Spain success built on Foundations…not Formations!

Spain National Team - rewriting history

Its the players that make the formation, not the formation that makes the players.

I am sure that you have heard this statement many times before – but after watching Euro 2012 and to be currently experiencing  one of the greatest footballing generations in the history of the sport…Spain for me are the ultimate example of this statement.

For many watching the European Championship it might of appeared it was business as usual – playing their brand of “tiki-taka” football – which has served them so well over the past 4-5 years. A brand that has once again left opposition players and coaches scratching their heads as to what the best solution may be to stop ‘La Furia Roja’ in their tracks.

In this article I aim to dig a little deeper into the history makers. The subtle changes and evolution they have made as a nation in their football since ‘El Niño’ Torres netted that famous winner against Germany in the European Final of 2008 to get the ball rolling…and my word it has not stopped rolling ever since!

Our way or the highway!

Xavi…the pass master

The first thing you notice about Spain is their unwavering devotion to retaining possession that at times resembles a training like game of ‘keep away’. However its easy to look from the outside and fall into the trap of many recent ridiculous media/pundit hype that it is boring and negative – Spain soon put that to bed with their emphatic demolition of Italy in Kiev! – So how do they make it look so easy? How can they maintain this almost hypnotic brand of football for 90 and even 120 minutes?

A key characteristic of the now world famous ‘tiki-taka’ brand that I feel is sometimes not given enough credit is the incredible amount of concentration, composure and focus it takes to maintain Spain’s very high standards when it comes to retaining possession and passing the ball. You can see the frustration and almost self-hate when the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets give away possession through a sloppy pass or poor touch.

Watching the Euro’s unfold I thought to myself…Why can’t other nations play this way? Why are what appears to be only a handful of other players at the international level (outside Spain) incapable of executing one of footballs most simple and basic techniques…pass the ball and keep possession?

The players I am talking about are the likes of those who are playing at the same level and competitions as the likes of Xavi, Iniesta, and David Silva. Players who are playing at some of the world best league and biggest teams, and in some cases alongside these players in the same teams and leagues.

What Spain made absolutely clear at this European Championship is that they do not obsess with the shape and lineup of their team. While the rest of us where making noises, doubting and turning our noses up at how a team could/couldn’t play ‘without a recognized’ striker, Spain and its ‘tiki-taka’ troops knew they had something which they could fall back on, something that kept them moving in the right direction and something they knew others didn’t have…their footballing foundation.

Football without fear

This is the message that is drummed into every young player starting out in the game, the ball is your friend; play with it, respect it and appreciate it. Now it seems like a simple message and im sure a message you as a coach have shared with your young players – however its not just about saying it and doing it…its HOW you do it that is the key and the Spanish do it like no other.

Spain’s current world dominance both domestically and Internationally over the past 8 years is not luck, its been a long process of reinventing, up-skilling and educating players and coaches from top to bottom across the nation, in a unified philosophy of how they want to play the game. This process is now beginning to bare fruit.

The leader of this philosophy and the Spanish National Team Vicente Del Bosque sums it up perfectly before and after the big game vs Italy… 'El Bigote' Del Bosque

“Our success is not a coincidence and has its foundations in many things,” he said.

“In the structure of our football, in the academies, and in better coaches. The Spanish clubs are devoting themselves to training youngsters.

“Before we would travel abroad to look at the academies in France, Russia, Germany. Now many of these countries come to see what we are doing in Spain.”

After their historic victory Del Bosque went on to add…

“We’re talking about a great generation of footballers, They know how to play together because they come from a country where they learn to play properly. This is a great era for Spanish football.”

“To win three titles is almost impossible. Congratulations to the players. I didn’t really want to be the coach who wins but the coach who educates. I want to keep preparing them for the future.”

This message from the national coach is shared by the devoted coaches across Spain who preach this to their players. Its about the education, the future and not the winning.

