Euro Final Day: The Golden Age Of Spain

A much needed correction to a famous quote.  Apologies to Gary Lineker.  “Football is a simple game: twenty-two men chase a ball for ninety minutes and at the end the Germans Spanish win.”

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The Reign of Spain maintained in the Ukraine.  Despite looking shaky at times and causing many to question their mettle and commitment (including *cough* yours truly), Spain won again and in imperious fashion.  This was not the 1-0 bludgeoning to which we have become accustomed.  This was a 4-0 humiliation, a breathtaking display, perhaps the finest of the tiki taka era.  Before tonight, the record in the Euro finals had been 3-0,* and that only happened once.  Not only did Spain completely smash Italy, but in becoming the first side ever to defend its European title, Spain is the first national team in the contemporary era to win three back-to-back major tournaments.**  Fernando Torres (remember him?) became the first person to score in two consecutive Euro finals, and Vicente Del Bosque is the first coach ever to win the World Cup, the Euro, and the Champions League.

No doubt that Pele will come out swinging very soon because already the pundits are debating whether Spain is the greatest national team ever.  This means that the great Brazil sides of 1958-62 and 1970 will be relegated.  Pele, being Pele, will not be able to deal with that (and probably the people of Brazil will not either).  Forget Brazilian football jingoism, Spain 2008-present is indeed the greatest national side ever by virtue of the fact that sport only moves forward; the players and teams of a later era are always better than those of an earlier era.  The newest generation stands on the shoulders of giants, sure, but they still see farther.  Whether or not Spain is greatest if all things are equal is a fruitless discussion.  All a great side can hope for is to enter the world’s collective memory.  That Spain have done.  Like the earlier Brazil sides, and like the other great national teams (successful or not) that have gone down into football folk-lore, Spain are not merely great champions, they represent the apogee of what football can be.

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Before talking about the why of Spain, I want to discuss the when, where, and how that is required for better understanding.  Spain did not really become SPAIN until Jun 22, 2008 when it beat Italy on penalty kicks in the 2008 Euro quarterfinals.  Italy were historically the bogey team for Spain, a superstition with roots dating back to the late 1920’s.  In eliminating Italy, the Spaniards broke the curse and gained the confidence they needed to win the nation’s first major tournament since 1964.  Since 2008, Spain moved from strength to strength and have shed the underachiever label forever.  The roots of SPAIN go back two years earlier though to the 2006 World Cup.  (Actually, the roots go back years before to the planning and implementation of a brilliantly successful youth program, but 2006 was the watershed moment.)

In the 2006 World Cup, Spain were dumped out 3-1 in the first knockout round at the hands of a Zidane-inspired France.  It was a tough loss because of how amazingly Spanish dominated their group.  A few months later Spain began its qualification campaign for Euro 2008.  Despite beating Liechtenstein 4-0, Spain finished the year with consecutive losses to Northern Ireland and Sweden.  While perhaps the away loss to Sweden could be overlooked, the 3-2 defeat at the hands of that European powerhouse Northern Ireland was inexcusable (all the more so since Spain were leading 2-1 at one point).  That loss marked the beginning of a new era, most famously because it was the last time the Real Madrid legend Raul played for his country.  He was unceremoniously dumped and the new generation (spearheaded by Iker Casillas and Xavi) took over.

Qualification resumed in 2007 and since that time, in major tournaments (including qualifications) Spain have played 46 matches, won 43 of them, drew two, and lost one.  (A caveat: I consider the two matches won on penalty kicks as wins rather than draws, which is how FIFA classifies them.)  Spain have scored 101 goals against opponents and allowed a mere 20.  Spain have tied for the fewest number of goals allowed by a winning team at the World Cup (two) and have the sole record for fewest number of goals allowed at a Euro (one).  They are the first team ever to use the same starting XI in their opening match and the final of a Euro.  Casillas is the first person to reach 100 international victories.  The last two Golden Boot winners at the Euro are Spanish (David Villa in 2008 and Torres this year), as were the last two Players of the Tournament (Xavi in 2008 and Andrés Iniesta this year).  Spain also racked up all sorts of awards at the 2010 World Cup including the Golden Gloves (Casillas), the Silver Shoe, and the Bronze Ball (both Villa).  A host of Spanish players made the Teams of the Tournament at the World Cup (6), the 2008 Euro (9), and 2012 Euro (10).

And then there is Spain’s defensive record which is quite possibly the most incredible statistic of all.  In this tournament, Spain conceded a goal to Italy in its first match, and then went a record 509 minutes without conceding a second one.  In its last 10 knockout matches–dating back to that fateful June 22, 2008–Spain allowed opponents 0 goals.  This streak has lasted almost 1000 minutes, or about 16-and-a-half hours.  The last time Spain conceded a goal in a knockout round was its 2006 World Cup loss to France.  In that time, Spain have beaten the following nations at major tournaments (some twice): Italy, Germany, Holland, Portugal, Chile, Paraguay, Russia, France, Honduras, Sweden, Greece, and Croatia.  While neither Brazil nor Argentina feature, this is still a formidable line of opponents.  Spain are the lone European nation to have won a World Cup outside of Europe.  This Spain side have the record for most consecutive wins (15) and are tied with the 1993-95 Brazil side for longest undefeated streak (35 matches).

