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 By Michael Cox
Jun 19, 2014

Spain undone by their own revolution

Everton manager Roberto Martinez reacts to Spain's early exit from the World Cup and believes they should still be celebrated.

It has been eight long years since Spain were last eliminated from a major international tournament. A 3-1 defeat to France in World Cup 2006 ensured Spain retained their status as Europe's biggest bottlers, with no hint that they were about to become the world's most successful side, arguably in the game's history.

Amazingly, no fewer than seven players in the starting XI that day -- Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, David Villa and Fernando Torres -- were in Spain's squad for this World Cup, too. That summarises how Spain were simply too old, too tired. Nevertheless, some of the other names from the 2006 side indicate how far Spain have progressed. Mariano Pernia? Pablo Ibanez?

They'd also been eliminated from Euro 2004 in embarrassing circumstances, against close rivals and hosts Portugal, failing to progress from the group stage.

What were the lesson from those tournaments, won by Italy and Greece? Be defensive, be cautious, be solid. Don't give your opponents an inch of space, don't even bother attempting to dominate the match. Counter-attack if you can, but basically look to force a set piece and maximise those opportunities. It's precisely what Greece did in Euro 2004, and not far from what Italy did at World Cup 2006, albeit with more celebrated players. It was, by and large, boring.

Eight years on, and Spain have revolutionised what constitutes "boring." Boring is now dominating a game, playing the majority of the contest in the opposition half, with multiple technically skilled playmakers exchanging rapid passes and looking for space to play a through ball. This is now "boring." You don't revolutionise what constitutes boring without revolutionising football overall.

Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres contributed to Spain's six-year reign.
Andres Iniesta, Iker Casillas and Fernando Torres contributed to Spain's six-year reign.

Granted, Spain's precise style of passing football has sometimes been frustrating, but it has changed football. Those who claim Spain's passing isn't anything new and is simply an evolution from the Dutch school of football are woefully misguided -- every style of football is influenced, in some way, by what came before it.

But Spain's approach at Euro 2012, for example, was genuinely something new. They effectively played six midfielders in tandem, in two lines of three, with a back four and no forward. Each of those midfielders would consider passing their strong suit. Dutch football is about attacking relentlessly and playing with great width, but Spain played narrow, retaining the ball without attempting penetration.

It was highly successful, it was revolutionary, and it was, at times, spectacular to watch. The height of the criticism came before the Euro 2012 final, when they'd beaten Portugal on penalties having been absurdly cautious with their use of possession.

They responded with a staggeringly dominant performance and two incredible first-half goals in the 4-0 final victory over Italy. The first goal was a brilliant passing triangle between their three "forwards," Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas and David Silva at the end of a long, patient passing move. Then they made it 2-0 with a brilliantly efficient attack that flowed from one end to the other within seconds, and saw left-back Jordi Alba darting onto a Xavi through ball before firing in. The strongest criticism was met with Spain's best performance.

It was always obvious that Spain's run would eventually end, but it seemed likely to be against a physical, defensive and direct counter-attacking side -- someone who preached the precise opposite approach. In fact, they've been overthrown by teams who are influenced by Spain, by teams who press intelligently with technical, hard-working and tactically intelligent players.

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That's been the key -- the pressing. Spain had become so accustomed to being allowed the run of midfield, that integrated and persistent displays of pressing threw them completely. The Dutch approach in the astonishing 5-1 win over Spain was highly risky -- they closed down relentlessly in midfield, the three-man Dutch defence man-marked David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Diego Costa, and Spain had opportunities to play through balls. Spain actually had plenty of chances, but were unable to replicate that pressing, so conceded even more.

Chile's approach was extremely similar. They effectively man-marked in midfield, with Arturo Vidal shutting down Sergio Busquets, Marcelo Diaz nullifying David Silva, and Charles Aranguiz forcing Xabi Alonso into the worst game of his career.

This was the answer, then, pressing, and carried out by two managers who subscribe to the same ideology Spain draw upon. Louis van Gaal is a follower of the Dutch school that so influenced Barcelona and therefore Spain in the 1970s (and thereafter), while Jorge Sampaoli draws heavily upon Marcelo Bielsa, the man who Pep Guardiola idolises. Even Australia, who could yet inflict a defeat upon Spain in the final, meaningless group game, are also a side heavily influenced by the Dutch. All three unquestionably play a more direct game than Spain (which is, again, why Spain's passing play was genuinely innovative) but this is a similar, related school of football.

Football today is, by and large, Spanish. Spain's success has shaped the playing philosophies of almost every major European nation. Italy coach Cesare Prandelli unashamedly based his reign around the Spanish method of ball retention. Germany were inspired to press higher up the pitch following their defeat to Spain in 2010. France are now using a holding midfielder, Yohan Cabaye, who cites the Xavi theory that a player in that position should touch the ball 100 times per game. Dutch football was "Spanish" because the reverse was true, while Portuguese football has always been closely aligned with its neighbours anyway.

Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla will lead the attacks of three Premier League title challengers in 2014-15.
Cesc Fabregas, Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla will lead the attacks of three Premier League title challengers in 2014-15.

Even England, notoriously conservative and inward-looking, has drawn upon Spain in playing a more proactive style. The Premier League, meanwhile, will feature a title race between contenders featuring Juan Mata, David Silva, Santi Cazorla and Cesc Fabregas as playmakers, plus a Liverpool side whose manager frequently cites Spain as his greatest influence. This is the blood-and-thunder, 100 mph, ultra-physical Premier League.

Spain have rewritten the rule book -- they've helped persuade everyone that "good football" is "possession football," and "good football" is required to win matches. It's their greatest achievement.

Think back to 2004, a decade ago, when Pep Guardiola was forced into retirement because no club wanted him -- no one wanted a midfielder who was about passing rather than physicality. "The tactics are different now; you have to be a ball-winner, a tackler, like Patrick Vieira or Edgar Davids," he complained. "If you can pass, too, well, that's a bonus. But the emphasis, as far as central midfielders are concerned, is all on defensive work."

Then think about football today, where passing has been repopularised dramatically following years of Spanish success, and try to say tiki-taka is dead with a straight face. This generation of the national side is dead, but Spain's influence will live on for decades.

Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He is based in London and writes the Zonal Marking blog about football tactics. He also writes postmatch analysis for the Guardian and contributes regularly for FourFourTwo. You can follow him on Twitter @zonal_marking.