As a player if you are allowed to grow in an environment where risk-taking and decision-making are encouraged and managed to the finest detail it is no surprise at all to see Iniesta ask for the ball even in the tightest of spaces when surrounded by opponents, or to see skipper Iker Casillas leading by example playing cooly out from the back under pressure.

The Spanish players do not have fear in their minds when they play…all they have is their philosophy and years of trust in their education that this is right way to play, the success along the way has only helped to reinforce this bond.

Football with foundation, not formations…?

Another aspect of Spain’s historic victory at Euro 2012 that stood out for me is just how brilliantly adaptable they are. From the opening game fielding the then infamous “4-6-0” formation (with Cesc Fabregas playing in the false 9 role), to the change of tempo/contrast of their play in the final between David Silva’s opening goal – 14 passes, 36 sec’s of possession – to Jordi Alba’s second – 4 passes, 13 sec’s of possession – was a joy to watch. Iniesta...the great escape artist

Spain’s modern day ‘total football’ inspired by Johan Cruyff’s famous dutch side, then brought to Spanish shores by the man himself has led me to believe something…does it matter what formation you play if you have players who can identify, adapt to and execute decisions in accordance to their surroundings?

I truly believe that regardless wether its 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 4-4-2 or even 4-6-0…the football foundation that Spain’s players have been built upon since they could kick a ball; awareness, timing, touch, vision allows them to fit into any system, and I feel they could of played any of the above systems and the outcome would’ve been exactly the same at Euro 2012.

The facts are there to see:

Since the start of 2011-12 season Sergio Ramos has taken to his role as a central defender like a duck to water and after Euro 2012 is now considered one of the worlds – lets not forget less then 18 months ago he was strictly a full back for both club and country.

Cesc Fabregas was the first to admit he was a surprised as anyone to see his name in the starting XI as a false 9 for Spain’s opening game – seeing he has never played their before this season for Barcelona on rare occasions – however he still scored in that game and created David Silva’s opening goal from the same ‘position’ in the final.

With Iniesta and Silva playing ‘from the flanks’, Xavi playing as an advanced play maker and Sergio Busquets ability to play both as a deep lying midfielder and center only strengthens my belief that with the right foundation, formations mean nothing.

Conclusion

Educating players to recognize the correct ‘cues’ in and out of possession; when to press, when to screen (out) vs how to receive, when to dribble, when to pass (in) breaks the mould of players needing position specific qualities. The way the modern game is evolving means that players need to be adaptable and evolve with the match with every passing minute.

As coaches we need to look beyond putting players in ‘boxes’ on the field and ask them to perform certain actions which that position requires. England’s performances at the Euro 2012 and South Africa 2012 are perfect examples – they can follow instructions, they can be well organized without the ball but when it comes to having the ball under pressure or finding themselves in situations outside of their specific role they really struggled – The players I speak of are the likes of Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney, John Terry who are not only key members of their club and country but who many agree are ‘World-Class’ in their position.

What Spain have shown us over the past 4 years far from boring…I believe its groundbreaking and further supports my view that football is not about formations – its about having players who can execute thoughts into actions in accordance to their surroundings.

Spain by numbers: Full article found here —>  SkySportsNews

Spain - Record Breakers

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“Wenger” things going to change?

AC Milan 4 – 0 Arsenal

Arsene Wenger’s side were well and truly beaten by a very robust and dominant AC Milan who will go into the 2nd leg at the Emirates with more then one foot into the next stage of this years UEFA Champions League. Before the game Arsene Wenger commented on the “worrying” state of the pitch at the San Siro, but come full time the Arsenal performance described by Mr. Wenger himself as “one of our worst” would give him an even bigger thing to worry about.

It appears that this defeat along with the numerous stumbles along the way domestically in the Premier League this season is leaving Arsenal fans with no other option but to question…Wenger things going to change?

First Half

Arsene Wenger welcomed back full back Bacary Sagna and Kieran Gibbs who along with Thomas Vermalen and Laurent Koscielny made up the back four in there usual 4-3-3ish formation. Alex Song played at the base of the midfield with Mikel Arteta and Aaron Ramsey who took it in turns to get forward a support the attacking line of Walcott-Van Persie-Rosicky.

