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Five Aside: Matchday 12

Five Aside Jun 23, 2014
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 Posted by Graham Hunter
Jun 20, 2014

Alonso's words hard to hear, but true for Spain

Everton manager Roberto Martinez reacts to Spain's early exit from the World Cup and believes they should still be celebrated.

After Spain's defeat to Holland, I wrote here: "If the sang-froid of the last couple of days masks shaken confidence and aching tiredness then they are in big trouble."

Chile went out and proved the things that I feared were becoming evident.

Right now there is something of a blood lust growing in the Spanish media, at least. As for the footballing nation, I'm too far away here in Curitiba to try to get a feel for how the 13 million who sat down to watch Spain's first-ever defeat to the South American La Roja feel about the last several days.

The media? Well there is a twin propulsion there. Firstly, there are feuds to be settled -- sides to be taken. Secondly, there is a primeval human need to try to explain and define the inexplicable.

- Report: Del Bosque backed to stay on
- Lowe: Spain's future is suddenly now
- Cox: Spain undone by their own revolution

And it's the degree of Spain's humiliation, rather than elimination itself, that will take work and patience to unpick. The firestorm will initially centre on the cracks in the team's strength and unity: Firstly, the comments made by Xabi Alonso after the defeat to Chile; secondly, the hints by Vicente del Bosque that he may step down if, after a period of reflection, he thinks that's the correct thing to do.

Alonso's words seem to me to be quite appropriate after two defeats by an aggregate score of 7-1. He said: "We haven't managed to maintain that hunger, that ambition. Mentally we weren't fully prepared, and physically we were at our limit."

Bang on. Those are the games we've just seen.

But hang on a minute. He said "we." He didn't say "they and not me." But now, in the media, there's a knowledge that division and animosity sells second best only to outright success. The fact that Alvaro Arbeloa has joined the fray, on social media, praising Alonso's capacity for telling the hard truth, will add fuel to the fire.

At a shrewd guess, we are still seeing the fruits of division caused at Real Madrid under Jose Mourinho. Iker Casillas hasn't had a tournament to be proud of, and there remains a "difficult" relationship with Arbeloa -- two men who took 180-degree different positions with respect to their then-manager.

Every squad has its players who'd rather spend less time with others in it than they are forced to do at tournaments. That's human nature. But what this group has thrived upon is temporary total unity. Rivalries put aside, bad blood cooled, the power of "one for all."

Xabi Alonso did not mince any words when reflecting on Spain's elimination from the World Cup.
Xabi Alonso did not mince any words when reflecting on Spain's elimination from the World Cup.

It's useful to look at the impact that the gradual loss of three players in particular had: Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena and Joan Capdevila.

Euro 2012 was a tournament at which Spain arrived desperate to make history, hungry for a trophy treble and totally convinced that they would win. Fernando Torres told me: "We knew that the only acceptable result was to win that Euro."

They coped fine without the veterans who were absent. The mood was self-propelled by the drive to win, and by the fact that Casillas and Xavi were still totally dominant as men and players.

This time they reached a South American World Cup a couple of years more tired, older and in a country that is hostile in both geography (massive distances to travel) and climate (cold, dank winter in Curitiba, broiling summer one day in Salvador and Rio with teeming rain the next). This is the first time, I think, that the impact of losing such upbeat, self-sacrificing characters -- three men who totally crossed any divide between ages, clubs, personalities -- has become evident. The laughter, the experience, the drive and the ability to pair with any other player, regardless of age, club or where they were born -- that's of vital important to tournament mentality.

C'est la vie. Nobody lasts forever. But there's often a bill to be paid when change arrives. Finally we are seeing the cost. Equally, I'd say there are some players here who felt that they already knew they were along for the ride. I'd reckon that one or two players who already felt that on the evidence of past tournaments (World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012) the manager doesn't full see their value.

Just look at the minutes played over the last couple of tournaments and you'll understand who they might be. That feeling erodes your self-belief, your concentration. It's extraordinarily hard to counter. Spain were a 23-man team in the past. Less so now.

Now del Bosque has confronted head on that there are "consequences" after a World Cup humiliation like this. I very much hope that after the glory he's given Spain and the value he's offered to the worldwide development of the game as a whole, that this elegant, honest and talented man takes the right amount of reflective time in order to make the correct decision. He, too, needs to stock-check his hunger, his energy and his drive -- the Euro in two years remains a wholly winnable tournament for a Spain side based on the remnants of this squad, plus Thiago, Isco, Dani Carvajal, Jese, potentially Gerard Deulofeu, Asier Illarramendi and Alberto Moreno.

Del Bosque, during that reflection, may come to a conclusion that Diego Costa was an experiment that didn't succeed and should have been handled differently. Costa played as he trained -- willingly but off form. (David Villa, no doubt in my mind, should have started against Chile.) And this theme is part of what's so hard to explain. (Although I admit to having a firm view.)

Spain trained way, way better than they played. The vast majority of practice sessions were open, and it was easy to see the work rate, the confidence in passing/pressing exercises. There were strong tackles; players were desperate not to lose training matches. And if there was some tiredness after yet another brutal season (emphasis on YET another, not just the one that has gone by), it was dissipating.

Yet in the two matches thus far Spain have looked, above all, unrecognizable in possession. The ball has been given away more in two games than the last three tournaments won. As a group Spain looked not only "disorganized," as del Bosque called the second half against Holland, but lacking in confidence. They have become nervous on the ball because they, even more than their rivals, already knew that their two key weaknesses were going to be put to the test: outright athleticism and lack of goals.

It is unknown if Vicente del Bosque will stay on as Spain head coach.
It is unknown if Vicente del Bosque will stay on as Spain head coach.

Nobody, as far as I've seen, heard or read, has thus far pinpointed an absolutely key factor. When a team is under pressure, tired, lacking in confidence or trying to subdue a feisty, in-form rival, the balm of a goal or two scored by the strikers is unimaginably vital. It's a massive pressure release. "If I keep doing my things right, if I keep passing well, if I keep on tracking with the flying-machine I'm marking, then ... we'll score." That's the thought that should run through teammates' heads. By now it isn't doing so.

When goals are not only increasingly absent but the players know well that their forwards aren't in good nick, then confidence drains. Like a great boxer who's finally taken a really hard one to the jaw, this group was a champion fighter who was looking to stay on his feet just long enough to refocus, to land a jab or two and get the mojo working. But the simple fact of a huge haymaker landing on the jaw (the 3-0 defeat to Brazil in Rio last summer and the nature of that game, plus the second half against Holland) had unquestionably led to a loss of self-confidence.

Vulnerability in sport, as in life, is a terribly debilitating feeling. Just pause and think about vulnerability and how, when it arrives unexpectedly, that feels. This is how Spain have played.

So kudos to Alonso for speaking honestly. But as far as I'm concerned he spoke about the group, himself included, and said some fair, honest and accurate things.

Blame and recrimination will ooze out of defeat. But it's for the dull to fail to recognize that the weaknesses of this campaign only serve to underline (again) the absolutely, jaw-droppingly, extraordinary feat of winning two Euros and a World Cup consecutively.