Spain's search for goals not a concern
Roberto Soldado scored the 85th-minute goal that rescued Spain in their opening World Cup qualifier in Georgia, but he was not in Brazil on Thursday.
Alvaro Negredo scored in each of Spain's last three games, the headline on the front of one national paper shouting, "Negredo demands a place at the World Cup," but he was not here either.
Five different men started up front for Spain during their eight qualifying games, but the man most likely to start there against the Netherlands was not one of them.
The player who started at number nine more times than anyone else during qualification was a false No. 9: Cesc Fabregas. Three who started there did not make the squad. That says much. So does the fact that Spain's top scorer in qualification, with four goals, was Pedro -- who is not really a striker.
There is something about Spain and the forward position, something about a search that has ultimately led them to a man who is not Spanish. Diego Costa will probably start in Salvador. Waiting on the bench will be David Villa and Fernando Torres. Just like old times.
Spain's search for goals has been a curious one. It has often seemed as if none of the strikers Del Bosque has tried has entirely convinced. Soldado, Michu and Negredo all started but are not here.
Villa was the only other man to start up front, apart from Cesc, but he did not score in qualifying and many doubted that he would be selected. He scored 13 league goals for Atletico Madrid, but until the recent friendlies, his previous goal for Spain came last June, and he will soon head off to play his football in Australia before making the move to New York.
Torres, Spain's other striker, was not used in qualification. He scored five league goals for Chelsea.
Soldado's first season at Tottenham was disappointing, of course; Michu spent much of the season injured; and Negredo's performances dipped. So perhaps including Villa and Torres was less surprising -- perhaps Del Bosque was not entirely convinced by the alternatives.
But Fernando Llorente was impressive for title-winning Juventus, scoring 16, and the fact that Del Bosque seemed unconvinced is about more than just names.
Here's the thing: Spain do have good strikers. That may sound like stating the obvious, but sometimes it needs reiterating.
During qualification, Pedro scored four and Negredo three. Compare that to the top scorer in the qualifying phase, Oribe Peralta from Mexico, who scored 15. Luis Suarez got 11, Leo Messi 10 and Cristiano Ronaldo eight. Spain scored an average of 1.7 goals. Of the teams who made it to the World Cup from Europe, only Greece and Croatia scored fewer. At the last World Cup, Spain scored just 1.1 goals a game.
Not that it did them much harm. And that is kind of the point. It is not that Spain do not have good strikers, it is that the very way Spain play makes their lives difficult.
Costa was hailed as the solution, and he may be, but when he made his debut against Italy, he barely saw the ball, still less the spaces that make him so lethal. For a player who runs beyond the final defender onto balls through, playing for Spain is a completely different proposition.
Juan Mata said in an interview with The Guardian that he spoke to Spain's strikers and reported their job is a complicated one. It is not that they are bad players; it is that their roles shift.
"Spain tend to arrive, rather than 'being.' And the striker tends to 'be,'" he explained. "That's why Cesc has played there and why Silva has played there."
Spain's style is often presented as being about creativity, and up to a point it is: They want the ball, they want to play a game based on technique more than physique, they do seek to score. But because they do it so well, it can work against their strikers, encouraging the opposition to drop deep and protect themselves. Spaces disappear and so do opportunities. Those arriving from deeper, breaking through that line of players amassed before them, take on a particular significance -- and here Pedro has been vital.
On one level, Del Bosque doesn't mind that. Spain may create fewer chances but the opposition create virtually none. Yes, there is creativity; but fundamentally it is about control. There's an aesthetic quality to it, but there is an anesthetic quality to it too. If we have the ball, we can score is one way of looking at it. If we have the ball, they can't score is another. The coach is explicit: He prefers the game not to be end-to-end.
And while there are concerns about Spain's relative lack of goals, that is only half of the equation. The search for a striker has been important, and the way Del Bosque has come full circle to two players who understand the system better than others is eloquent.
Meanwhile, huge hopes rest on Costa. But the search need not be a desperate one; the same striker in a different system would score more, but Spain might win less.
Perhaps the question is posed the wrong way; perhaps "defending" is misunderstood. Perhaps the question should not be, Who is going to get Spain's goals? Perhaps it should be, Who is going to score goals against Spain?
Spain have played 10 knockout games over the past three tournaments and won them all. They have not conceded a single goal.