Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Spain Must Reinvent Its Philosophy

ON A PERSONAL note, the just-concluded 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil was a bit of a challenge for me in this column. Due to the competition schedule, I found myself having to continously adjust the time I wrote Soccertalk so that it would look fresh at publication despite the passage of events. At other times, I missed the opportunity to play the Octopus and make predictions which experience has shown is a major attraction for many readers on this platform. 

One of my “fondest” memories writing this column was the unprecedented barrage of attacks that I got from Chelsea supporters for wrongly predicting that Barcelona would beat their darling team in the 2011/2012 Champions League semi-final. Since that experience, I have learned to keep my mouth shut when it concerns the unpredictable Blues. As recently as last week, some of their die-hard fans were still accusing me via sms text messages that I have not congratulated them for winning the 2012/2013 Europa League and also for the return of the “Happy One,” Jose Mourinho. Haba! Anyway, I say congratulations to all Chelsea fans. Good luck next season.

Ahead of the Confederations Cup final between Spain and Brazil last  Sunday, I was determined to air my verdict because my crystal ball was so clear on how the match would turn out. A perfect opportunity was presented to me when I was invited to join Paul Bassey to analyse the game on the terrestial TV broadcast by OSMI, but I had to pass it up due to other engagements. Luckily, my radio programme, Soccertalk on Radio on Brila FM Lagos, was broadcast a day to the final and that was where I stuck out my neck for an emphatic Brazilian victory.

I predicted a 3-1 win for the Samba Boys and if not for Spain’s Sergio Ramos’ penalty miss in the second half, my Octopus would have recorded a bulls-eye. I have read many commentators expressing surprise at the comprehensive 3-0 scoreline against the world champions but I say with all humility that it was clear to me as daylight that Spain would lose and heavily, too. Football is not mathematics so, sometimes, your calculations do not yield the expected outcome. But last Sunday at the Maracana, football was mathematics and the side with the better ammunition simply won the battle. Admittedly, the fact that Brazil were also playing in front of their fans was massive advantage. But the emphatic win was no surprise at all partly for the following reasons...

Tiki-taka Decoded: Spain’s brand of football which they have used to delight and dominate world football in the past six years or so has finally been decoded by their rivals. With their short-passing and quick movements, Spain will continue to dominate midfield ball possession against every team big or small. They will continue to systematically wear down the small teams and eventually beat them with sheer class. But against the big teams, Spain will be frustrated more and more henceforth because their opponents now know that all you need to stop them is to be fully focused and concentrated in defence. Italy did it successfully in the semi-final before losing in a penalty shoot-out. Brazil simply continued from where Italy stopped in the final. In 210 minutes of football against Italy and Brazil combined, Spain could not score a single goal.

I have checked the match statistics and not once did Brazil use the offside tactic against Spain because that is the quickest way for their pass masters to kill you off. While knocking the ball around seemingly harmlessley in  midfield, Xavi and company are usually waiting for unattentive opposing  defenders to step out of position so they could thread a pass on the ground or lob the ball into dangerous positions for their forward line. And because the Spanish midfielders time their passes to perfection while the strikers also time their runs to perfection, they have become adept at springing the off-side trap. I have noticed over time that this is the strategy that yields the most goals for Spain. They wait patiently for the opposing defenders to slip up and then punish them! That was how they fooled our defence and got to confront goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama several times when they played Nigeria.

Italy and Brazil avoided the offside tactic against Spain. Instead, their defenders stood their ground, maintained their positions and didn’t allow the Spaniards find any gaps or get behind their formation. That is the way to stop the world champions. It worked.

Dodgy Defending:
Spain have really never been that strong in central defence. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique have always shone because their midfield keeps so much ball possession that the defence is hardly under constant pressure. Against Brazil, however, it was clear that Neymar’s trickery would unsettle Ramos and Pique while the physical attributes of Fred and Hulk would also rattle them. Analysing the twin-considerations of Spain’s dodgy defending side-by-side with Brazil’s attacking prowess, it was quite predictable that Spain would concede several goals. It was therefore no surprise to me that they conceded three times.

Blunt Strikers: Frankly-speaking, I couldn’t see where Spain’s goals would come from against Brazil. I only predicted they would at least get a goal  because, as world champions, I thought they would fight for pride and manage a consolation goal in the event of Brazil slipping up in defence at least once in 90 minutes. It did happen when Brazil conceeded a penalty, but Ramos fluffed the chance.

Spain’s striking problem is not a secret. If they had good strikers capable of translating  their ball possession into goals at a good ratio, they should be winning every game by wide margins like they did at the 2012 European Cup final against Italy. But that occasion was an exception and Spain have always struggled to score. 