And almost all of their players will be available for 2014 World Cup–if they can keep their spots against the new generation who are also looking deadly formidable.

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None of this however explains the why of Spain.  Why is this generation of players so great?  For a quick comparison, look at the other young and talented squad of the current era, Germany.  Italy are the historically feared team for both Germany and Spain, but why were Spain able to eviscerate the Italians while Germany barely put up a fight?  Why is it that Spain have dominated the world, while Germany have become the eternal bridesmaid?

I am not sure I can answer for Germany, but I think I understand the Spanish revolution.  What it comes down to is that Spain as a footballing nation has developed tiki taka, which is shorthand for Spain’s own style, ethos, and philosophy about the game.  Spain’s play is instantly recognizable because no one else plays like them (or can play like them).  The cynic may say that so long as Spain keep winning so there is no reason for a stylistic change.  Yet this style has been infused at every level of national team development, and at almost every level Spanish players are successful.  Tiki taka has become as identified with Spain and Spanish football as Total Football has with the Netherlands.

Style is not the same as tactics.  With all due respect to Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox, I think that tactics only tell a small fraction of Spain’s story, and very little about Spain’s greatness.  Over and over at this tournament, Vicente Del Bosque was criticized for not using a center forward, using instead Cesc Fabregas as a “false nine” (Lionel Messi’s position for Barcelona).  In essence in this system, there is no striker, and the three attacking players (Fabregas, Andres Iniesta, and David Silva) are really just a second set of midfielders.  In tactical shorthand, this is labeled as a 4-6-0.***  It was also heavily criticized by commentators and armchair tacticians until Spain tore Italy apart.

After the problems of the opening match against Italy, Del Bosque experimented a little, and eventually returned to the 4-6-0 opening formation.  Instead of eking out a draw, it provided the means for Spain’s utter domination.  Far more knowledgeable commentators than I can talk about the nuts and bolts of that tactics behind the 4-6-0 formation and what each player’s role was.  Those commentators can better describe the individual match-ups, such as the way Xavi kept Andrea Pirlo out of the match or how Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique neutralized Mario Balotelli.

But tactical minutiae do not get to the larger picture of why Spain could use the 4-6-0, and what being able to use that formation says about Spain.  The common wisdom is that defense wins tournaments.  One could certainly posit, by virtue of its series of 1-0 victories, that Spain is defense heavy.  Yet this is not a fair assessment.†  What the 4-6-0 really does is show how effectively Spain have undermined the common wisdom; defense doesn’t win tournaments, the midfield does.  The reason Spain scores are not higher is because every team that faces Spain sets up an extremely defensive system.  It is the implicit concession that no other side in the world can match Spain’s talent or ability.  When a team does not accept that and tries to play its own game against Spain, the results are disastrous.  Look no further than the Euro 2012 final; Italy, to its credit, played toe-to-toe with Spain.  Their efforts produced an entertaining match, and even an edge in possession at half time, but could not prevent a 4-0 drubbing.

Midfield players, especially Spanish midfield players, need two virtues to be successful: (1) they must be able to pass and control the ball well; and (2) they must have the intelligence and vision to make effective passes.  Midfielders can take on attacking duties or defensive ones.  When a team controls the midfield, it effectively controls the game.  This is the essence of tiki taka: “If I have the ball, I will probably score, and you will definitely not.”  The more midfielders a team has, the more players there are who are able to control and possess the ball (granted, at the expense of the traditional virtues of strikers and defenders).  Spain adapted this philosophy through Barcelona where it was originated by none other than Johan Cruyff.  Tiki taka is latest step in the evolution of Total Football.  Spain are what everyone wanted Holland to be.

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The final against Italy may well be the apex of tiki taka football the way that Holland’s 4-0 victory over Argentina was the apogee of Total Football (or Brazil’s 4-1 victory over Italy was the pinnacle of its jogo bonito style).  Never has Spain come through in such a devastating way at such a big moment.  All four goals (and the passes leading to the goals) were beautiful, the first two astonishingly so.  Moreover, Spain’s goals were the essence of team goals.  They may have been scored by Silva, Alba, Torres, and Mata, but the creators were Xavi, Iniesta, and Fabregas.

For the past four years, Spain have dominated the international scene as no team has ever done before.  In Kiev, they ensured that they will become legendary.  Pele’s Brazil, Puskas’s Hungary, Cruyff’s Holland, Beckenbauer’s Germany–Xavi and Iniesta’s Spain are at the very forefront of the conversation.

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Two quick notes before I sign off.

(1) If you have not been following the animated match reports from Tim Bradford of When Saturday Comes, get thee over to his YouTube page immediate.  They are wonderful.

(2)  Finally, given the television schedule and my work schedule, I am not sure how I will do with the football at the women’s Olympics, but I am really hoping to be able to write about that tournament as well.  Hopefully, I will see you then.

Footnotes:

*  In fact, in the three major international tournaments, the World Cup, the Euro, and the Copa America, there had never before been a four goal victory in a final match.  Even the great Brazil sides of 1958 and 1970 won by “only” three goals–5-2 over Sweden and 4-1 over Italy, respectively.  A caveat: the South American Championship did not become the Copa America until 1975.  Before that time it was a round robin tournament (as were the 1989 and 1991 editions of the Copa America and the 1950 World Cup), and therefore there was no actual final.

