False nine or real nine for Spain?
CURITIBA, Brazil -- After 20 minutes of Spain's opener against the Netherlands, Diego Costa opens his arms in despair and looks at Xavi Hernandez, a good 30 metres behind him. The striker gestures several times with his hands pointing further down the pitch. "Largo, largo," he yells. Xavi's gently hit pass had gone too short, allowing for a Dutch full-back to get to the ball first.
With small variations, the scene happened two or three times more in the first half.
While Xavi, David Silva or Andres Iniesta have their own intuitive idea of what a long ball is -- probably some 2 or 3 metres away from the recipient -- Costa's concept is radically different. A natural ball-chaser, the Lagarto-born striker prefers 20- to 30-metre runs that allow him to put pressure on the centre-backs, getting them tired as the match goes on and often leading to costly mistakes or miscalculations by the defence.
Costa loves a good, long kick that goes generally in his direction rather than a pinpointed pass that leaves him all the work to progress pushing the ball down the field. He hasn't seen many of those during his short tenure with the Spanish national team.
Against the Netherlands, the naturalized Spanish striker and his teammates worked hard to understand each other, finally clicking after 27 minutes, although not quite as Costa may have imagined. Regardless of the type of pass, he earned a penalty that would have hidden Spain's offensive struggles once again -- until the Dutch drew level before halftime and then came back in style during a remarkable second-half performance.
The Spaniards' issues to convert their chances are nothing new. Long gone the high-scoring times of Euro 2008, when Spain enjoyed two legitimate offensive threats in David Villa and Fernando Torres, or even the steady production of the former in World Cup 2010. Since 2012, Spain have embraced a hardly satisfying "scoring by committee" approach for lack of a better attacking solution.
Thus, the false-nine approach, a tactical formation that looked like a temporary patch but immediately became the trademark of this squad. None of the starters are natural scorers, but most can finish decently when required, especially given the uncanny ability of most players to leave their colleagues in front of the goalie.
Manager Vicente Del Bosque, aware of the difficult sustainability of this striker-less formation, kept looking for alternatives. Never satisfied with Fernando Llorente's work rate, Alvaro Negredo's link-up play or Roberto Soldado's finishing touch, the Marquis thought he'd found the answer in Diego Costa, the Brazilian-born striker who terrified most centre-backs in La Liga with a mixture of physical power and unpredictable dribbles.
But controversy and delays with the Brazilian FA over Costa's decision to join the Spanish ranks and a couple of untimely injuries reduced drastically the time he had to practise with his teammates. The result appears painfully obvious on the pitch. The striker still lacks the finer touch required for Spain's passing game, and his teammates struggle to read correctly his tireless movements all over the final third.
The growing line of thought around the Spanish national team now states that Costa and Atletico Madrid colleague Koke should come as a package deal -- neither seeing the pitch without the presence of the other. Koke assisted on 11 of Costa's 27 league goals and seems to guess where Costra will move to with plenty of anticipation.
Without what the Spanish call a "lanzador" (literally, a launcher, or more clearly, a long-range passer), most of Costa's talents are wasted, as he's obviously uncomfortable playing touch-and-go in short spaces. Among the changes Del Bosque ponders for the key match against Chile, the introduction of Koke demands special care and consideration.
Aside from playing Costa with Koke, the Spanish technical team has discussed two other offensive options. One of them takes Spain back four years, as David Villa would join the side as a striker, keeping intact their shape from the Netherlands match. Villa is a natural scorer -- no small feat in this squad -- understands perfectly the types of moves required in this side and, according to the team's physiotherapists, seems to be peaking at the right time.
However, the New York-bound striker is nowhere near the physical condition he was in four years ago -- especially in terms of top speed. So while he may well be peaking, it might not be enough to lead the line for 90 minutes. His chances to come off the bench look high, though.
The final alternative is the return of the false-nine formation. For all of Del Bosque's attempts to integrate Diego Costa into the side, Spain have most resembled their ball-controlling selves when they've used Cesc Fabregas up front. The team looks at ease, the offensive movements occur almost seamlessly, and even though the lack of a fixed presence up front is sorely missed at times, this is partially balanced by the continuous presence of midfielders in the final third.
In the past few days, Del Bosque has probably thought more than once of a great story from former Real Madrid manager John Toshack. The Welshman used to remember a period of time when, after a Sunday fixture, he'd end up so outraged with the team's performance that he'd decide to bench all 11 players for the upcoming match. As the week went by, he forgave a couple of them on Monday, then another three or four on Tuesday, and so on until Saturday, the day in which he decided that he'd start the same 11 who had played so badly the previous weekend.
It's pretty unlikely that Vicente Del Bosque will make more than three changes to the team that lost so brutally last Friday. Javi Martinez, because of Spain's desperate need for some bite, and Pedro, the only one with enough speed to exploit the space Chile is likely to leave at the back, rank high on the list of probable changes.
Del Bosque's biggest decision, though, has to be his choice of a genuine centre-forward or a false nine. Judging by what we've seen so far, the "real" option brings paradoxically intangible results.
For Spain, this is a do-or-die encounter, with the risk of the current champions being knocked out of the tournament after just two matches. There is no margin for error, and therefore no more time for experimentation. To beat the Chileans, Del Bosque's side will need fresh legs, increased pressure in the middle of the pitch and an overdose of accurate passing.
And no centre-forward.