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.


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


“Bilbao’s” the way to do it!

After Athletic Bilbao defeated 3rd Division Club Deportivo Mirandes and reached their 35th Copa Del Rey Final (more then any other side in Spain bar FC Barcelona who have appeared the same amount) they will face either Valencia CF or FC Barcelona. Athletic currently sit in 6th spot in La Liga (2 points off 3rd & Automatic Champions League Football), are in the later stages of the Europa league and as mentioned will play in Spain’s Spanish Cup Final. For most clubs across the top leagues in Europe these are just the minimums of their expectations…but Athletic Bilbao are not MOST clubs, and I thought there would be no better time then now in their 113 year history to highlight in my mind one of the greatest clubs in world football.

The Club


Athletic Club Bilbao

Athletic Club Bilbao was founded 113 years ago in 1898 and boasts the proud record of being only one of three clubs that has never been relegated from Spain’s La Liga and Top Flight (the others being Real Madrid & FC Barcelona). Nestled in the heart of Spain’s Basque region, Bilbao play there home games at the “Estadio San Mames” which opened in 1913 and is Spain’s oldest built stadium. Nick named “The Cathedral” it has always been a daunting place for away teams big and small to travel, with its tradiontally loud and boisterous home fans or ‘socios’ as they are called in Spain. Athletic Bilbao is one of only four professional clubs in Spain (the others being Real Madrid, FC Barcelona and Osasuna) that is not a sports corporation; thus the club is owned and operated by its aforementioned boisterous socios.

The Philosophy

Athletic Club has a very proud tradition of promoting young Basque players through its ranks (current Spain U21 star Iker Muniain), as well as being active in the transfer market to recruit top Basque players from other clubs (current Spain midfielder/defender Javi Martinez). The clubs official policy is to sign professional players who are native only to the greater basque region – and although this policy has been relaxed in recent years with players with direct Basque ancestry or with no Basque ancestry but formed in Basque clubs having played for the team it is one that must be admired.

Imagine Manchester City or Arsenal fielding a team solely with players who were born and formed in the greater Manchester and London boroughs and still achieve European Football and Domestic Cup Finals on a regular basis??

Titles vs Tradition

What makes the existence and achievements of Athletic Bilbao even more remarkable is the unified understanding of the clubs proud tradition, a tradition which only up until the 2008-09 season finally caved into the economic demands of modern day football and emblazoned a sponsor across their jersey for the first time in its 113 year history. The general consensus would be that having such “limitations” financially to develop the club, it would be just as stunting when it came to developing players of a standard to compete domestically let alone internationally…however this is not the case.

We only have to look at Marcelo Bielsa’s current breed of Bilbao players that are gracing La Liga week in week out that in this department the club more then punches above its weight, and with a youth system that can rival that of FC Barcelona’s famous “Masia” many of Bilbao’s class of 2011/12 are on now on the radar of Europes “Elite”.

Fernando Llorente (R) tussles with FCB's Leo Messi (L)

Mikel San José, Ander Herrera, Iker Muniain and Javi Martinez are not only essential regular members of the senior setup, but they were all important cogs in the Spanish U21 machine that swept all aside in last years 2011 UEFA European U-21 Championships. Javi Martinez at the tender age of 23 was 12 months earlier part of the Spain side that won the FIFA World Cup in South Africa along with Athletic Bilbao team mate and striker Fernando Llorente.

26 year old Fernando Llorente or ‘El Rey Leon’ (The Lion King) as he is also known by is a classic example of the “Bilbao Tradition”. Playing for the club at all levels from Youth, Bilbao Athletic (B Team) and the senior team he has amassed a total of 117 goals in 287 games for the senior club. Llorente has quickly developed into one of Europe’s top strikers and over the past seasons has had his fair share of admirers from top clubs in England’s Premier League and Italy’s Serie A.

Unfortunately this proud tradition of producing/investing in “basque based” players does not bring titles…Yes the club has won the Spanish Super Cup on one occasion, Spain’s La Liga 8 times and the Copa Del Rey 23 times but these crowns were last lifted over 25 years ago in the 1983-84 season…however Marcelo Bielsa’s class of 2011-12 could be changing that very shortly.

The Bielsa Factor

In the 25+ years which Athletic Bilbao have not lifted a major domestic or european honor they have not changed their player policy of Basque only players, so why now are they all of a sudden fighting on domestic and european fronts for titles once again…? The answer…Marcelo Bielsa.

The 56 year old former Argentina and Chile National Team Coach made a somewhat surprise move to take over the reigns at Athletic Bilbao at the start of the 2010-11 La Liga season. Off the back of a very successful 2010 FIFA World Cup with the Chilean National Team that was praised for its eye catching, high pressing attacking football the Argentine master tactician is now working his magic at the Basque club…only after some resistance from fans who were not happy/used to/understand the possession based, creative confidence he loves to instill in his teams and players.

Athletic Bilbao are now bearing the fruits of Bielsa’s labor and are one of La Liga most attractive footballing sides (ahead of Real Madrid who they more then matched at the Bernabeu for 60mins a matter of weeks ago) and form sides. A team that only a couple of seasons ago was solely based around getting the ball forward to “big man” Fernando Llorente as quickly and closely to the oppositions box as possible is now playing some of La Liga most exciting attacking football. Perhaps what had been missing was for someone to give Athletic’s abundance of talented players the confidence, discipline and organization it turns out they have been craving all along…which the likes of Muniain, Herrera, Javi Martinez and the reinvented Llorente have taken with open arms.

Identity…A final thought

I want you to imagine for a moment the club you love, follow, watch, study and defend to the death was built upon the principles of Athletic Bilbao…? Wouldn’t those deep feelings and unbreakable ties you have been even stronger if the players who wear the shirt out on the pitch week in week out were from the same city/town/village as you?

Forget the modern world where the only way to develop ties and bonds to your clubs stars is through twitter, facebook and other social media outlets…thats not a true way to grow a bond? thats not something you can feel? watch or fully understand? For me social media platforms have put todays footballers on even bigger pedestals…

Despite their lack of economic power, domestic and european titles, and “world superstars” what Athletic Bilbao represents to its players, staff, region and boisterous ‘socios’ (fans) is an identity…an identity every single person tied to the club can understand… now that is something money or titles can’t buy.