**  It is important to distinguish the “contemporary” era (i.e. post-World War II when worldwide tournaments began again after a hiatus) from the modern era.  The contemporary era began in 1950 with the resurrection of the World Cup and an uninterrupted cycle of regular football tournaments.  The modern era, i.e. when the game that we recognize as today’s global football game truly developed, began with the Uruguayan victory at the 1924 Olympics.  In the modern era, Spain is not the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments.  Argentina won three South American Championships in 1945, 46, and 47.  Earlier than that the great Italian side of the 1930’s won the 1934 and 38 World Cups as well as the 1936 Olympics (which were a major tournament back then) and for good measure the Central European Cup, which lasted from 1933-35.  Uruguay won the 1923 and 1924 South American Championships and the 1924 Olympics.

*** 4-6-0 is not a Spanish system per se.  In 2008, Luis Aragones used a 4-4-2.  At the World Cup the system was more like a 4-5-1 or a 4-2-3-1 (although it was rather fluid).  Even in Poland/Ukraine, Del Bosque, did briefly switch away from 4-6-0, but switched back after being dissatisfied with the result.  Del Bosque used a 4-6-0 because of David Villa’s unfortunate injury and absence and because Del Bosque had more faith in his midfielders than in his remaining strikers.

† Helenio Herrera, the innovative coach who refined and popularized the infamous catenaccio style of Inter Milan and Italy, lamented that a system he believed to be attacking (when correctly applied) had instead become shorthand for stifling defensiveness, grinding out matches, and cynical play.  While catenaccio is a tactical system and tiki taka is so much more, one can see the similarity in the perceptions and misconceptions about both.

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Euro Day 3: All Tik And No Tak

I have a math equation for all you football fans.  Spain = Barcelona – Lionel Messi + red shirts.

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Day 3 of the 2012 Euro showcased what is arguably the highlight match of the first round: Italy v. Spain.  It was this match-up four years ago in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Euro that propelled Spanish football to its current Golden Age.  After Spain’s youngsters beat Italy in penalty kicks, they massacred Russia in the semifinals and dominated Germany to win the nation’s first international title since the 1964 Euro (this excludes all youth tournaments and the 1992 Olympics which is not a major tournament in men’s football).  Following 2008 win, Spain, exuding confidence from every pore and terrifying opponents into submission, won every match in World Cup qualifiers, broke or tied records for win streaks and unbeaten streaks–streaks broken by the USA in the Confederations Cup semifinals–and promptly lost to Switzerland in the first round of the 2010 World Cup.

Of course Spain went on to win the World Cup, but in the Switzerland match something changed.  Tiki taka football, once the darling of the cognoscenti, started to look stale and boring as Spain ground out a series of 1-0 wins en route to the title.  Suddenly, many of the same people who once toasted Spain (and Barcelona) complained about how boring their dominating style was.  Spain and Barcelona though are not a fair comparison, because while the two teams played the same style and shared many of the same players, the Spanish lacked something, a scoring threat.  The difference of course is that Spain does not have Lionel Messi, and to a lesser extent Dani Alves running down the wing.  (Messi, for his part, scored a hat trick last night for Argentina in a 4-3 victory against hated rival Brazil–quite possibly the first player to do that to the Brazilians since Paolo Rossi in 1982.)

All styles of play and all great teams eventually end.  No Golden Age lasts forever.  Whether or not this tournament marks the end of the Reign in Spain remains to be seen, but the national team’s tiki taka was already on the wane in 2010 when Switzerland, Portugal, Paraguay, and especially the Netherlands, figured out that the way to stop Spain from scoring (if not winning) was to play organized defenses and rough the Spaniards up.  Without a Messi to terrify opposing defenses, tiki taka lacks its killer edge.  That has been Spain’s problem, all the more so since the injury to David Villa and the vanished confidence of Fernando Torres.  Xavi, Andres Iniesta, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, David Silva, and Sergio Busquets are all great and intelligent players, but they are midfielders, and when things get tight, they prefer to pass rather than shoot.  Or, in a tortured analogy, they unlock the door but cannot walk through it.  Spain’s coach Vicente del Bosque must share some of the blame.  He has a quality forward at his disposal, Fernando Llorente of Athletic Bilbao, but instead he chose to start instead a midfield sextet rather than use an actual forward–a fact that Ian Darke and Steve McManaman could not stop talking about during the match.

None of this of course tells you the score of the match, which was actually a 1-1 draw.  To Spain’s credit, when Italy went up 1-0, Fabregas scored four minutes later.  They held their nerve and got better.  But watching the match, I got the feeling that given Spain’s difficulties in scoring and the departure of Guardiola from Barcelona, the sun has finally set on the era of tiki taka.

There are other reasons why Spain merely drew, and the top one of those is the good play of Italy.  Italy is the most maddening national team in world football.  They come from the land of Michelangelo and Verdi but their play reminds you that they also come from the land of Silvio Berlusconi and Cosa Nostra.  Whenever one complains about their cheap fouling and diving, the Azzurri faithful complain about the critic being “anti-Italian.”  Add whining fans and players to the list of things to hate about the Italian National Team.

