The match unfolded almost exactly as everyone had expected it to. Almost. Spain dominated possession, created many more chances than the home side, and spent barely any time in their own half. The result, however, as they have become accustomed to in recent friendlies, did not go their way, with the home side coming out 1-0 winners, thanks to a Frank Lampard header at the beginning of the second half.
Fabio Capello sprung a surprise the night before the match by announcing that Phil Jones, playing in only his second international, would play in central midfield, a position where he has played once for Manchester United and a handful of times for his former club Blackburn. John Terry, in the midst of a race row over comments he allegedly made to Anton Ferdinand, was an unused substitute. Capello elected to play Joleon Lescott and Phil Jagielka together at the back, with the out-of-form Glen Johnson on the right. Darren Bent played on his own up front with Theo Walcott and James Milner on the flanks in a 4-5-1/4-1-4-1 formation.
Darren Bent was very unfortunate in my opinion, as he was so isolated in attack, yet he never stopped trying to run the channels and closing down the man in possession. Danny Welbeck, who replaced him, was more fortunate as England had grown into the game by the time of his substitution and therefore he received more support from midfield.
Spain, on the other hand, had their full-strength team out on the field. They lined up in a 4-3-3 formation with David Villa, David Silva and Andres Iniesta up front. The manager Vicente Del Bosque chose the 22-year-old Valencia defender Jordi Alba to play at left back, a position many believe to be Spain’s weakness. Cesc Fabregas and Juan Mata, despite their sparkling club form, were only good enough for the bench.
In hindsight, I truly believe that Spain do not need a double pivot of Alonso and Busquets. Because they have so much possession (it was 71% in this game), no matter who they play against, I think they can afford to fit in a more adventurous midfielder, like Fabregas or Mata, and take out one of these two holding midfielders. This worked at Euro 2008, when Marcos Senna was the only defensive midfielder in the side.
Xabi Alonso & David Silva
One interesting aspect of Spain’s style of play was the use of Xabi Alonso. This is a player unique to the modern game, and he has no equivalent. This season, he has become accustomed at Real Madrid to dropping in between the two centre-backs when in possession, allowing their full backs to push high up the pitch. He is able to do this due to his fantastic passing range and acted almost as a quarterback for most of the game, spreading play out wide to the wingers/full-backs. Against England however, he regularly dropped in on the left of the three, perhaps wary of Sergio Ramos’ weakness on the left-hand side.
I don’t think I was alone in thinking that Iniesta and Silva would support the central striker Villa in attack. However, as had happened in their 3-1 victory over Scotland in October, David Silva played as a ‘false 9,’ the position Lionel Messi occupies for Barcelona with Villa cutting in from the left and Iniesta playing very narrow on the right.
This could perhaps be a ploy by Del Bosque to add a few tactical alternatives for Euro 2012, so that he can switch to a plan B if things aren’t going his way. In the same way, I believe the Spaniard is trying to mimick Barcelona’s extremely successful style of play, with Silva playing in the Messi position. He could if he wanted to field an all-Barcelona front six, with Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets in midfield and Villa, Fabregas (false 9) and Pedro up front.
England stay tight and sit back
Spain expectedly had an enormous amount of possession but weren’t able to do much with it. In fact, Adrian Chiles on ITV produced the stat that by the end of the game England had had 3 shots, while their opponents had had 23, however they both recorded just 2 on target. This highlights the fact that Spain often became frustrated and had a lot of long shots out of desperation.
England did not press too high up the pitch, but sat back in a 4-1-4-1 formation, with Scott Parker protecting the back four. To give credit where it’s due, all three of Parker, Jagielka and Lescott had excellent games and the latter two certainly justified their selection. They looked to try and counter Spain using the pace of the wide men Walcott and Milner, but they rarely got the chance and Spain defended well when they did.
Spain’s left back – a weakness?
There has been much debate about Spain’s left-back slot recently, as World and European champion Joan Capdevila is currently warming the bench at Benfica. The incumbent in this game, Jordi Alba, played very well and got forward numerous times. He linked with Villa and Silva well, although his overlapping runs were well tracked by Theo Walcott, except for one midway through the first half. Defensively, he was sound and he kept Walcott quiet by sticking tight to him and not allowing the Arsenal winger to get a run on him.
On this performance, Alba will be unlucky not to keep his place, although there are plenty of other options should Del Bosque wish to experiment before the European championships next year. Jose Enrique, the Liverpool defender and Nacho Monreal, who plays for Malaga, have both been mentioned as possible candidates although Monreal is being kept out of his club side by Eliseu, nominally a right midfielder.
Both managers made the maximum allowed six substitutions, taking advantage of the quality that was at their disposal on the bench. In terms of making an impact, Danny Welbeck, Jack Rodwell and Juan Mata stood out for me.
Welbeck twice ran at Gerard Pique, his former team mate at Man United, and both times exposed his lack of pace, something which has been covered up well at Barcelona. He looked to stretch the play and got a lot more support than Darren Bent, whom he replaced, had got in his 65 minutes on the pitch.
Jack Rodwell looked totally at ease, despite this being his debut and the match being against the best side in the world. He played alongside Barry (who had replaced Lampard) and Parker in a deep 3-man midfield, but was allowed the licence to push forward on occasion. In one move, he linked well with Welbeck but couldn’t control the ball as he approached Pepe Reina in goal. Like Phil Jones, he sees his future at centre-back rather than in midfield, but David Moyes at Everton has consistently played him in a ‘double pivot’ (the 2 in a 4-2-3-1) and he looked assured.
Juan Mata, a very similar player to David Silva, played on the right hand side of the front 3 and looked to drift inside and find space, which he did on occasion, but Parker was often there to plug the gaps. He was given more defensive responsibility after Spain had switched to a 4-4-2 (with his Chelsea team mate Fernando Torres and Villa in attack) but was shackled by another team mate of his, Ashley Cole.
As I said in the intro, Spain controlled the game but some superb individual performances by England, in particular Jones, Lescott and Parker, contrived to stifle the reigning World and European Champions. Neither Jagielka nor Lescott was dragged out of position by the ‘false 9’ Silva and they never left any space in behind them. Parker frustrated the likes of Silva and Iniesta in the holding midfield role and just ahead of him, Jones and Lampard had good games themselves. This wasn’t quite as bad as conceding 4 to Argentina or Portugal, and I doubt Spain will be worrying too much about this loss either.