Julen Lopetegui’s Spain side put on a mesmerising display of footballing intelligence on Saturday night as a darting trident of David Silva, Marco Asensio and Isco showcased an inventive variation of the false nine system.
It was the first time Spain has returned to the system which they utilised to win Euro 2012, against none other than their opponents at the weekend, Italy.
Their performances in Poland and Ukraine weren’t as swashbuckling, with Vicente Del Bosque’s use of Cesc Fabregas at the spearhead of a midfield six often leading to accusations of a tiki-taka obsession where possession is valued above penetration. It wasn’t until that final game that everything came together in a comprehensive 4-0 victory.
After that final, La Roja only started a game in the guise of a false nine on three occasions, the last of which came against Finland in a 1-1 draw on 22 March 2013.
Del Bosque said at the time that he felt the team needed a striker as a focal point, but the system was not so much as put on the back burner as completely disposed of for over four years.
In that time, the players to have been used as a traditional centre-forward were David Villa, Fernando Torres, Diego Costa, Alvaro Morata, Pablo Alcacer, Fernando Llorente, Roberto Soldado, Iago Aspas, Alvara Negredo, Aritz Aduriz, Juanmi and even Michu.
If the ninety minutes at the Santiago Bernabeau are anything to go by, Lopetegui’s long overdue revival of the system is hopefully it’s confirmation as a viable option rather a mere flirtation.
Gian Piero Ventura opted for a surprisingly bold 4-2-4 system, which, on paper made for an intriguing clash of styles.
Spain’s quintet carousel
Spain’s version of the false nine system posed a unique threat in that there were three players who operated the role.
While Lionel Messi’s pioneering development of the position allowed him to pierce the midfield block by arriving from behind it and dribbling as a mechanism to gain ground, Fabregas’ stint in 2012 relied upon the Catalan laying the ball off or neatly linking up in intricate spaces to create a better angle to permeate the opposition’s defence.
The Argentinian’s otherworldly qualities can’t be imitated, which predicates that every team using the system will have a bespoke variation of the theme.
Lopetegui’s incarnation of the formation placed the emphasis on ball retention and rotation to create space for penetrating runs. While Spain’s all conquering teams of 2008, 2010 and 2012 were built on the principles installed by La Masia, they had become obsolete on the international stage in recent years as teams were able to soak up the pressure of a blunt attacking force.
While it is said the system is without a forward, Spain’s movement to disrupt the centre-back pairing often mimicked the relationship between two centre-forwards.
One midfielder would position himself between the two centre-halves and make a darting blind-side run, but it was mostly a decoy tactic. The primary run may not have resulted in a killer pass being played, but it did force Bonucci and Barzagli to drop deep in expectation, allowing the nearest Spanish player to drop into the hole created by that movement.
Isco was both the instigator and executioner of many attacks, notwithstanding his two goals. The Real Madrid midfielder displayed a footballing IQ and and an understanding of space akin to a bearded Huff Duff. It was a sublime individual performance and his role in the following well constructed patterns of movement were central to Spain’s success.
The dilemma playing without a recognised striker presents to central defenders is not by chance, it’s by design.
Leonardo Bonucci and Andrea Barzagli were faced with the choice between following the most advanced Spanish midfielder back into the midfield when they dropped deep to get involved with the build-up or maintain their position where they are in the uncomfortable situation of marking pure space.
They chose the former, with this example below showing the space Barzagli following Isco into the middle third creates behind him.
This leaves the partner exposed and offers channels for diagonal runs beyond the defence, but it was the movement from central areas that had more success overall.
Spain’s numerical advantage in the centre of the park was natural given the two contrasting systems, but the traps Spain set to trigger the openings were subtly efficient.
When the ball was being shifted across between Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, Iniesta and Koke, in particular, would advance beyond their midfield counterpart, De Rossi or Verratti, forcing them to drop deeper due to the insecurity of being outnumbered.
As Italy’s block moved across, the most advanced Spanish player would swap with Koke and make a run from behind the Italian midfield to find himself in a pocket of space.
By positioning themselves in the half-space it also created an overload for the full-back to contemplate as Darmian already had Alba hugging the touchline extremely high and one of the front three, usually Silva, situated just inside him.
Silva, Asensio and Isco made out-to-in runs that attracted the full-backs inside, leaving space for the overlap. Candreva and Insigne were reluctant to follow Alba and Carvajal as they were cautious of granting Spain more space around De Rossi and Verratti, while they needed to be in a stating position which gave them a platform to spring the counter-attack.
Italy caught in a landslide
It seemed that Ventura wanted to take advantage of the Spanish midfield’s innate disposition to drift centrally by allowing his full-backs, Matteo Darmian and Leonardo Spinazzola, to burst into the space created by the wide midfielders, Antonio Candreva and Lorenzo Inisgne, who would drift inside to join the front pair of Ciro Immobile and Andrea Belotti.