By all rights, Italy should be done and dusted as a footballing nation.  Yet again, their national league has fallen to scandal (is it coincidence that this happened the same year Juventus finally won the league again?).  Their economy is falling apart (like Spain’s, I might add), and their political system is so broken that the European Union (i.e. Germany) had to replace their dysfunctional but elected government with one that might actually govern.  Ironically, when the nation is in crisis, Italy is at its footballing best, and the Azzurri win tournaments–most famously the World Cups of 1982 and 2006.  Equally aggravating is that Italy play at its best when it faces top teams.  This is why Italy are the bogeyman of both Spain and Germany; neither of those national teams have ever been able to actually beat Italy.  Even Spain’s 2008 win was officially a draw as the victory came as a result of a penalty shoot-out.

Spain were a pre-tournament favorite, Spain has dominated the world, Italy is in crisis, Italy exited the World Cup in ignominious fashion.  Yet today Italy played the better game.  Somehow Spain still managed to eke out a draw.  Perhaps that is progress, or perhaps the era of tiki taka has come full circle and ended where it began–with a draw to Italy.

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In other Group C news, Croatia beat Ireland, the whipping boys of the Group.  I was not able to watch the match.  The problem with working during the week is that during the weekend, I have to make sure that all the chores are done.  While I could reasonably get away with watching Spain v. Italy, Croatia v. Ireland just did not have the same urgency.  Till next weekend.

One Style To Rule Them All

Today on Goal.com I found this gem.  The great American international Claudio Reyna, who is now the USSF youth technical director believes that “the United States needs to find a national identity in style of play and implement it at all levels.”

“You first have to build a vision or else you are driving with no lights on,” Reyna told Goal.com’s J.R. Eskilson exclusively. “You have to have that; it’s a must. All the leading nations have one style.”

Reyna cited Spain, which has conquered all in the past handful of years with its distinct tiki-taka, and the Netherlands, with its reliance on Total Football. He also mentioned Germany, which under Jurgen Klinsmann shifted from an efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit to a smooth-flowing counter-attacking team.

Currently, no clear style has been identified to contain the diversity of styles and ethnic backgrounds in the United States.

“It is still relatively general, but we are looking for teams to trying to keep possession and play better, to create offensive teams and players,” Reyna said. “We want to reward teams here [at the Development Academy Finals Week] for playing well, so a style of play is very important to that. And clearly the national team is always the leader in that as the reference point on how we want to play.”

Were this the only article I have ever read about Reyna, I would question whether he is actually the man for the job.  Fortunately, it is not, and from other articles I have read, he does seem to have a grasp of what it takes to properly run a youth development program.

Having said that, I am still troubled by this emphasis on national style, and ambivalent about Reyna’s project.

The dirty secret about national styles is that they don’t start at the national level.  Developing a national style is a bottom-up not top-down process.  National styles grow from the club level; the successful style is imported to the national team.  Spain’s World Cup winning side could very well have been called Barcelona and Friends.  Barcelona’s Tiki-taka is an evolution of the Total Football imported to Catalonia by Rinus Michels and Johan Cruyff.  Total Football was Ajax’s style before it became associated with the Netherlands.*

Notably absent from Reyna’s list of national styles is the infamous Italian catenaccio.  It’s not that Italy uses the specific tactics that made up catenaccio, but that term has come to embody the Italian defensive style (complete with fouling and diving.)  Furthermore, Reyna does not give proper credit to Germany’s “efficient, steel-hardened defensive outfit,” which, maligned as it may have been, was a very effective national style that brought World and European titles.

America actually has a national style, although it is not particularly aesthetically pleasing.  It is direct, explosive, makes up for a lack of refined technique with unmatched athleticism and physical preparation, and is wrapped up with a never-say-die attitude (this is the same for the US women’s.)  Reyna rejects this style but ignoring that it exists.  He doesn’t want an American style, so much as he wants a certain kind of style, one with attacking flair and creativity in the midfield.  In other words, he wants US teams to thrill the connoisseurs (and the Jonathan Wilsons of the world.)

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a bad goal.  I personally would love to see it, and I know I am not alone.  Nevertheless, that kind of style does not just develop because Claudio Reyna has a vision (especially in the current days when the international game has become so focused on defense.)  The Ajax team of the early 1970’s basically grew up together and had Cruyff, the greatest player Europe has ever produced.  Barcelona’s (and Spain’s) current success was about two decades in the making, with the development of peerless youth academy in which the players were taught to play a specific style.

The other dirty secret about national styles is that they change fairly regularly.  Tiki-taka is in the ascendency, but eventually Spain will have to find something else.  England does not just play the long ball anymore, Italy has had good attacking sides, and Germany, despite popular belief, was not just brutally efficient robots until Klinsmann and Jogi Löw came along.**  The South American sides too have changed over time, none more so than Brazil.  Sure the players have individual flair, but jogo bonito is long gone.  Save for 1982 and 1986, since the great 1970 team, Brazil’s World Cup squads have been far more pragmatic than thrilling.