Starting XI's First Half

From the outset Arsenal struggled with the narrow diamond shape of AC Milan spearheaded by Ibrahimovic, Robinho and Kevn-Prince Boateng. The movement of the front two caused Vermalen and Koscielny all sorts of problems and created the first goal which KPB took in stunning fashion. Arsenal failed to gain a foothold in the game and once KPB volley crashed in off the bar the home side proceeded to bulldoze and bypass Arsenal’s units at will.

Milan Coach Massimiliano Allegri after the game highlighted the excellent positioning his players took up and the opportunities it created for them. Song who was constantly looking over his shoulder and occupied by the movement of Ibrahimovic and Robinho also had to worry about KPB, while both Arteta and Ramsey never seemed to get close enough to Seedorf (Emanuelson), Nocerino and Van Bommel to press them. On the flip-side with Song’s defensive pressures both Ramsey and Arteta never had time to secure quality possession for Arsenal, as the base of Milan’s diamond midfield (mentioned before) choked the time and space out of them…this meant Van Persie cut a lonely isolated figure up front and although Rosicky came infield to provide some support Walcott was non-exsistant and never got the ball.

One solution to combat Milan’s dogged diamond would’ve been for both Sagna and Gibbs to get forward and provide extra support and width to the Arsenal midfield and thus forcing Milan’s midfield to stretch, become disjointed and create space for RVP to come into and receive the ball – this never happened and it was obvious to see it was Sagna and Gibbs first game back and were lacking match sharpness.

With KPB’s goal born from the inside right position with a ball in behind Kieran Gibbs, Milan’s second goal was exploited by a “too close to call offside” looking Ibrahimovic behind Sagna down the left…the big Swede exploded into the box and cut a cross back for Robinho to head home after the Arsenal backline was caught napping looking for offside and slow to react…2-0 down at half time was a mountain to climb but it was only the start of Arsenal’s misery.

Second Half

At the break Arsene Wenger had to try and find some inspiration and spark so threw on Thierry Henry for Theo Walcott. Aaron Ramsey moved out to the right, Rosicky stayed left while Henry Partnered RVP upfront. The Dutchman was asked to drop off and Arsenal flickered between a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1. As positive as this change may have looked on paper it in fact gave Arsenal less width with Ramsey naturally coming inside and Rosicky doing similar as he was in the first half – some individual quality and interplay between Henry and RVP created Arsenal’s best chance when the Dutchman’s wicked volley from Henry’s clever flick was tipped round the post by Abbiati.

Starting XI's 2nd Half

Aside from that effort and a RVP header normal service resumed in the second half and Milan continued there dominance with Ibrahimovic causing further problems to Vermalen and now Djourou who replaced the injured Koscielny. Both of Arsenal’s centre backs were directly involved in Milan’s third and fourth goal with Vermalen slipping to allow the space for Robinho to arrow his shot into the bottom corner on 49mins and in the 79th min Song clumsily dragged down Ibrahimovic inside the box…who dusted himself off to step up and slot home.

Wenger introduced the talented Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain late on in the second half and the lively winger created a couple of problems for Antonini, and also provided the cross for RVP header which was well saved by Abbiati. It would have been interesting to see how Milan might of faired if Wenger started both Walcott and AOC on the flanks to try and stretch the Italians…being that their full backs Abate and Antonini were never challenged and had almost free reign to drive forward.

Conclusion

Barring a miracle of epic proportions at the Emirates AC Milan have all but secured their passage into the next round of the Champions League. Arsene Wenger’s side never got going and were not allowed to by a very athletic, fluid and razor sharp AC Milan side, who when the likes of Ibrahimovic-Robinho-KPB produce displays in tandem like tonight can be a real match for anyone in this competition.

