Thursday, June 17, 2010

Spanish Tragedy shows need for Plan B

Does anyone want to win the World Cup?

After seeing every team in action at least once, the tipsters have reacted to the opening round of matches with a collective puzzled shrug.  Only Germany and Uruguay have scored more than twice and, of the contenders, only they and Argentina can truly declare themselves pleased with their performance.

We did at least get the best game of the tournament in Switzerland's oddly unpopular upset of red-hot favourites Spain. If Germany or Italy got turned over, we'd be doing cartwheels, so why is there a collective sense of unease when Spain lose?

Spain unquestionably come into the tournament as The Good Guys. They might as well wear their underpants outside their shorts and don a cape, because they play football 'the way it ought to be played'.
There is a school of thought that purveyors of attractive football are somehow morally superior to their rival cloggers. Take Arsene Wenger's many pronouncements on the subject, such as his condemnation of Darren 'Anti-Football' Fletcher.

Likewise when Barcelona played Inter Milan in the Champions League, many saw that as a battle between good and evil - positive, creative and imaginative versus snide, destructive and opportunistic. Yet while there is no doubt Spain's 'tiki-taka' short passing game is easier on the eye than aimless hoofs forward to a target man, it is hard to argue there is a real moral dimension to the way teams choose to play a game. A game, moreover, whose inventors loved nothing more than a bit of kick and rush - and still do if you listen to Franz Beckenbauer.

Swiss coach Ottmar Hitzfeld set his team up in the best possible way to suit their ability - organised and disciplined at the back, direct going forward. (The fact that coaches of modestly-talented sides are becoming savvier is one reason why this tournament has lacked goals.) What was he supposed to do - try to play like Spain and end up losing 7-2? It might have pleased the neutrals and the 'beautiful game' evangelists, but certainly not the people paying Hitzfeld, namely the Swiss.

More fundamentally, we should not even be talking about 'the Spanish style' or 'the Swiss style'. The best teams can win by playing more than one style. When Plan A fails, try something else. Look at Chelsea, who won the Premier League using slick 'fantasy football', fast counter-attacks and muscular route one depending on what the situation demanded. Spain's tight passing was always going to find limited success against a well-drilled and numerous Swiss defence, but they should have found another style. Think of the way England is slammed for lack of a Plan B beyond lumping it long for Crouch. Real champions ought to masters of all styles, not just one.

Now Spain are far from finished. In fact, I have just made a small investment in them winning the tournament at newly lengthened odds. You don't win 45 out of 48 games (sorry, 45 out of 49 now) unless you are very special indeed. And on another day Gelson Fernandes would not have scored his epically scrappy goal, and shots from Xabi Alonso, Andres Iniesta and Jesus Navas might have gone inside the post.

It might be a little dispiriting to see the Spanish beaten by a side with much less talent, especially since Vicente Del Bosque's men are one of the few on show who actually seem committed to attack. But all the Swiss did was play to the best of their ability, and they did it brilliantly. Good teams find a way to win. End of story.

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