I find the claim that Americans are too diverse for a national style to be an absolute cop-out.  Countries like Germany and the Netherlands have quite a lot of diversity (i.e. immigrants), and yet they are able to blend together.  The problem is not that America is too varied, it’s that Americans are having trouble training and of developing young talent.  There are a bunch of reasons for that.  First, the goal for coaches at the youth level is to win not to develop.  Second, the college system is fine for people who do not want to play professionally, but unlike the farce that is college basketball, college soccer is not a serviceable finishing school, not when players in the rest of the world spend all day learning the game either in the academies or in the streets.  (This also goes for women’s football.)  Finally, USSF has not made appropriate inroads into minority communities, particularly the Latino immigrant communities.  One can gripe about being unable to integrate styles of different ethnic groups, but that is an excuse for failure rather than a legitimate stumbling block.

I would also question what the MLS clubs are doing to train the next generation.  In many successful national sides, the core of the squad is made up of key players from the same side.  Which MLS team is going to be like Ajax, or Benfica, or Barcelona, or Bayern Munich?  (Which one can afford it?  Probably none.)  The American style that Reyna wants is far more likely to develop out of an MLS club rather than a USSF boardroom.

National identity is lovely, but it is also an organic process.  Style comes after substance.  The whole system needs to be rethought, from the senior national teams to youth development.  It’s not about style, it’s about fundamentals.  If a national style is the ultimate goal rather than development of successive generations of complete players, then Reyna and the USSF cannot see the forest for the trees.

 

Footnotes:

* The fact that Reyna believes the Netherlands still play Total Football is a very troubling statement from someone who should know better.  The Dutch have not played Total Football since the 1970’s.  At the very least the 2010 World Cup should have permanently demolished that myth.

** The 1974 World Cup winning West German side has been unfairly maligned.  At the time, West Germany were not seen as a bunch of solid robotic players, but rather almost an equal to Holland in terms of exciting play.  Since then West Germany have become an afterthought in the story of Holland’s 1974 rise and fall, the joyless and tactically-dull beneficiaries of beautiful Holland’s inevitable implosion.

Women’s World Cup Day 6: Banzai!

Japan equaled France’s amazing performance yesterday in a match that featured hat trick scored by someone’s grandmother and a philosophy born thousands of miles away.  New Zealand was foiled in its attempted act of matricide; the Football Ferns nearly beat an underperforming England, until Jill Scott (no, not that one) broke Kiwi hearts.

Japan v. Mexico

All honor to Japan for their domination of Mexico.  Whereas Mexico fought back against England, and even looked the better side, Japan suffocated the fight out of El Tri (La Tri?)  Pity poor Maribel Domínguez, the rock of the Mexican team, who watched her World Cup ambitions fall apart under the force of the divine wind that is Japan’s passing game.

What makes Japan so dangerous is that they can score for everywhere.  If they are in their opponent’s third, do not under any circumstances let them get a set piece.  Like their male counterparts (particularly Keisuke Honda), Japan’s women have mastered the velocity of the World Cup ball, which makes them far more threatening on set pieces than most of the other sides.*  What they lack in height, they make up for in precision, which is far deadlier.

The star of this match was the decrepit Homare “Grandma” Sawa, who at the ancient age of 32, rose from her deathbed to score three of Japan’s four goals.  Or so I gathered from ESPN, which harped on Sawa’s age and noted about fifty times that she is the oldest player to ever score a hat trick in a World Cup.  Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement, but not because of her age.  My God, 32 is not old!  In terms of sheer awe, Sawa’s hat trick was not in the top ten greatest ever.  Sawa was able to score two of her three goals because for once Japan had a height advantage–Mexico is the shortest team of the tournament.

The real reason why Sawa’s hat trick is an amazing achievement is because of what it says about Japan.  Japan is an incredible well-trained, well-organized, well-coached, skillful team, who has only started to realize its potential.  Sawa’s goals were the culmination of all of these positive team attributes.  It is fitting that Sawa should score all of those goals (and as a result leads the Golden Boot chase.)  She is the team’s leader and in her fifth World Cup.  She is the most capped player and the highest scorer in Japan’s national team history, male or female.  Unlike Birgit Prinz, also in her fifth World Cup, Sawa has performed exceedingly well, and is the not the focus of criticism from her national press.  Nevertheless, Sawa’s shots were the culmination of spectacular team efforts, especially the terrific last one.

Japan has almost certainly won Group B, only a loss to England will prevent that.  As for Mexico, all is not lost, although they no longer control their own destiny.  Too many things have to go right.  Japan has to beat England and Mexico has to beat New Zealand (not a guarantee.)  Even if all that happens, Mexico will also have to make up a five goal differential, which, given the way this tournament has gone thus far, is highly unlikely.

One has to wonder if Japan even wants to win the group.  Both Group B quarterfinalists will have battles on their hand because they are guaranteed to meet either Germany or France.  Japan v. Germany, possibly Japan’s nightmare scenario, will be a study in contrasts.  Germany is a far more direct and high-powered team that relies extremely effectively on physical size, strength, and individual talent.  In contrast, Japan is shorter, faster, and a better team.

