Del Bosque's misplaced loyalty
RIO DE JANEIRO -- After an amazing sequence of results lasting for the best part of six years, the Spanish national team broke a new record -- in this case a negative one -- and became the first World Cup title-holders to be eliminated after only two group stage matches.
Following the 5-1 thrashing by Netherlands, the sobering 2-0 defeat to a spirited Chilean squad meant their second defeat in two matches, as well as their second consecutive loss without scoring at the Maracana, after their poor performance in the 3-0 Confederations Cup final defeat to Brazil last year.
After a horror start, Spain knew that this fixture could represent the end of the tournament for them. Having analysed what went wrong against the Dutch, manager Vicente del Bosque decided to introduce two changes to the starting lineup, replacing a hesitant Gerard Pique with Bayern's Javi Martinez, and introducing Pedro Rodriguez in the place of his Barcelona teammate Xavi Hernandez. The reshaped team started in a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Andres Iniesta on the left, David Silva in the middle and Pedro on the right wing, all three playing behind Diego Costa, who retained his starting spot.
The opening play, inauspicious for the team in red, showed that more change was needed. Indeed, a succession of defensive mistakes, mainly from an unrecognisably weak-footed defensive midfield pair -- Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets -- led to Chile's first chance of the match, a play that under normal circumstances should have been ended some 40 metres away from goal.
From that point, Spain tried to settle into their usual possession game, although their best chances appeared out of surprisingly big mistakes from Chile's defenders when trying to build from the back. Spain kept looking for Costa, who looked slightly more in-sync with his teammates, although still not getting quite the service he demanded. A decent chance missed by the Brazilian-born striker after 13 minutes seemed to suggest that this lineup could finally become the beginning of a new striker-centric Spain, but a few minutes later Spain relapsed again as a poor pass from Alonso was pounced upon and Eduardo Vargas fooled Iker Casillas to score.
This version of Spain has never been good at coming from behind, as they often took the lead then controlled the tempo with their keep-ball mastery. However, this time they pushed forward and found their best opportunity after 26 minutes, when Costa hit the side of the net, striking a good ball from Silva with his left foot.
Chile weathered the storm and then doubled their lead. A fantastic change of sides from left to right found the Spanish defence poorly positioned, and Alexis Sanchez ended up on the receiving end of a foul in a dangerous position. The Barcelona forward took a shot over the five-man wall -- apparently a soft-centred one. Instead of grabbing the ball, Casillas chose to hit it with his fists -- a questionable decision that was even more poorly executed -- as the ball went straight to the middle of the box, where Charles Aranguiz obligingly curled it into the back of the net. The holders would not find a way back.
While the two changes that Del Bosque introduced did not help much, it's those he decided to avoid which were the ones that led Spain to defeat. In the case of Casillas, his poor shape and errors in judgment had been evident since the Champions League final, almost a month ago. Errors mounted against Netherlands, to the point where it was obvious that his back four had lost their trust in their skipper.
However, Del Bosque understands relationships and loyalty in a very peculiar way, and he was always going to stick to the core that has found success until the bitter end. Before the tournament, when Victor Valdes -- the only keeper with experience of playing for Spain besides Casillas -- picked up his season-ending injury, the coach should have tried two other goalkeeping options to play safe during the World Cup. But, because Casillas was not getting enough playing time with Real Madrid, he was handed a start in every single friendly, leaving no space to test David de Gea or Pepe Reina (a player who openly admits he never expects to play).
De Gea's recent injury meant that there was no realistic alternative to Casillas. And thus Del Bosque either chose to -- or alternatively had to -- remain loyal to his keeper; a loyalty that has proven costly to the tune of seven goals conceded in two matches and untold scars on Spanish pride.
During half-time, Del Bosque decided to introduce Atletico Madrid's Koke -- another decision that came too late to be beneficial. Koke understands Costa better than any other Spanish player, as became evident in the first 10 minutes of the second half when a move between the pair eventually found Busquets completely unmarked at the far post. The Barcelona midfielder only had to direct his touch towards the goal to score, but missed the easiest chance imaginable. After that, the mentally fragile Spain collapsed.
There was no resorting to their old nickname of La Furia Roja. With bizarre parsimony, the Spaniards kept trying to walk the ball into the goal, and only the introduction of Santi Cazorla, with two decent efforts, added a minimal bite to the unconvincing Spanish attack.
The fact that Chelsea's Fernando Torres -- a player who has struggled for form all season -- finished the match leading his team's forward line adds another significant point to Del Bosque's misplaced loyalty. His trust in some of the players that took him to consecutive World Cup and European Championship titles went far beyond what could be reasonably expected.
But Torres' case has become an iconic example. In order to give the forward a final run to a World Cup title, Del Bosque took a player well past his prime and left out other younger, sharper strikers that could have added the spice up front this team so sorely lacked. As in many other positions, the options were there.
It's hard to criticise this group and this manager after such a successful, unprecedented run. However, Spanish fans would have preferred the required renovation work to have begun before this World Cup. Del Bosque's odd sense of loyalty now means that it will happen after a terribly disappointing elimination, and in a much more traumatic way.