Arsenal and their fans are left to lick their wounds on the flight home and think to themselves if the 2nd leg at the Emirates could be their last taste of UEFA Champions League Football for a couple of seasons…?

Food For Thought…

Although Arsenal’s recent run of form has seen them creep back into 4th spot, this year more then ever could be vitally important for the club to stay amongst the Champions League places…if this was not to happen it could spell disaster for them both on and off the pitch.

2005...last taste of success

This has been the first season in the previous trophy-less seven where the Arsenal faithful have made their feelings loud and clear to Wenger that they are not happy with the current state of affairs. This has not been helped with the summer departures of Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona and Samir Nasri to Premier League leaders Manchester City…Wenger has tried to play down the panic asking fans for trust and patience – which he has the right too after many wrote his side off after the Invincible’s era of Pires, Henry, Viera all departed and the club had to rebuild.

Wenger like Sir Alex Ferguson has been a master of rebuilding his squads after significant departures whilst still qualifying for Champions League Football and legitimately competing for silverware domestically year in year out…however it seems that this balancing act is finally coming loose at the foundations and even Wenger’s Worshipers are beginning to question the lack of direction of there manager and the club.

Another quiet transfer window in terms of “major signings” the fans have been crying out for added to the frail and inconsistent Premier league performances this season has left Arsenal Football Club at a cross roads…

Will the club give Wenger the funds to buy “big names’?

Is Wenger the right man to kick start Arsenal back into life and get them back on track?

Can Arsenal continue to compete domestically and in europe if they cannot keep their best players?

What ever the answers, they will certainly be put to the test if come the summer Arsenal are out of the Champions league, finish outside the top four, go another season without silverware and lose Robin Van Persie……or is this trend unfortunately becoming the norm for Arsenal Football Club and its follwers?

So the question remains…Wenger things going to change…? Only Arsene Wenger himself can answer that.


AVB’s ABC’s

Chelsea 3-3 Manchester United

At the end of todays pulsating 3-3 draw between Chelsea and Manchester United, Chelsea manager André Villas-Boas was critical of referee Howard Webb after his side squandered a 3 goal lead…

The first one is an obvious penalty, nothing to say, but the second one is very, very dubious.

To go from 3-1 to 3-2 is immense and 3-3 is almost normal service for United. They have great desire and ambition. They never give up and manage to get the result, not the completely positive one they wanted, but a draw from 3-0 is important.

The way it happened is a big disappointment. We expect top referees in the top games and at the moment it is not happening for us

You have to try and hold on to a lead, but it was cut short by two penalties, said André Villas-Boas

Did Howard Webb’s decisions really determine the outcome of the game, or could (as André Villas-Boas puts it) there be more reasons for Chelsea’s lead being cut.

The Teams, Shapes, Systems;

Sir Alex lined up Manchester United in a very fluid 4-4-2 Formation with De Gea backing up Rafael-Evans-Ferdinand-Evra across the backline, Valencia-Carrick-Giggs-Young as a “loose” midfield unit, with Rooney and Wellbeck leading the line.

Man Utd Starting XI; "loose 4-4-2"

The most prominent actions during the early stages was the interplay/movement/rotation between Rooney-Wellbeck-Young, who were causing problems for the Chelsea backline. The timing and understanding between these 3 players was very good and on numerous occasions were able to link up and carve out opportunities in the final 1/3. In the early exchanges Ashley Young drifting in from the left flank allowed Evra to get forward and join the attack, and he was one of the reason’s AVB replaced Daniel Sturridge in the second period after he gave a away a penalty with a clumsy trip on the Frenchman. With Valencia providing an outlet on the right hand side of midfield both Giggs and Carrick (who was the deeper of the two) balanced off the midfield and screened the movements of Mata and Malouda.

In possession Man. United were more like a 4-2-4 and with them dominating possession early on were able to control the game and deny Chelsea the chance to play out from the back/through the thirds and get into any type of flow – this often led to many mis placed passes and poor decisions from players, which in turn made the game very scrappy and tense.