Japan v. France has the potential to be extremely fascinating or extremely boring.  Both sides play a quick, skillful passing game, and both have been compared to Barcelona.  Both were also extremely impressive in their respective 4-0 victories.  Even if the comparisons to Barcelona are overblown (any France team should be compared to Arsenal first, right?), the success of Japan and France has shown that women’s football is fully engaging in the dialogue going on in men’s game right now.  This debate can (perhaps sloppily) be called Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism.  Although those coaches did not invent the debate, they are the two most prominent voices of their respective styles.

Guardiolism (the ethos of Barcelona if not the style) is attack, attack, attack and then attack some more using short passes while in possession (tiki taka style) and exhaustive pressing to win back possession.  Guardiolism at its most basic has one single tenet: you cannot score if I possess.  Mourinhoism is a well-organized defense, effective usage of the counterattack and set pieces, no concern about possession, and disrupting the opponent’s flow with a strong physical presence.  (I should stress that this debate is not either/or.  Only a limited number of teams play these styles, and not necessarily exclusively.  The long ball style, for example, is neither Guardiolist or Mourinhoist.)

There are two prominent examples of Guardiolism v. Mourinhoism from the last year.  The more recent of the two is the series of matches between Barcelona and Real Madrid.  The other one is the final of the World Cup between Spain and Holland (or Spain v. all their other opponents except Chile and Germany.)  Not surprisingly, many of the players on Spain’s side were from Barcelona although there were a few from Madrid.  In both the Champions League and the World Cup, the Guardiolist side was the superior side, and in both tournaments came out on top.

Guardiolism is the more appealing style, which does not mean it is always more effective.  It is also the far more difficult one to institute, because it requires supremely talented and intelligent players merged into a cohesive team over a sustained period of time.  Mourinhoism is a far easier style to impose on a team because it does not require the same amount of time or the same quality of player.  Unsurprisingly, the men’s World Cup last year was dominated by Mourinhoism–unsurprising because international sides have a limited player pool and extremely little time to come together as a team.

In this Women’s World Cup, the triumphs of both France and Japan signal that Guardiolism can exist in the international game outside of Spain.  The commentators are wrong when they say France and Japan are like Barcelona.  What they are trying to say is that both sides subscribe to the same basic tenets of Guardiolism, which they can do because both side have skillful and intelligent players molded together over a long period of time.  (The women’s international game affords more opportunities to play together than the men’s international game.)  Surprisingly, at the 2011 World Cup, the sides that have used Mourinhoist tactics (Nigeria) have already been found wanting.  While Guardiolism is only one of many styles on display, right now in the women’s game it is carrying the day.

England v. New Zealand

One cliché that never dies is that defense wins titles.  This is a pernicious lie designed to excuse those teams who suck the joy out of sport by being overly defensive.  Good defenses are only a starting point; they can get you draws but not wins. To win, one needs a good offense.  The first round of this tournament showcased plenty of good defenses.  In the second round, good offenses have started to shine though, and it is becoming readily apparent which teams are for real and which are pretenders.

This is the problem with New Zealand.  The back line was incredibly steady.  They were smart and organized, and they successfully contained Kelly Smith.  An early goal on a good counterattack left them  with a 1-0 lead and the momentum.  But after that first goal, New Zealand could not score.  Their scrappy play won them a host of fans, including me.  Before the match started, I thought New Zealand were headed from the same humiliation as Canada and Mexico.  Instead they led a match for the first time in their history.  If sport were fair, the Football Ferns would have pulled out at least a draw.  Unfortunately, sport is not fair.  New Zealand gave it their all, but they didn’t have the experience to pull out a result.

The good news for New Zealand is that the best is yet to come.  The reason why New Zealand dominates rugby is because they put the resources into it.  The All White’s performance at last year’s World Cup and the Ferns performance this year show that New Zealand have what it takes to make a difference if the resources are put to good use.  New Zealand may never win a non-Oceania tournament, but that doesn’t mean they cannot always be contenders.

England has no excuses.  As with the men, the women are dramatically underperforming.  Had Jill Scott not put the team on her shoulders, they could have fallen victim to the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history.  The one positive takeaway though is that England can still win even when Kelly Smith has a bad match.  Unless they majorly fall apart against Japan, the Three Lionesses will move on to meet either national nemesis Germany or wildly talented French.  I cannot decide which would be worse for them.

Final Thoughts:

Teams from Europe have utterly dominated so far.  None has lost, and only one (England) has drawn.  There are two ways to look at this, and both are right to an extent.  The first and more Eurocentric explanation is that UEFA is the toughest confederation and European teams have the best overall quality.  The second explanation is that only France and Germany, arguably Europe’s two best squads, have met a top non-European team.  As fun as they have been to watch, Mexico, New Zealand, and Equatorial Guinea are not the US, Brazil, and Japan.

Finally, the Copa America starts tonight, and alas, I will probably only see highlights.  I may write some thoughts as the tournament progressed, but nothing like my dispatches from the Women’s World Cup.  If only they weren’t being played at the same time.

Footnotes:

* Set pieces have been somewhat disappointing this tournament.  Everyone once in a while there is some brilliant display, such as Christine Sinclair’s wonder goal against Germany.  Unfortunately, more often than should happen at an elite level, a player will squander a corner by kicking it into the side netting.  This is especially a problem with New Zealand.  Corner kicks may not be particularly sexy, but wasting chances is just stupid.