The game did not play out like that, however, as Italy were prevented from passing the ball out from Gianluigi Buffon by Spain’s high-press. At goal-kicks, Spain matched Italy man-for-man in an effort to force them to play long and restricted them to stunted periods of formulaic possession.
Danielle De Rossi and Marco Verratti continued to try and receive the ball from Buffon, resulting in a structural crater in the middle of the park where Spain were first to most second-balls.
Ventura’s decision to maintain a front two rather than sacrifice one of the forwards for parity in the middle of the pitch where, at times, five and six red jerseys swamped the Italian duo, was suicidal.
The former Torino boss would have known that he was handing numerical superiority to the Spaniards, so logic dictates that his thought process must have been to shorten the spacing between the lines and narrow the midfield.
Italy’s pressing game plan was disjointed from early on as Italy’s desire to press was ambiguous, with Belotti and Immobile often pressing on their own as the Italian midfield couldn’t commit as it would be leaving too much space behind them.
Candreva also sporadically pressed on his own numerous times, conceding easy passing options to what seemed like a quintet carousel revolving around Sergio Busquets at the base. A passing exhibition that lasted from nearly the 38th minute to the 41st exemplified the difficulty in trying to engage such talented midfielders without any forward dropping in to midfield to block the ball into Busquets, the genesis of so many attacks.
Insigne, who is much more effective when operating in a more advanced position where he can link with the central striker, spent the majority of the game trapped in a left-wing back position where his presence did little to nullify Dani Carvajal, instead, exacerbating the already stretched centre of midfield.
Their indecision as to whether to track Jordi Alba and Carvajal or whether to squeeze inside to reduce the space afforded to Andreas Iniesta, Koke and co was apparent. Ideally, when the ball was towards their side of the pitch, they would have positioned themselves in a way which prioritised protecting the centre of the park whilst not being too far infield to allow a simple pass on the overlap.
Far too often for the Azurri it was a case of catch-22, which can be said for many of the players functioning in other roles.
The most commonly offered antidote to the great Barcelona side under Pep Guardiola was to outright deny any space centrally so that the ball was shown out wide, with the theory being that the mobile but diminutive ball-players would offer no threat aerially, thus, deeming any crosses impotent.
But the distance between Verratti and De Rossi was regularly far too great at times for Italy to proactively direct Spanish attacks into the channels.
Spain defended as a 4-4-2 with Iniesta and Silva the most advanced, but the imbalance in the variation of the Italians’ predictable build-up play was obvious, as Insigne and Spinazzola were often neglected even when space was available to drive into.
A possible explanation for this is that every member of the Italian line-up was naturally right-sided, with the Atalanta full-back’s inclination to use his stronger right-foot while functioning as a left-back possibly proving a psychological barrier.
Busquets and Koke blocked balls into Belotti and Immobile, which left the pair isolated to such an extent that neither made or received as many as three passes from any player.
The sheer proximity of Spain’s midfield meant that their counter-press had to be perfect otherwise it left a lot of space to drive into. For the most part Spain suffocated Italy when they won the ball back deep in their own half but Verratti’s pitch geography allowed him to escape the press by releasing the ball to the right flank.
Italy’s only threat came down that side in the first-half where Candreva and Darmian managed to create an overload on a few occasions, but often their final delivery let them down.
The dawn of an old era?
Iniesta and Busquets’ monopoly over La Liga midfielders has waned since 2015 as Barcelona evolved from the golden era which bestowed ultimate authority on midfield supremacy to the more direct over-reliance on the individual talents of Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
Iniesta may have faded slightly but he and Busquets showed that if they are positioned within an eleven as cohesive as the one which triumphed over Italy, they can still thrive.
Koke is an underestimated cog in the side, bringing balance and continuity, while Real Madrid’s exhilarating team is based on initiative and instinct rather than a regimented dogma.
For all the alchemy on display throughout, there remained a discernible difference in pass selection between the Barcelona contingent and their Madrid counterparts, or teammates. Busquets decided to retain possession in the second-half when the Madrid players made it clear they thought it was too conservative, but these were confined to minor incidents.
Aesthetically, it looked like on Saturday that Lopetegui had forged a hybrid between the two styles of football; a fusion of Barca’ innate sense of control and tempo, combined with the guile and verve of Madrid. Relying on Iniesta and Busquets to dictate and giving the magnetic Isco and Asensio the platform to provide the incision and flair to unlock defences.
It’s too early to tell whether it was a case of Italy playing into Spain’s hands or whether this is the start of a resurgence. Or more precisely, a return to past glories, but with an Isco twist or two.