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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The Wonderful Wizard of Özil

The wizard himself

Barely 3 minutes had elapsed in today’s Euro 2012 1/4 Final when I knew that once again Mesut Özil would play another star role in Germany’s performance…sliding like a knife through butter between the Greek midfield unit to an un-markable inside right position, it was as if time stood still. The Greek defenders froze in awe has in one swift instinctive movement Özil received the ball on the half turn, used his eyes and body as a disguise to slide a delightful reverse through ball for Miroslav Klose who was inches away from controlling and finishing inside the box – as the final scoreline of 4-1 proved Greece were in for a long night and the source of their problems was Germany’s attacking midfield magician the ‘wizard of Özil’.

Game Breaker

As coaches we dream of having at our disposal a player in our ranks who at any given moment can “break” the structure of the game and opponent in a moment of genius, and in Mesut Özil Germany have him.

The striking thing about Özil is that he doesn’t just effect the game at any given moment, he effects the game all the time. Watching him today glide around the middle and attacking third of the pitch, constantly checking his surroundings as he moved painting mental pictures in preparation to receive and conjure up his next spell he was simply unplayable.

So lets get the facts clear…Özil is not in the team to defend (see here), but he more then makes up for his lack of defensive skill-set  in the work he does with the ball – which is of a frightingly high level and game after game very consistent and very effective.

Todays game vs Greece was no exception where the German wizard was a constant threat in the middle and attacking thirds of the pitch. Below is a sample of Özil’s work in the attacking 1/3:

Creativity…being a step ahead

Everytime Özil touches the ball he makes something happen; breaking opposition lines, drawing defenders/midfielders out of position, plays precise laser guided passes into the feet of his attackers and/or behind defenses, provides constant support and reference points for Germany’s attacking moves…and the list goes on!

My question though is how does he makes everything look so easy? Why does everything he do look predetermined? Almost like the opposition players stand no chance to effect his decision making and creativity?…

Its not Mesut Özil’s outstanding technical ability he possess in that wand of a left foot, although it certainly helps…its his mind that fuels his creativity to keep him almost always a step/pass/move/picture ahead of the competition.

During the game, players must continually take in large amounts of information, process and assess the situation, rely on past experiences to determine a plan of action. They must also remain flexible to unfamiliar situations and new opportunities that arise…and to make things a little bit harder, the plan of attack must be formulated, executed and revised in a matter of milliseconds.

These plans of action can be better described as “executive functions” that describe cognitive processes that regulate both thought and action. These processes include planning, problem solving, creative thinking, use of feedback, and cognitive flexibility (quickly altering the plan of action). Thinking about those cognitive processes in more detail and after watching Mesut Özil in action today you can see his brain working in perfect harmony with his body:

Mesut Özil…always a ‘step’ ahead of the rest

Planning: Where is possession being developed from? 

Problem Solving: How can I effect my marker and his unit?

Creative Thinking: Obtain positions between units/players to create hesitation & uncertainty

Feedback: Observe & Understand my surroundings by painting pictures with my eyes as I move.

Cognitive Flexibility (Altering Plans): Receiving under pressure, bad touch, double team, team mate movements.

Its the ability Mesut Özil has to turn these thoughts into an action in a millisecond that keeps him a ‘step’ ahead of the rest and often leave defenders in his wake.

Conclusion

Todays performance by Mesut Özil reminded me how lucky we are as coaches, students and fans of the game  with the level of talent on show. Players such as Mesut Özil give us fantastic examples and references to draw from and inspire the players we work with – they remind us that we need to create and develop more free thinking players who can effect games not only when they have the ball but all the time.

We work tirelessly on organizing our teams, giving our players detailed instructions on what their roles are within a position but do we over look the importance of encouraging players to ‘break the mould’ when they are out on the pitch?

As coaches we need to provide environments where players are constantly being testing not just physically but mentally – working their brains as well as their bodies. Are the exercises specific to the game? recreating situations in a game? are they providing a catalyst for players to develop their action planning and problem solving processes…their “executive functions”?

Unfortunately executive function may be a trait that is overlooked when developing and identifying talented players. Coaches should look beyond simply selecting potential players only on their physical capacity, ball control and how well the player performs. These characteristics of executive functioning, problem solving and creative play certainly help make Mesut Özil the player he is today and stand out at the very highest level, and i’m sure that without his problem solving and creative skill-set Germany would not be the team they are today.

Reference: The science of soccer: http://www.scienceofsocceronline.com/
Reference: http://fourfourtwo.com/statszone/