Going into the 2014 World Cup, Spain were amongst the favorites, being the current World and European Champions. The Spanish league is considered to be one of the strongest in the world, full of Spanish players coached by Spanish managers and the league receiving around €850 million a year. The 2014 Champions League final was an all Spanish affair, with Real Madrid beating their neighbours Athletico Madrid convincingly 4-1 in extra time. There were 9 goals scored in this years Semi Finals of the Champions League; 5 of which were scored by a Spaniard. In between the 2012 European Championships and this years competition, Diego Costa declared himself for Spain over Brazil, meaning that Spain added one of the most promising strikers in world football to its already talented attacking roster.
Even though Spain enjoyed this success, after just two games of the World Cup, Spain crashed out, having lost 5-1 to Holland and 2-0 to Chile. What went wrong?
Maybe the signs were already there. The style of football employed by Spain was not the same brand of football played by Real or Athletico Madrid. Spain as a whole was moving away from Tiki-Taka. The two most successful Spainsh teams this year, favoured a fast counter attacking style of football, well organised defense and pressing their opponents as soon as they got the ball. Even before this, Bayern Munich showed the world that Barcelona and Tiki-Taka could be beaten in the 2013 Champions League Semi Final. They won 7-0 on aggregate by pressing Barcelona and counter-attacking with explosive players like Ribery, Robben and Müller.
And then of course there is age. Xavi and Alonso came into this competition knowing that this may be their last international tournament. David Villa announced that this would be his last international tournament, and after his costly mistakes against Holland and Chile, Iker Casillas may have played his last game for not only Spain, but for Real Madrid too. The central defensive partnership of Pique and Ramos was shown up for what it was; two players who are very accomplished on the ball and a threat in the opposition box, but very poor in positional play. Although they are not yet 30, as their pace gradually leaves them, they will need to be able to read the game better, if their respective teams are unable to pass the ball at will and dominate possession.
A barely fit Diego Costa looked like he didn’t quite gel with the rest of his team. Having just declared for Spain and playing his club football at Athletico Madrid, he is not a product of Tiki-Taka football, and by playing him instead of Villa, Spain lost their proven ability through him to link their midfield with a presence in the box, who is willing to not only play with his towards the goal. In their 3-0 victory over Australia, Villa scored Spain’s first, and what was to be his final goal, no doubt leaving us all to speculate if Spain could have repeated World Cup success if he had started the first two games. Fernando Torres also scored but his future at Chelsea and for Spain looks to also be in doubt after disappointing since his £50million move to Chelsea in 2011. Players like David Silva, Iniesta and Juanfran will be in their 30’s by Euro 2016.
However, Spain have a host of talented youngsters waiting in the wings to take over. Players like De Gea, Tello, Isco, Koko, and Azpilicueta represent the next generation of Spanish football and are already playing at a high level at their respective clubs. Whether or not the can retain the European Championship in 2016 remains to be seen. They are developing in systems outside of the Tiki-Taka system, which is being mirrored by the signings of Spains top teams have been making. Barcelona have signed players like Neymar and Sanchez; players whos main strengths are running at their opponents, not passing around them in neat lines. Real Madrids trio of Ronaldo, Bale and Di Maria are unplayable at times. They possess pace, power, skill and vision to take on teams single-handedly at any given moment in a game.
Spains once solid unit has simply fallen apart. Adding Costa and the mistakes by Casillias, as well as other teams knowing how to play against Tiki-Taka, made obvious the fact that they started with no player who could carry a team on his back and take control of a game. In 2012, Spain played with a team the vast majority of whom came from Barcelona and Real Madrid. They knew each other inside out and played a team game which lead to comparisons with the Peles 70’s Brazil World Cup winning team. This year, with Athletic Madrid, both Manchester clubs and Chelsea ‘diluting’ their squad with different footballing styles, they needed someone to stand up and demand the ball. That is what Neymar is doing for Brazil. Robben for the Dutch. Messi for Argentina. Hazard for Belgium. They look for and demand the ball because they know they don’t have a group of players who have been on the training pitch week after week with each other, who may not even like each other.
Spain proved over the last few years that there is no ‘I’ in team. So did Greece in Euro 2004. But now with Spain out, maybe like Ronaldo in World Cup 2006 or Zidane in 1998, someone will step up and show that although there is no ‘I’ in team, there definitely is an ‘I’ in win.