At the 2010 World Cup, they needed a late extra-time goal to beat Holland 1-0 in the final. At the 2012 European Championships, they famously played with a “false Number 9” formation because they simply didn’t have a convincing “True Number 9.” David Villa and Fernando Torres are Spain’s two foremost forwards but neither of them will make the list of the top ten strikers in world football today on current form. Unless of course your everyday opponent is Tahiti whose generosity allowed the misfiring Torres to win the Confederations Cup Golden Boot award ahead of the more clinical Brazilians Neymar and Fred.

Against Brazil in the final, I couldn’t see Torres finding the net against a fully focused  defence marshalled by Davis Luiz who knows him inside-out from playing together with him at Chelsea. And so it turned out.

Am I not being too hard on Spain too hastily just because they lost one game after putting together an impressive 29-match unbeaten run? Am I not writing them off too hurriedly as a spent force? Am I not passing a hasty judgement on tiki-taka just because the world champions faltered just once? Not really.

Just like most football fans around the world, I am an admirer of Spain’s short-passing and quick-movement philosophy because it elevates football creativity and artisty to the highest level. It is also a joy to watch and the favourite of neutral soccer fans looking for good entertainment.

Tiki-taka has also been quite effective and efficient going by the major titles Spain has won in recent years, being crowned world champions in 2010 and European champions in 2008 and 2012. But now, I think it’s time for Spain to reinvent its football. In my reckoning, tiki-taka  is NOT going to win them any major trophy again. 

Coach Vicente del Bosque said in his post-match interview after the 3-0 thrashing by Brazil that his team simply had a bad day in the office. Some other commentators equally have said the Rio Massacre is only a blip from which the world champions would bounce back. But I beg to disagree. 

Tiki-taka may stll be good anough to beat the small and medium soccer nations who are several steps below Spain in terms of talent and pedigree. But when it comes to the big boys like Italy, Germany, Holland, Argentina and Brazil, Spain are in for more pain unless they urgently add some steel to their defence and a sharp cutting edge to their attack. On the evidence of the 2013 Confederations Cup, the world champions are sure bets to lose their crown at the 2014 FIFA World Cup in Brazil next year.
Still on Tiki-taka.

EARLIER evidence that the world is now wise to tiki-taka was seen repeatedly during last season’s European Champions League when Barcelona, the main protagonists of the short-passing game, were shackled by several teams before Bayern Munich finally annihilated them 7-0 on aggregate in the semi-finals.

Celtic, AC Milan and Paris Saint Germain each stretched Barcelona to the limit and it took the exceptional talent of the Argentine Lionel Messi to get them out of jail.

Even when the opposition avoided the off-side rule and “packed the bus” against Barca, Messi unlocked the door by taking on several defenders on his own, pulling them out of position involuntarily and scoring fabulously or creating chances for his teammates often left unmarked by his solo devastation. It was his injury-enforced absence against Bayern that finally led to katakata for Barca’s tiki-taka.

The only player capable of doing the solo runs for Spain when the opposing defence is locked is Andres Iniesta but he is not as effective at it as Messi. And so, while Barca may still win trophies with tiki-taka because they have Messi and Neymar is also on the way next season, Spain must find another solution and quickly.

FEEDBACK

RE: HOW EAGLES FARED

*
Mumini, I want to agree with you on the pass mark you gave the Super Eagles in your  column titled The Ides of June. This is one of those rare instances where one of our national teams will attend a competition, come third in their group (even losing a game 3-0 in the process) and yet, Nigerians are full of praises for the team. The attitude and approach of the team was very impressive and like you said, gave room for great hope. It should not be win, win always. The chick that will grow into a dominant cock starts showing the signs soon after hatching. – Howard Odigie, Lagos.

*I don’t agree with Alase Adeshina’s view that ‘Eagles were a sorry sight against Uruguay and Spain.’ The defence is getting better now but Egwuekwe should be replaced by Onyekachi Apam. Brown Ideye, Anthony Ujah, Babatunde Michael and Joseph Akpala should all be dismissed from the Eagles while Keshi should admit his error of preferring Mohammed Gambo to IK Uche or Obafemi Martins. Also, Lukman Haruna should replace Fengor Ogude in the midfield as the rebuilding project continues. --???

*The Big Boss must add very experienced strikers like Ikechukwu Uche, Obafemi Martins, Kalu Uche and Osaze Odemwingie to his team. And with Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike set to return to the Super Eagles,  Nigeria has the potential to do better if we (and we should) qualify for the World Cup. It’s time Keshi stops experimenting.  – Ambrose Obioha.

*Sir, in football these days, it takes veterans to make the difference in any team. We have seen Diego Forlan, Andreas Pirlo, Xavi and others do that for their countries when the chips are down. Please advise Keshi to recall our veterans like Osaze Odemwingie and Kalu Uche for the Eagles to be stronger. – Aziza Derik, Calabar.

*Oga Mumini, I believe Martins, IK Uche and Eneramo would have made a difference even if they were second half substitutes against Uruguay. The Eagles’ undoing at the Confederations Cup was lack of quality strikers and a solid bench. But Keshi should not invite Odemwingie because his antics could divide the team. – Rufus, Lagos.

*Good evening Alhaji. Honestly, I always feel happy anytime I read your analysis on Super Eagles performances in SoccerTalk. In fact, any week that your column doesn’t feature in Complete Sports is a minus which usually makes me feel like returning the paper to the vendor. I hereby say more grease to your elbow and more ink to your pen. – Samson Odeniyi.

*The Super Eagles did well at the Confederations Cup but Stephen Keshi still has a lot to do. Players like Sone Aluko, Michael Eneramo, Victor Anichebe, Osaze Odemwingie and the Uche brothers are capable of fortifying the Eagles attack. The team Psychologist (if there is any) must work to improve the players’ concentration during matches. –Babatope Charles, Egbeda, Lagos.

*Oga Mumini, it’s time Keshi stopped experimenting with the Super Eagles especially with the home based players. Only the proven best legs should be in the national team. – Kayode Don Maxwell, Akure.

*Oga Mumini, you have said it all in your Confederations Cup analysis. But my question is: Is it at the national camp that strikers will be taught how to score goals? What that simply means is that such strikers are not Super Eagles materials! – Lucky Odudu, Lagos.

*Coach Stephen Keshi and his crew should start using experienced players to execute our remaining World Cup qualifying matches to avoid unnecessary blunder. We must take every game seriously. – Gordon Chika Nnorom, Umukabia, Abia State.

*Alhaji, I do not feel any regret about Osaze Odemwingie’s absence. If he wants to play for the Super Eagles again, he must be ready to apologise to Nigerians and promise not to currupt other loyal and dedicated players in the national team. – Mr. Gbadamosi M. A.

*Your assessment of the Super Eagles at the Confederations Cup was quite fair and reasonable. As regards inviting some of the “oldies”, Stephen Keshi should be encouraged to invite a few of them who would be of good influence on the “rookies” in the team. I’m referring to such “oldies” as the Uche brothers, the skipper  Joseph Yobo, Obafemi Martins and perhaps the Utaka brothers (John and Peter). These players are capable of fortifying the team with their wide experience. – Tony Biakolo, Delta State.

*Mumini, big kudos to you for being spot-on as regards the ineffective\dead legs coach Stephen Keshi featured in the Super Eagles at the Confederations Cup. It’s also good that the general opinion of football fans (as expressed in Complete Sports) is that  Keshi should forgive erring stars and recall our experienced players to the team. I hope the coach makes the necessary changes to fortify the Eagles. – Oguntunde T. A. Ikirun, Osun State.

2 comments:

  1. Oga Mumini,
    Your piece is a masterful dissection of the present cross-roads at which Spanish football finds itself.
    Those cross-roads suggest massive questions for Spanish football:
    (a) Abandon completely the methodical evolution of tiki-taka which has compensated for Spain's lack of physicality at all areas of the pitch, while benefiting the Spaniards control of the flow of a game?
    (b) Or modify tiki-taka with greater physical features, with the attendant risk of losing the vital advantage of controlling the flow of a game?
    The very essence of tiki-taka requires little accommodation for physical play: you cannot get physical with an opponent when you are possessing the ball! And if you are not possessing the ball, you cannot control the flow of the game.
    Perhaps, the next great revolution for football is a hybrid of tiki-taka: infusing physical elements into the philosophy without losing tiki-taka's essence.
    My perspective from the recent travails of Spain and Barcelona is that the basic application of physical play neutralised tiki-taka. Not superior play.
    I predict a continuation of Spain's dominance if they sort out their defensive attributes. Alas, the 2014 W/Cup seems too soon for that to happen.
    The situation of Brazil appears more vague. They played the most effective football; not the best football. Effective football because the end-product was not the result of any comprehensive dominance of the opposition. Infact against Uruguay, they were outplayed for 70 minutes.
    Neymar was finding target at will with both feet; Fred was scoring goals from outlandish angles. Football is not always that kind, even for a genius like Neymar. There shall surely be times when the goals will not come.
    I think that this Brazil squad lack the requisite iron-cast belief to grind out 1-0 results needed to win a World Cup.
    Not that long ago, this Brazil side was labouring without any clear signs of evolving into the force witnessed at the Confed Cup.
    So it makes sense to attribute a sizeable percentage of Brazil's success at the tournament to the home support, particularly at the final game.
    Scolari will do well to remember 2005 and 2009; Brazil pulverized the opposition at both Confed Cup tournaments, and with arguably more gifted squads, only to fail at the respective succeeding World Cup tournaments in 2006 and 2010.
    Against a physical side like Germany, or a portent attacking force like Argentina, this Brazil side shall struggle.


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