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Jun 7, 2014

El Salvador-Spain: What we learned

David Villa's second half double led Spain to a 2-0 victory over a stubborn El Salvador.
David Villa's second half double led Spain to a 2-0 victory over a stubborn El Salvador.

The defending World Cup champions closed out their preparations for Brazil with a low-pressure kickaround against Central American minnows El Salvador. Little about the 2-0 result will tells us much about Spain's chances to lift the trophy just under five weeks from now, but the exercise wasn't without its informative elements.

- Report: El Salvador 0-2 Spain

Spain didn't look fatigued

If Spain's core of La Liga stars are fatigued after long league and European campaigns, it wasn't in evidence against El Salvador -- if only because La Furia Roja dominated possession so comprehensively and wasn't made to work by a bunkered in opponent.

The first half in particular was a walk in the park for Spain head coach Vicente del Bosque's side, who used their superior technical abilities to simply pass the ball around the over-matched Central Americans. Off-the-ball movement wasn't required with El Salvador content to sit back and defend. Diego Costa, whose fitness was of particular interest after a hamstring injury led to his early removal in the Champions League final, played a mostly stationary role as Spain's center forward for 73 minutes. The little running the Atletico Madrid forward did wasn't effective, perhaps showing some lingering effects of his injury, but as Spain rarely played through him, it was difficult to assess.

There was no lack of energy from the Spanish on those few occasions El Salvador gained possession.

Second-half changes enlivened Spain. Santi Cazorla, David Villa, and David Silva were much more active in the attacking end, forcing to El Salvador into the uncomfortable position of having to track their runs. Spain also began to consolidate their possession into the type of build-up play we expect of the defending champs. Spain's two goals was itself a result of that uptick in activity.

Diego Costa's health is unclear

Costa's fitness is one of the few questions facing Spain as they head to Brazil. In the build-up to Saturday's match, Del Bosque claimed he would not use Costa if there was any risk that doing so could lead to a setback.

Not only did Costa start in Spain's 4-3-3, he played more than 70 minutes, most of them uneventful. Costa occupied El Salvador's defenders and connected once or twice with midfield teammates, but was otherwise a non-factor in the Spanish attack. As the game wore on, prior to the breakthrough goal from Villa, Costa's short runs dwindled in number. Late in the first half, Costa took a ball to the head off of the foot of El Salvador keeper Henry Hernandez from no more than 10 yards away while chasing down long ball, making him wobble into the corner and pause for a few moments to collect himself. That he not only remained in the game but took his place again in the second half and played a further 25 minutes gives the impression that Del Bosque had a plan for his striker and chose not to allow the possibility of a concussion to deter him from it.

A late attempt to play a combination out of midfield, a passage that included a 30-yard run from Costa, was the most heartening moment of the second half, even though it stood out among the vast nothing that was most of Costa's day.

David Villa, star of the show

Through the first half, Spain went through the motions, with the whole of the team camped in El Salvador's half, controlling the match while sleepwalking through ineffectual forays forward that failed to deliver a goal.

The halftime introduction of Villa, Silva, and Cazorla, however, changed things for Spain. The tempo increased. They suddenly looked more interested, more menacing, and more intent on ending El Salvador's dream of a draw with the reigning World Cup champs in front of a vibrant, overwhelmingly El Salvadorian crowd. Villa, in particular, showed a sharpness and dedication to runs off the ball that served Spain well as they shifted back into their customary style of quick passes.

Villa finally put Spain up in the 60th minute, thanks to a cross from Sergio Ramos. He struck again in the 87th minute, outworking an El Salvador defender and finishing in his customary ruthless manner to the far corner from a Silva pass. On the first goal, El Salvador's goalkeeping was caught out, making it easier than it needed to be. The second goal was classic Villa.

Whatever Villa's role in the Spanish title defense, he still looks like a player capable of making a difference.

Strange Spanish tactics

There are expectations when Spain takes the field, regardless of the opponent and the way they choose to try and stop La Furia Roja. Spain's dominance in every major tournament was built on a disciplined commitment to the short passing game known the world over as tiki-taka. Even with debates over the style's demise sweeping through Europe, the generation of Spanish stars who led their country to three trophies are so well-versed in it that it would be shocking to see it abandoned.

All of that is why it was strange to watch Spain attempt to connect with Barcelona forward Pedro via long balls over the top in the first half. Ramos, in particular, was happy to try and find his speedy teammate with 40-yard aerial passes when Spain was in possession. As static as Costa was, Pedro was the opposite, constantly looking for opportunities to slip behind the El Salvador defense.

Was this a planned tactic, perhaps meant to confuse Spain's group stage opponents? Or was it preparation for any teams that will attempt to put ten men behind the ball against Spain in Brazil as El Salvador did? The third possibility is that Spain's experience players simply took what El Salvador chose to give them, bypassing the forest of bodies in the middle third of the field with route one tactics. Whichever reason is the truth, it was strange and very un-Spain-like.

The trio of substitutions Del Bosque made at halftime resulted in something of a return to Spain's usual style, with the added element of Cazorla's constant movement and Silva's width. Notably, Spain played more direct with Andres Iniesta on the field in the first half than they did without him in the second half.