England’s win says as much about Spain as about them…
So, England won. Who bet on that? No one worth listening to, at least according to the media. For the first time in a long, long time, an England team had been written off before a match had begun – be it because of the lack of form, the lack of Rooney or the lack of an opponent that one could sneer at for not being that good. Hardly anyone expected England to get anything from it, let alone a win.
The problem is it is fashionable at the moment be negative about England – “the players aren’t good enough”, “the manager’s no good”, “we always bottle it at the big tournaments”, “Spain are brilliant and no one will beat them”. It’s as if at last year’s World Cup, the fans endured a bitter break-up with their side – they finally got bored with the side failing to live up to the relentless over-the-top media hype, and have spiralled into bitterness. Even the reaction to this win has been more mocking the old hype – “oh, I guess everyone’s going to go back to thinking we’re going to win again.”
It’s one reactionary extreme to the other – although it’s fair to say that the latter is more accurate in terms of judging whether or not England will actually win anything, and in some sense it’s refreshing to not have the hype around, it’s now getting to the stage of being too negative.
For one, although the players may not be as good as they were initially trumpeted to be, they are still damn good players. The Premier League is still a league packed with quality from all corners of the globe, and that does include English players. Joe Hart is a very good young goalkeeper. In Ashley Cole, England has easily one of the best left-backs in the world. Ashley Young is one of the best wingers in the world at the moment, and he is combining well with Rooney, still one of the best strikers in the world. And there are some promising young players coming through the ranks – and neither of them played in today’s win.
So let’s stop this miserablist “all England players are rubbish” attitude. This inherent notion in English football that the national team has to be composed of the best 11 players available is stupid and short-sighted, as is the view that if those 11 individuals aren’t as good as elsewhere, that makes us not as good as those other teams. As a matter of fact, England beat Spain today – yes it was only a friendly with unlimited substitutions, but whichever way you put it, you have to keep coming back to the result, which was a 1-0 home win. And it should be a big confidence boost for a team so often derided at the moment.
But moving away from average teams that will, despite my positive ramblings, probably not figure in the battle for overall honours next summer, I think this defeat says quite a lot about Spain.
Let’s look at the big picture here – they put out a full strength side (granted, Xavi didn’t play in the second half, which no doubt had a big impact, as Spain aren’t the same without him – the guy’s an under-appreciated genius), and had limitless substitutions to bring on players from what must be the best bench in international football by some distance, to bring on players that would walk into the side they were playing against – Fabregas, Mata, Cazorla, Torres, Puyol, heck even Pepe Reina.
And they still lost. This being Spain, the team that everyone thought would walk the Euros and remain dominant in international football from now until Doomsday – they lost. And please don’t give me any “they weren’t trying – it’s only a friendly” bollocks – did you see the way they were rushing their corners towards the end, and panicking with their long range shots? Panicking like no Spain side has done in many a year…
The proverbial alarm bells should now be sounding. What’s going on? Well, I can see a number of things at play. Firstly, there’s the over-confidence issue – the media, by rubbishing England’s chances, were putting Spain on a pedestal. If they had ready any of that, or even if they hadn’t, they must have thought it was going to be a walk in the park. “A match against an under-strength England side in poor form? Do we even have to turn up?”
This is especially a factor if you consider that the majority of the players in the Spain squad play their club football for sides that have been routinely smashing teams off the face of the Earth – Real Madrid, Barcelona and, in Silva’s case, Manchester City. Some of those guys must have been thinking they can do no wrong.
Having said that, let’s take one of those in particular – the mighty Barca. They’ve had a few troubles of late – despite the routine thumpings of under-par La Liga make-weights, they’ve also endured a few frustrating results. Although they are as yet unbeaten, they have drawn 4 times in 11 games – away to Real Sociedad, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao, and home to Sevilla. Not only that, but they were frustratingly held to a 2-2 draw by AC Milan at the Camp Nou.
For a team that has so ruthlessly dominated European football in recent years, and been told endlessly about it, this will have come as a culture shock. All may not be that well there. And it’s worth noting that 5 of the starting line-up play their club football for Barcelona.
So, due to a combination of over-confidence, complacency and, to a certain extent, being found out, are the glory days of Spain on the international stage drawing to a close? Obviously it’s still too early to tell for sure – Spain haven’t been totally unbeatable in any case, as demonstrated by the defeats to the USA in the Confederations Cup 2 years ago, the World Cup defeat to Switzerland (which was not unlike their performance tonight – ineffective going forward, wasteful, and beaten on the counter-attack with a set piece, often said to be Spanish sides’ main weakness in recent years), and a friendly defeat to Argentina last year.
However, what it does do is expose potential weaknesses. Spain’s invincibility was based on the fact that it seemed it was impossible to play against their brand of slick short passing attacking coupled with a high pressing game – the ultimate combination, played with extraordinary consistency. The problem for them seems to be that when they come up against a well-organised defence, can’t break it down and waste a series of good chances, they panic and fall to pieces. Equally, they also do have defensive frailties, particularly from set pieces.
Switzerland and England have both beaten Spain by letting Spain pass the ball between themselves endlessly, absorbing, letting them pass a bit more, hitting them on the counter-attack and scoring, and then letting them pass a bit more, They end up like confused flies trapped on one side of a window – they have a plan A, which they think should work, but when it doesn’t, they have absolutely no idea what to do other than do exactly the same thing again, which doesn’t work. That’s the way to beat Spain – frustrate them into short-circuiting.
Further more, it’s easy to forget that despite winning the thing, Spain weren’t that great in the World Cup, winning all their knockout games 1-0, and they did get lucky on a few occasions. They only did just about enough. It was far from the procession some would like to make out. I honestly feel that, contrary to popular belief, Spain are there for the taking (and have been for a while) if the other leading European teams – Germany, Holland, Italy, France, *gasp* even England at a push – can get organised defensively and produce the goods up front. Although that’s easier said than done…
As for England, they should just celebrate their first win over reigning world champions since defeating Argentina in 1980, before getting back down to business on Tuesday with the match against Sweden. It would be best for them to not read anything into this at all – after all, while they did play well, it wasn’t an exceptional performance by any means. But they should at least take heart from the fact that they have beaten a very good side at home, in front of what has in recent months been a harsh, brutal Wembley crowd.
Despite all the caveats from such a result – not playing all that well; Spain being off colour and wasting good chances; Xavi, Silva and Iniesta being substituted in the second half; it only being a friendly, and at home at that – it is a nice change to see England making some positive headlines for once. Just don’t build your hopes up too much – instead of constant lurching between extremes, let’s keep it at a happy medium for once…