Spain U21’s Win Europe

I admit that I have done a poor job of posting about the 2011 UEFA U21 European Championship, but life is short, and I can only cover so many tournaments.  I have chosen the Gold Cup, the Women’s World Cup and the Copa America (tournaments that actually count for something beyond grooming talent.)  Nevertheless, I cannot let the U21 Euro pass by completely without comment.

Spain beat Switzerland 2-0, avenging (I guess) the senior side’s loss to Switzerland at the World Cup, which, it turns out, only galvanized the Spanish.  Spain is now the World, European, and U21 European Champion, the first time any nation has ever held all three titles simultaneously.  True to form, U-21 Spain tiki-taka‘ed their way to the title.  Granted this side starred two World Cup winning players (Javi Martinez and Juan Mata), but the new generation is proving to be just as dominant as the current one, and that should alarm the rest of the world.  What’s more, this side has proved that when their game plan of possession football doesn’t work, they could adapt, which is downright terrifying.

In 2008, Spain permanently threw off its label as the Sick Man of Europe (at least in football terms) and since the World Cup has opted instead to embrace another stereotype: The Conquistador.  One hopes that the reign of Spain that stays mainly on the terrain produces the warm memories that Brazil did in its 1958-70 heyday.

(And to think in 2008 I thought Holland was going to win the European Championship and Marco van Basten was a genius.  Clearly, I knew nothing.)

Barcelona Tactics

I discovered a fantastic video about Barcelona’s tactics.  Some of these I described earlier, but I am not nearly the astute follower that the creator of this video is (although there is some stuff missing, particularly about how Guardiola drills his players to see the pitch as 8 squares and each square must be filled at all times.)  But it also shows that for all the plaudits Messi (deservedly) gets, the goals and the wins are truly a team effort.

Taking the content of this video as a whole, this goes back to something that I have been saying for quite some time, the style that Barcelona plays is more than just a series of tactics.  Rather, tiki-taka is an entire philosophy, a completely unique way to see and play the game, just as Total Football was.  Spain’s victory at the World Cup was in a way a redemption of the Holland team of 1974.  Barcelona : Spain 2010 – Ajax : Holland 1974.

Sometimes, just sometimes, the universe is kind.

Barcelona And The Inadequacy Of Praise

I have not completely come down from my high of last week.  Barcelona won the Champions League, and they won it their way.  Pass-pass-pass-score.   Beautiful and exciting football, possession and pressing, no drama, just dominance.  Like in Rome two years, Manchester United dominated the first ten minutes, taking advantage of nerves and a slow start from Barcelona.  Also like in Rome, after ten minutes it was almost all Blaugrana.

There is no question that this Barcelona side is special, easily the greatest side since the Milan of the late 80’s early 90’s.  They are arguably better.  There is no doubt however, that this Barça side has joined the pantheon of great clubs sides.

Future generations will recite the names of the Barcelona starting XI: Valdes-Alves-Pique-Puyol-Abidal-Xavi-Busquets-Iniesta-Pedro-Messi-Villa.  Pep Guardiola has locked up the manager of the year award, and it is virtually certain that Messi will win his third straight player of the year award, thereby tying Platini, Cruyff, and van Basten.  (Some with a sense of irony might say that the award should go to Wesley Sneijder.)  Individual awards are silly though and meaningless.  Football is a team sport, and no club represents this more than Barcelona.  Barcelona would not be the team it is now if not for Messi, but Messi does not do it alone.  If he has achieved immortality, it is because he stands on the shoulders of (tiny) giants.

During the first ten nerve-wracking minutes, I sat hoping against hope that this match would be a repeat of Rome.  Sure enough, my wish came true.  I remember exactly when the momentum changed, and it was well before Pedro’s goal.  Barcelona began stringing passes together, weakly at first, and then stronger.  To absolutely no one I started saying “Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.”  The beats of a metronome, the precision of a Swiss watch, the gears of the machine running smoothly.  That is how reporters, pundits and commentators describe Barcelona’s greatness: machine-like.  Calling Barcelona a machine is too easy, and it’s dead wrong.

When confronted with beauty in football, I find that my own words are woefully inadequate.  I turn to Football in Sun and Shadow, and let Eduardo Galeano eloquently say what I cannot.  When writing about the famed River Plate side of the 1940’s, also called “The Machine,” Galeano said:

People called that legendary team “The Machine” because of its precision plays.  Dubious praise: these strikers had so much fun playing they’d forget to shoot at the goal.  They had nothing in common with the mechanical coldness of a machine.  Fans were fairer when they called them the “Knights of Anguish” because those bastards made their devotees sweat bullets before allowing them the relief of a goal.

This description of a side that played nearly seven decades ago also suits the Barcelona of today.  Barcelona have revived the flair of the old Argentinian style via Ajax and Holland.  Johan Cruyff, the link between Barcelona’s tiki-taka and Total Football, once said, “Simple football is the most beautiful. But playing simple football is the hardest thing.”  (Or something like that.  I have seen many variations of that quote.)  Barcelona is the  proof of just how difficult simple football really is.

