The pain in Spain

Yesterday, France defeated Spain 3-1 in the World Cup round of 16. This wasn’t exactly an upset, but Spain had been playing better soccer than France. In fact, the main reason why France’s win wasn’t considered much of an upset is that Spain has a long history of disappointing results in the early elimination rounds of the World Cup.

But one need not resort to hexes, national character flaws, or internal political divisions to explain Spain’s demise this year. The simple fact is that the game plan of Spain’s coach Luis Aragones doomed the Spanish side to defeat. Going into the match, I thought that Spain had at least a 50 percent chance of winning. After watching for five minutes, I was convinced France would win, and that belief persisted even after Spain scored the game’s opening goal.

Let’s start with the decision to play the defenders far up field and to rely so heavily on the off-side trap. France had been struggling to score goals against quality defenses, but at the same time looked to be on the verge of breaking through offensively. Under these circumstances, why invite Zidane and Vieira to pick apart your defense by threading balls to the likes of the likes of Henry and Ribery as they streak into the open field past static defenders hoping for a referee’s call?

Second, Spain opened with three center forwards and no wingers. In place of wingers, they asked their fullbacks to forage far up the field leaving acres of space behind them. This worked out okay on the right side of the defense because Sergio Ramos is such a great athlete and because the Frence left wing, Malouda, wasn’t playing well. But on the other side, Spanish left-back Pernia (a late addition to the squad from a relatively small club) was unable to track back against Ribery (or contribute much on offense, for that matter). Ribery not only scored France’s first goal, but also put in a man-of-the-match performance.

Then, with the score tied 1-1 and Spain almost certainly needing another goal to advance, Aragonnes pulled two of his three forwards, replacing them with a right winger, Joaquin, and an attacking midfielder (or “link man”), Luis Garcia. Jaoquin is a terrific player who should have been on all along. But Spain still had no left winger to take the load off of Pernia, and now had only one pure scorer.

The fact that Spain played so aggressively most of way made the match refreshingly entertaining. And there was no need for a team as talented as Spain to resort to a defensive shell. But to leave his team so badly exposed against a side the caliber of France was, to me, almost criminal on the part of Aragones.

The 67 year-old coach, who made racist comments about Henry (as fate would have it) a few years ago, has already resigned. Supposedly, the Spanish football federation had wanted him to stay on. Maybe there is a problem with the national character after all.

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