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Playing to your Strengths

If you enjoy football it's always worth watching some kids' stuff. Because my 12 year-old son is now playing for a club in the feeder leagues in the north of Spain (each region runs competitive leagues from the age of 10, sponsored by a combination of municipal councils and the biggest local clubs) I get to see quite a lot of games.

The great thing is that you often see aspects of the game in miniature that can lead you on to insights about the adult professional game.

On Saturday my son's team, second in the league, played a team called Tolosa, lying third. We were at home and we scored after five minutes - a soft goal, poorly defended, but you could tell that they were better than that. Indeed, after the initial biff-and-bang period, the visitors settled down and began to play some good stuff, almost all of it channelled through an elegant midfielder, with long blond locks in the style of Guti, circa the late 1990's.

My son's team were stumbling all over the place. They simply couldn't get near mini-Guti, who was ably abetted by another small midfielder. Guti had that natural touch, always making time for himself, always aware of where his team-mates were - quick on the ball and powerful when he decided to run with it. The home parents began to murmur and mutter restlessly.

After about ten minutes the inevitable happened, and the visitors equalised - a through pass from Guti and the winger cut inside and shot low under our keeper. From then on, it was almost embarrassing. Guti was wonderful, with poise beyond his years. My son, no slouch himself on a good day, and also a central midfielder, couldn't get near him. We hung on until half-time and were happy to go in at 1-1.

For the second half, the two young trainers decided on a tactical switch, taking off our right-sided midfielder and replacing him with another lad who doesn't get to play too much. Technically limited, he's nevertheless what you'd call 'solid'. If you sent him to the shop for bread, milk and the paper, that's what he'd come back with. Unimaginative but reliable. His errand for the second half was presumably to stop Guti from playing. Hold up your hands in horror, but it happens at this level too.

In the first minute of the half, Tolosa's goalkeeper threw the ball to Guti, who'd dropped to receive. As he turned to face downfield, the new boy was onto him in a flash, dispossessing him and almost creating a chance for a shot.

Then, two minutes later, the other little visiting midfielder received the ball in a good spot and looked for his blond accomplice, knocking a diagonal ball to him in the centre-circle - but our new boy had already seen the pass and cut off the line, intercepting it before it ever got to Guti. And so it went on.

Suddenly, the balance of the game began to shift. Mini-Guti began to slump, his body language changed, and he began to berate his fellow-players for failing to supply him.

The visiting manager became agitated and began to hurl a string of negative feedback at his players. One gem, aimed at the centre-back who was late for a tackle was 'Joder! Has llegado más tarde que Iberia' (You've arrived later than Iberia!) - a chide aping the eponymous airline which, as you may or may not know, has a slogan which announces 'Our aim is punctuality'.

And like magic, my son's team came into the game, their midfield began to take over, and the game changed so radically that if you'd arrived for the second half you'd have thought that the visitors were very poor indeed, which they were not. But denuded of their star player, of their organiser, Tolosa had no other strategy to fall back on.

It wasn't that the other players were poor. Far from it. But they just fell to pieces, and lost their shape. In no time at all, it was 2-1, then 3-1. Then we hit the bar twice and it could have been a thrashing, which would have been harsh on the visitors, but it ended 3-1.

I watched the blond Guti look-alike carefully during the second half, and he touched the ball twice. In the first half, he seemed to have it all the time.

The Real Socieded scout, sitting ten yards to my left and obviously there to watch this boy, had started to scribble notes furiously in the second half. I was dying to see what he'd written, but it was probably something along the lines of 'During first half, about to ring father and offer boy a contract. Second half, realised not worth the bother. Kid went missing in combat'.

After the game, I joined up with some of the parents as the kids were getting changed and indulged in the usual post-mortem that the Spanish so love. Most of the analysis was focused on the wonderful attitude of our players, of their transformation from dead-beats in the first half to slick passers and winners in the second.

But they'd missed the point completely, says he patronisingly. I didn't bother to make the point, but the game had simply pivoted on the introduction of the solid boy, and the mission he was given. From then on, the complexion of the game had changed so radically that our players were able to express themselves - because they were re-acquainted with the ball. It was hardly rocket-science, but it was extremely effective.