André Villas-Boas lined up his Chelsea side in a 4-2-3-1 ‘ish’ formation. His main concern was who to replace at left back for the suspended Ashley Cole and injured John Terry. Bosingwa took the place of Cole, and Gary Cahill made his Premier League debut alongside David Luiz with Ivanovic slotting in a right back. Michael Essien and Raul Meireles played in front of the Chelsea backline as a screen, with Malouda in advance. Sturridge-Torres-Mata provided the attacking line with the Spaniard making his usual drifts in field and Sturridge providing the with on the right hand side.

Chelsea Starting XI; 4-2-3-1 'ish'

During the entire first half Chelsea struggled to get a foot hold in the game and despite trying to play out from the back were unable to get any quality possession and time on the ball. The movement of United’s front men were causing the pairing of Cahill-Luiz & Essien-Miereles problems and often the latter two were being pulled out of position allowing Rooney-Wellbeck to inter link well with Young and create good opportunities.

Going forward most of Chelsea’s good play was through Mata and Sturridge who when in 1v1 situations with Evra was causing him problems (Chelsea 1-0). Torres had to adapt his game quickly as United opted to sit a deep back line and deny spaces in behind them – the Spaniard often dropped deep and moved into flank areas (cross for Mata goal), linked up well (86% pass accuracy – whoscored.com) and occupied Ferdinand-Evans. Until the own goal from Johnny Evans after good play from Sturridge the home side didn’t look likely to penetrate Man United and on fleeting occasions tested De Gea from set pieces and long range efforts…still the home side went into the break 1-0 up.

AVB’s “Second Half” ABC’s…

The game blew wide open within 5 crazy minutes…first on 46mins Mata lashed home a sensational volley at the far post after a wonderful cross from fellow Spaniard Fernando Torres. Then on 50mins Chelsea were awarded a freekick and Juan Mata delivered a teasing in swinging ball that David Luiz headed into the near post via a deflection off Rio Ferdinand. As expected the next 8mins Manchester United were rattled and Chelsea began to dominated proceedings and get some quality possession…

…So where did it all go wrong?

Obviously the penalty awarded to Man Utd after Sturridge tripped Patrice Evra on 58mins sparked the Manchester revival, but in hindsight I believe André Villas-Boas got his tactics and changes wrong. At 3-0 and 3-1 up Chelsea continued to attack United which played straight into the hands of the Red Devils, especially on transition. From the outset of the game United’s frontline with Rooney in particular were causing all sorts of problems and with Giggs joining in more after Chelsea’s third, the scales especially in the middle 1/3 tipped into United’s favor.

The substitution of Oriol Romeu for Daniel Sturridge on 71mins (at 3-2) was for me 12mins too late and should’ve happened once Chelsea had their 3-goal advantage in tact. Despite this advantage Chelsea continued to bomb forward and even Meireles began to join the attack – the ineffective Malouda would have been a better switch for Romeu and Chelsea could’ve switched to a more traditional 4-3-3 and give them much more solidarity in central midfield areas and flood the area/spaces Rooney-Young-Wellbeck were finding almost with ease.

The appreciation of AVB’s playing philosophy and his devotion to instill it at Chelsea this season has to be admired, but it is clear to me he does not yet have the appropriate players to fulfill those wishes for the during of a game. Some poor performances and inconsistent run of form and results only adds to the doubts. Early on in the season there was much talk about Chelsea’s lack of pace at the back and playing the high defensive line (to allow them to press higher up), and although AVB does not admit it there was a clear change of this philosophy in their 3-0 away win at Newcastle United on December 3rd and the following 3-0 home win against Valencia in the Champions league 3 days later.

With AVB attempting to play the possession based, attacking transition football he had much success with at Porto he is still missing a few keys pieces to the puzzle…and the big question is if Chelsea do not get into the top 4, are eliminated from the Champions League and fail to qualify for that competition next season will André Villas-Boas still be around to find those crucial pieces?