The World Cup loss to Chile marked the end of the era of Spanish dominance. However, the fears began after the lopsided loss to Netherlands in the opening game. Although it was bound to end, their era of dominance was a great ride while it lasted. They brought tiki taka to the international stage and boy was it enjoyable. For the first time in their history they were able to field a team comprised mainly of Barcelona and Real Madrid players who played as a team and were not at each others throats. Their victories united a nation that has long been fractured since Francisco Franco’s dictatorship and they did so playing soccer that the whole world could enjoy. Before this tournament many believed that Spain’s dominance had not reached it’s twilight. They cruised through qualifying and the loss to Brazil at the final of the Confederations Cup seemed a mere aberration, the result of home-field advantage. There were no signs within their lead-up games that pointed to this team crumbling the way they have.
The Spain team that showed up to this World Cup was not the Spanish team that fans have come to love. They were slow, indecisive on the ball, and inaccurate in their passing. Tiki taka became “give the ball away at every turn” for the Spanish team at this World Cup. Chile is known for their pressing game but Spain has played teams who press high up the pitch. In the past, they have nullified this defensive strategy with their infamous one-touch passing triangles that frustrate the opposing defense and coerce the defenders to sit back so they do not tire themselves out. Because these past defenses were relegated to sitting back, Spain was allowed the luxury of passing the ball around before they found the perfect passing lane that would give them a clear shot on goal. Yet in these past two World Cup games Spain’s passing and spacing were not at the level fans have come to expect. Therefore, they could not relieve the pressure and thus were unable to get the full control of the ball and possession that is necessary for them to break defenses down. This led them being put out of their comfort zone, an area which they could never acclimate to in this World Cup. Frequently in the past two games, fans have seen Spain doing something they seldom ever do, crossing the ball into the box. When Spain does this they are in trouble because that is always their last option. They only have one true player who is good in the air, and that is Sergio Ramos. Diego Costa has some aerial ability, as do some other Spanish players, but it is not one of their strengths, so it is not a preferred strategy. During their 2010 World cup and 2012 Euro wins they rarely, if ever, scored off of crosses. In order for Spain to win they need to keep the ball on the ground.
Crossing is not one of Spain’s strengths, but so far in his limited international career it does not seem as though Diego Costa is one of Spain’s strengths either. He has only played four games for Spain so maybe he has not had the time to gel with his teammates. Nevertheless, the Spanish style of play does not seem to work with the type of player he is. David Villa, who some may retroactively suggest should have started up front, is coming off injury, yet during his Spanish national career he has fit in perfectly well up top for the Spanish national team. In the last World Cup Vicente Del Bosque experimented with Cesc Fabregas as a false nine rather than use a striker who did not fit into the tiki taka style of play. Was the Spanish demise the result of Vicente Del Bosque trying to fit a square peg (Diego Costa) into a round hole? Despite how good of a player Diego Costa is, he seemed sluggish from his recent injury and uncomfortable in his role within the tiki taka system. The losses do not fall squarely on his shoulders as the Spanish midfield and defense played terribly; however, his unfamiliarity with the tiki taka style of play after coming from a much different system at Real Madrid certainly added to his ineffectiveness.
The World Cup comes every four years and most players can change dramatically between that time span. A dominant player in one World Cup can easily be a shell of his former self in the next World Cup. Xavi, Xabi Alonso, and Iker Casillas were all disappointments this World Cup. Iker Casillas’s demise has been evident for a a couple years ever since Jose Mourinho benched him on Real Madrid. He has the ability to make amazing saves, but more recently he has shown the propensity to make glaring errors. He made several against the Netherlands and then followed up those mistakes with a huge mistake against Chile when he did not catch the ball, or at least punch it hard enough to clear it out of the box. It is safe to say that with Pepe Reina or David De Gea, Spain could have conceded fewer goals. Xabi Alonso looked sluggish and has clearly gone over the hill in his career and Xavi is no longer the player that has made him so special and it is no wonder Barcelona let him transfer to Qatari club Al-Arabi. Carles Puyol was one veteran that did not make the team. However, the absence of his veteran presence clearly affected the Spanish defense who looked lost at time. He would not have played well had he made the team but he was also not replaced with an equally exceptional talent.
Spain still has a lot of talent and they have a few players who can rebound from this devastating early exit. There was something fundamentally wrong with this Spanish team. The players played awful but these players are much more talented than these losses suggest. Had Spain grown to comfortable and overconfident? Did that loss to the Netherlands ruin their confidence for the Chile game? Questions abound for this Spanish team during this long summer. Despite these lopsided losses though, they can rebuild. An injection of new blood, and maybe a new coach, could fix this team. Maybe tweaking the tiki taka system is essential and perhaps a plan B can be worked on so Spain is more comfortable crossing the ball into the box when they aren’t at their best. They have four years to figure it out.