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Spain's reign ends in plenty of pain

Iker Casillas cools off as his Spain team implodes
Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

Spain’s four year reign as world champions and the planet’s top team ended abruptly in Rio’s Maracana Stadium earlier this afternoon. After receiving a heavy 5-1 beating against a flying Dutch team last Friday, today it was Chile’s turn to inflict defeat on Vicente Del Bosque’s men by a 2-0 margin, rendering their final group game against Australia next week merely academic.
In a 2014 FIFA World Cup which has handed out more than its fair share of thrills and spills so far, this has to go down as the greatest upset. So, what exactly went wrong for the team which has come to be seen as the epitome of slick, intricate possession football and the holder of double European crowns in addition to the world championship?

Cast your minds back to the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and, perhaps just as significantly, to the 2009 and 2011 European Champions League finals in which Barcelona inflicted stunning defeats on Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United teams. In each of those club finals, in Rome and at Wembley respectively, United were ensnared in a web of intricate, short passing from which there was no escape and to which they could conjure no answer. Result? Other than the obvious statistics of defeats by 2-0 and 3-1 margins, the Catalan team enjoyed an astonishing two thirds of the possession of the ball over the two games. This was a staggering statistic when the opposition was of the quality of Ferguson’s team at that time. Put simply, Manchester United was simply unable to wrestle the ball from Barcelona’s grasp. The more the opposition ran, the more the Barcelona midfield worked the ball tightly around them until a gap presented itself.

At international level, where the Spanish midfield has enjoyed the same personnel in the esteemed Andres Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez, along with Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso, the opposition has often been similarly emasculated. In the 2010 World Cup semi-final, a resurgent and spirited young German team, fresh from counter attacking thrashings of England and Argentina, ran up against Del Bosque’s Spain team in Johannesburg. Spain’s 1-0 victory barely reflects the sense of ennui visited upon Joachim Loew’s team, as his side’s inability to solve the puzzle of the possession deficit was reflected in a timidity rarely seen in a German team at the World Cup.

Then in 2012, in Poland and Ukraine, tiki-taka reached its apotheosis with a stunning 4-0 mauling of Italy in the final in Kiev. Spain had reached a plateau seldom achieved by an international team, having sandwiched their World Cup win in 2010 with successive European Championship wins, the first having come in 2008. Obviously, that standard could not be maintained. Spain’s downfall was reminiscent of that of France after 2000. There, a similarly gifted and cohesive group of players had won back-to-back world and European crowns. In 2002, In Korea and Japan, Roger Lemerre turned up with the same ensemble cast that had taken the world by storm in the preceding four years. An apathetic and exhausted squad, some of whom were clearly past their peak, fell at the first hurdle in the group stages without scoring a goal. Zinedine Zidane was injured, veterans like Desailly, Petit, Leboeuf and Djorkaeff resembled geriatrics wading through syrup as they wilted in the heat, and Patrick Vieira complained of feeling “cooked” after a long domestic season in England with Arsenal. Thierry Henry’s red card in the team's second game with Uruguay merely compounded their misfortune.

Spain’s problems in Brazil have been both tactical and physical. Of the 23 players chosen for this tournament Vicente Del Bosque arrived at the finals with 16 who had taken part four years ago. With four years less spring in the legs and sated by successes for both club and country, the edge had clearly gone off this generation of players. The writing has certainly been on the wall, though.
The 2013 UEFA Champions League semi-finals should, perhaps, have fired an ominous warning that something was wrong. When Barcelona was destroyed 7-0 on aggregate by a fast, direct counter-attacking Bayern Munich, it showed to all the world that coaches were wising up to the passing, keep-ball possession game. When Real Madrid was beaten in the other semi-final by Borussia Dortmund, an all-German clash at Wembley was the unexpected result; a Teutonic alternative to the anticipated el clasico.
Furthermore, in last summer's Confederations Cup in Brazil, effectively a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, Brazil overran the Spaniards 3-0 in the Rio Final.

Although the Spanish national team is neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid, it is the modus operandi of the former to which it has most closely adhered these past six years. Conversely, the deployment of tiki-taka has reaped a consistently diminishing dividend since Spain's European triumph in 2012, whether that be for Barcelona, for Bayern Munich and now, staggeringly, for Spain in their defence of the World Cup. The game, as ever, moves on and evolves to meet the technical challenges it faces. Hunger for success also dissipates among players accustomed to picking up the big medals.

As mentioned, the recent decline in the possession game's efficacy at club level presaged Spain's demise out in Brazil. Bayern Munich’s desire to build on the treble winning success of the outgoing Jupp Heynckes in the 2013 season led them to hire the Catalan Pep Guardiola. The expected Bundesliga trophy ensued but, again, the introduction of tiki-taka to Bavaria has not delivered the continued European success the club craves. A heavy semi-final defeat at the hands of Carlo Ancelotti’s redesigned Real Madrid being further proof that the game has moved on and that coaches have found their solution to the problems presented by the tactics of possession max. Prominent critics within Bayern Munich, most notably club president Frank Beckenbauer, have consistently questioned the pursuit of ball possession at all costs. Even in the cauldron of today's Maracana Spain still enjoyed 63% of the possession, proof, if any were needed, that ball retention without purpose counts for little.

Whether this is the end for Spain and their brand of patient build up play is unclear. It certainly is for this generation; overwhelmingly found wanting in Brazil. With systemic tweaks and with new blood they will, however, surely come again. One thing is certain, though: their fall from grace has been the most spectacular surrender of a world crown in the long history of the tournament.

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