most successful era in its football history. But, it can’t ignore other elements of the game. Even 70 percent possession means that the opponent is attacking for 30 percent of the game. Any strategy is going to have to figure out how to cope with defending when you don’t have possession, especially if you have a high defensive line (to reduce the playing space). Unfortunately, Spain has neglected that part of its game — I think, because Barcelona has neglected it too, and Spain plays with many Barcelona players, especially midfield and behind.

What of Spain’s chances to reach the next round? Let’s assume (1) Spain wins its next two games (and Spain is not going to have an easy time beating Chile) (2) Australia loses all three matches. It still depends on the outcome of the Chile v. Netherlands match. If Chile lose (and also lose vs. Spain), that leaves Spain second with 6 points. If Chile wins, there will be three teams with six points: Netherlands, Chile, and Spain. The current goal differences for these three are: +4, +2, –4. Spain is going to have to score a lot of goals in their next two games to have a chance of progressing, if Chile beat Netherlands. Spain is not known for scoring a lot of goals. It was good while it lasted.

4 thoughts on “What Happened to Spain? #WorldCup2014

  1. Rob Rawlings

    I’m struggling to remember if a team has ever got 6 points and been eliminated. Has it ever happened ?

    1. JCatalan

      Not since I remember. In 1994 there was a three-way tie with six points, but all three teams went to the next round: Nigeria, Bulgaria, and Argentina. At that time, the first four third-placed teams moved on. There was also a three-way tie of six points each between Netherlands, Saudi Arabia, and Belgium — but same deal, they all progressed.

  2. Nate

    I know it has been a few weeks (so weird seeing the Spaniards out so soon), but reflecting back upon their failure this tournament I think I will place most of the blame on Del Bosque. I’m not in the Tiki-Taki is dead camp either, but the way it was implemented in their two key matches was the worst performance of the system I’ve seen to date.

    Where I think Del Bosque went wrong was in the initial 23-man roster. The squad lacked diversity in every sense of the word. Too many midfielders who are similar in style and physical attribute. Lack of a big man up front besides Costa, (the physicality of a Llorente or Negredo was missing on the bench). There was also a lack of young reckless flair that can be a wildcard of a game changer during periods of offensive stagnation (Isco or Jesé if he were fit).

    As for the starting 11, Del Bosque put too much faith in Diego Costa continuing his club form in a la roja kit. Sure you have to play your hot hand, but the signs of a possible struggle were there with his fitness and lack of consistent minutes. That’s not to say that Costa should not have received a roster spot, he just probably would’ve been best served as a strong-bodied sub to break tired defenses (much like Belgium are currently using Lukaku).

    Finally, I think what has been lost in all of the this is the absence of Carles Puyol on the squad. The importance of his strong willed character and ability to bridge the inner-squad club rivalries that have hindered the squad in past tournaments can’t be over stated. I have a firm belief that Puyol’s leadership would have been able to improve the demeanor of this squad during the Dutch and Chile matches.

    1. Jonathan Finegold Post author

      Agreed, especially on your Puyol comment. Although, on the other hand, we won Euro 2012 without Puyol. But, I agree, a lack of a defensive organizer is a big weakness.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *