Costa could be Spain's trump card
Spain head coach Vicente del Bosque likes to keep his cards close to his chest. While he was happy during Spain's warm-up for the World Cup to telegraph his team to the opposition, there will be no clues handed to the Dutch camp ahead of the all-important opening Group B match on Friday. But Spain has little need for subterfuge; their opponents can guess the team sheet with a good chance of 100 percent accuracy, and the playing philosophy is as well-known globally as the players who carry it out.
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Eighty-five percent possession against El Salvador at the weekend is a statistic that is unlikely to be repeated when the gloves come off in Brazil, but two goals from substitute David Villa was scant reward for having the ball for almost the entire match, even if Spain could have played a shopping trolley in goal and still won comfortably; El Salvador didn't manage a single shot.
Diego Costa, who played 74 minutes, said the most important thing was that he didn't aggravate his hamstring injury. Juanfran also came through 90 unscathed minutes and Del Bosque is one of few coaches who hasn't suffered an injury-based withdrawal from his squad in the countdown to the tournament -- Thiago was ruled out, but Del Bosque had plenty of time to adjust to that.
However, it has to be said that Spain haven't exactly set the world alight in their pre-tournament knock-abouts. It won't be until 4pm local time Friday in Salvador that we learn anything significant about Del Bosque's plans. Villa's brace takes his tally for La Roja to a staggering 58 in 95 games and he is surely pushing for a place in the starting 11 against Holland. As Del Bosque said after the El Salvador match: "In limited space, Villa is one of the best in the world."
Space will certainly be at a premium in the matches Spain face in the group stage. Holland are well aware of how to stop Spain from playing, as they demonstrated in Johannesburg four years ago. It wasn't pretty, but it was certainly effective, and there will be a ready supply of ice spray on the Spain bench. The importance of the match to both sides suggests there won't be too many risks taken and Del Bosque is likely to start with a double pivot of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets. Against El Salvador the coach used a single holding midfielder to free up room for an extra creative player, in this case Koke, who with Cesc Fabregas, flanked Alonso in midfield.
That could well be the case against Australia, who will not be too expansive, while Chile are a solid unit with plenty of flair in Arturo Vidal and Alexis Sanchez, and thus will receive the honor of being afforded a two-man anchor in midfield. Chile beat Uruguay in qualifying last year, held Brazil, Colombia and Spain to high-scoring draws and defeated England at Wembley. Jorge Sampaoli's side is to taken very seriously indeed.
Spain's need for a plan B has been apparent for some time. The spine of the national side is still claret-and-blue, and debate has raged for over a year now as to whether tiki-taka has had its day. The inquest began after Bayern Munich crushed Tito Vilanova's Barça 7-0 over two Champions League semifinal games in 2013, and continued throughout this season as Gerardo Martino tried and failed to add an extra dimension to the Cules' play. Spain faces a similar problem in Brazil: every opposition side knows how they play and will flood the midfield to deny them space to move the ball about. As Jose Mourinho proved with Inter in 2010 vs. Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, two defensive banks of four or even five players is a pretty effective way of shutting a free-passing side down. El Salvador fielded a 5-4-1 and kept the scoreline reasonable.
Spain haven't given anyone of note a decent hiding since Italy in the Euro 2012 final. The sense is that a goal here or there won't be enough to ensure three points against either Holland or Chile in a group that could well be decided by how many each of the other three stick past Australia. Possession is one of those statistics that drives my old man insane. And he has a point; possession isn't much good if you're stroking around in your half of the field. The whole point of the exercise is to stick the ball in the opposition net more times than they do to you. Which is why it was encouraging to see a bit of the long-ball tactic on display against El Salvador. At the Confederations Cup last year Spain stayed true to their philosophy, and it simply didn't work.
Costa has arrived just in the nick of time for Spain. The previous incumbent of the "big man" role, Fernando Llorente, has never put a foot wrong in a Spain shirt but he lacks Costa's mobility. Roberto Soldado and Alvaro Negredo lack Costa's direct running and physicality. Quite simply, the Hispano-Brazilian is a composite striker combining the best traits of the three discardees. He will be also be one of the few players from European sides unfazed by the climatic conditions on offer in Brazil.
If, as seems likely, Spain play the tried and tested way in the group stage, with Villa surely nosing ahead in the stakes to play in the middle of a front three, Costa's impact from the bench could be vital. Another tactic may be to start Costa against Holland and play some balls over the top. How many times this season did Costa pick up a pass and hurtle toward goal, defenders bouncing off him as though in a cartoon? The Dutch were none too delicate in Johannesburg and a little of their own medicine from the outset might be just what Spain require to land a knock-out blow early; Costa's ability to unsettle a holding midfielder when not in possession is also something for Spain to consider.
Costa could be Spain's trump card in Brazil. It remains to be seen when and how Del Bosque will choose to lay him on the table.