At its root, football is a game of running, passing, and shooting.  Tactics and formations are additions that have built up and evolved over time.  What works better, a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3 or a 4-1-3-2, etc?  Additionally, in the age of the super clubs and expansive squads, a starting lineup can be different in every match.  Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, changes his XI and his tactics to fit the opponent.  Against weaker opponents, Manchester United may attack more, but against a more offensively minded team such as Arsenal, United might depend on the counterattack.

Except in the cases of injuries, suspensions, and meaningless matches, Barcelona uses the same starting XI.  Regardless of the on-field personnel, Barcelona never changes its style of play.  Barcelona’s philosophy (when was the last time football had a philosophy?) is based on a very simple premise: if I have the ball, you cannot score.  Putting that philosophy into action though is extremely difficult no matter how easy Barcelona make it look (just ask Arsenal.)  If possession is everything, players need to be constantly aware of their teammates positions.  Passing must be more than accurate; it must be precise.  And when the ball is inevitably lost players must be able to play an intense press to get it back.  Therefore the entire team must (a) be in peak physical condition, (b) be skilled, and (c) have a good football brain.

Although most renown for its attacking capabilities, tiki-taka is actually as defensive a style as the dreaded catenaccioFor example, at the World Cup Spain conceded two goals throughout the entire tournament and none during the knock-out stages.  Nevertheless, Spain in the knock-out round Spain won each match 1-0, the complete opposite of tiki-taka‘s popular image.  For the most part, the personnel was almost entire the same, as the majority of the starting XI was from Barcelona, and the Spanish side played remarkably well.  The was one significant difference in personnel between Spain and Barcelona, but it was a crucial one.  Messi is the uncontrollable element that opposing teams fear.  When opposing defenses park the bus, Messi tears them open.  Therefore Spain had to eke out a series of 1-0 victories, a stat that unfairly maligns the World Cup victory, but underscores the defensive prowess of tiki-taka.

What makes tiki taka such a successful attacking philosophy at Barcelona is that (1) the front line (Messi in particular) is so adept at scoring and (2) the attack can come from anyone.  They players are so good at scoring that their defensive work is largely neglected.  Until the very final weeks of the 2010-2011 La Liga season, Barcelona led the scoring charts.  The Blaugrana let up at the end after the title was all but assured, and Madrid beat up on hapless teams whose fates were already decided (and Cristiano Ronaldo wanted to win the La Liga and European scoring titles.)  In the end, Madrid scored 102 goals to Barcelona’s 95. (In all competitions though, Barcelona scored more goals.)

Goals scored does not the real story however.  The goals allowed and the goal differential show exactly how dominant Barcelona was this year.  For the entire 38 match season, La Liga opponents scored a mere 21 goals against Barcelona, or just over half a goal per match.  Therefore, Barcelona’s goal differential was a ridiculous +74.  Compare that number to Real Madrid (33 allowed for a differential of +69), or the other league winners in the top European nations: Manchester United (37 allowed for a differential of +41), AC Milan (24 allowed for a differential of +41), Lille (36 allowed for a differential of +32), and Borussia Dortmund (22 in 34 matches for a differential of +45).

It should not be surprising that Barcelona has such an incredible goal differential; Barcelona’s offense and defense are one and the same.  To distinguish offense and defense is to misunderstand tiki-taka.  As I wrote above, possession is not merely a way of getting to the opponent’s goal, it is the primary method of defense.  Pressing is not just a way to pressure an opponent, but also a way to restart the attack.  Messi, Pedro, and David Villa are therefore the first line of defense while the attack originates with Valdes, Puyol, and Pique (to say nothing of the attacking fullback.)  The Catalans chant with pride, “Even our keeper plays the Barça way!

Tiki-taka is the logical next step in the evolution of Total Football, a philosophy that, in its 1970’s incarnation, could not combat the modern defense.  In Total Football, players alternated positions depending on who could do the most damage where.  It was a system tailor-made for Cruyff.  Tiki-taka employs fixed positions but each role is a crucial part of both the offense and the defense.  That is why in both Champions League finals against United, Barcelona was able to play defensive midfielders as makeshift center backs (Yaya Touré in 2009, Javier Mascherano in 2011) without any repercussions.

Since the rise of this Barcelona squad, Barcelona’s youth academy has attracted a fair share of media attention, and deservedly so.  Of the usual starting XI, La Masia produced eight: Valdes, Puyol, Pique, Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Pedro, and Messi.  This is unusual for any club especially for one of the world’s biggest.  Yet, if you look at the list, La Masia has produced not just some of the world’s greatest active players, but also some of the greatest ever.  Even Ajax in the 1970’s did not have so many starters from its youth system.  Ajax now probably doesn’t either, and the Ajax Academy is the model for La Masia.

The youth system is the stumbling block for the Barcelona wannabes.  Even the great Barcelona teams were never this good, not the team of the late 50’s/early 60’s, not the Dream Team, and not the team from five years ago that featured Ronaldinho in his glory.  If Barcelona has never before reached this heights, what chance is there for imitators who do not have the youth system?  Tiki-taka (like Total Football) is too complicated a philosophy to be picked up easily in training.  It is rare to find a player who fits in easily.   Dani Alves, Eric Abidal, and David Villa are the only starters to came from outside La Masia.

That is what makes Barcelona great.  The Blaugrana have taken football to a new level.  Hopefully it will last a while, because great teams–truly great teams–do not come around often.