What's all this got to do with the price of fish? Well, as you'll no doubt have been aware, the domestic leagues took a break this past week due to the European Championship qualifiers, and the newspapers, starved of the usual league-based tittle-tattle, had been raving on for most of the week about whether Raúl should be brought back to the international fold, especially given the importance of last Saturday's game against Denmark, the fact that Raúl was back to form, and the fact that David Villa was injured.

The 'bring back Raúl' brigade had also been using the campaign to further ruffle poor Luis Aragonés, who has turned his back on the press and refused to speak to them any longer, apart from the official post-match general interview to the whole pack.

He has spoken rather paranoically of a conspiracy to get him out - which nevertheless seems a fairly accurate analysis. Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. Worst of all, the press pack has shown a distinct lack of support for the national team by continuing to provoke the old grump, instead of rallying behind the flag.

The Madrid-based whinge about Raúl is such an old canard that it hardly seems worth debating, but as you may have read the prediction in this column last week (ahem), Aragonés preferred the other Raúl (Tamudo) from Espanyol and was wonderfully endorsed in his decision by the striker opening the scoring in the tricky away game at Denmark.

All this after Torres was also injured the day before in training, causing a minor crisis in those parts of the country that cared.

Like the kids' team Tolosa, the national team's strength lies in the sheer numbers of creative midfielders that Aragonés has at his disposal. Spain has Europe's best midfield, at least in terms of its playmakers: Fabregas, Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Joaquín and Guti unable to even make the squad.

The further beauty of this lies in the fact that all these players are exactly the types who know how to feed David Villa, when he's playing. Small and mobile, preferring the ball into feet, he comes off defenders at speed and creates scoring opportunities both for himself and the supporting midfielders by being able to hold the line accurately - something that Torres is not quite so good at, although he's getting better.

But throw the Liverpool striker's physical presence into the mix, and you have a side that can easily win the tournament in summer - if they play to their strengths.

But there's the rub. Now that Baraja is no longer in the frame, the midfield has little protection, apart from that provided by the able but rather ponderous David Albelda. Spain need a Makelele, but they just don't have one. Neither do they have a very safe defence, particularly on the left side.

In the second half of the game in Denmark, with the hosts 0-2 down, it became clear that the left side was the channel to attack, and that's exactly what Denmark did, flinging over crosses that neither Albiol nor Marchena ever dealt with particularly well. Casillas came to the rescue, as usual, but when Spain come up against better sides in summer (because barring a miracle now, they'll be there) they'll have to impose their play, making sure that Alonso, Fabregas, and Xavi et al are free to do their stuff.

As Denmark realised, it's not actually so difficult to by-pass an opposition's midfield, as soon as you find a channel that you can exploit. As in the kids' match, as soon as one aspect of the Spanish game became exposed - its left side - the pattern of the match, up to then dominated by the visiting midfield, looked as though it might change.

When Denmark pulled a goal back five minutes from the end, nails were being bitten. Then Riera, on his debut, scored a cracker out of nothing, and class won the day.

Oddly enough, all this talk about Spain's midfield obscures the fact that their best player is actually Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, who seems to get better with every game. His goal and Spain's second was a fantastic advertisement for Spanish football, and surely enough to get the critics off Aragonés' back.

As a flowing move of 28 passes left the Danish in disarray, the final ball played-in to the overlapping Ramos was too close to the goalkeeper, but Ramos arrived fractionally earlier, lifting the ball over the keeper's sliding advance with the most delicate chip imaginable, and sending the ball floating almost apologetically into the net.

Ramos has all the flash attributes necessary for superstardom, save the fact that he plays in the unfashionable position of full-back for Spain. He flits between there and centre-back for Madrid, depending who's on the menu, but if I were Aragonés, I'd look harder for a new pair of full-backs and move Ramos into the middle, even when Puyol comes back. I'd also look a bit harder for that boy who you can send to the shop on the simple errand. Villarreal's Marcos Senna? Possibly.

If Spain are allowed to play to their strengths in summer, then they may well end a long period of despair and actually win the trophy. But this is a team whose manager doesn't speak to the press, whose national anthem has no words, and whose record in major tournaments is less than impressive - for the very reasons outlined above.

So often packed full of great players, the teams' strategies have collapsed too easily once questions were asked of them. Just like a bunch of kids, in fact.


  • Out now! Phil's new book on Real Madrid, White Storm. Also available, his splendid story of Spanish football, Morbo.
  • If you've any comments for Phil, email the newsdesk