A version of this originally appeared in the Independent, June 2012
Now, there can be no more questions.
Not only might Spain be the greatest team of all time after winning an astonishing third successful trophy. They may well be the most innovative. Not to mention, at this exalted level, unbeatable.
After four years in which Vicente Del Bosque’s side have had to face a series of teams who have dropped deeper and deeper against them, his solution has been to start with three attacking midfielders up front rather than a nominal striker. He did it again last night.
It has created a lot of debate. It also, however, created the platform for history to be made.
Indeed, this entire coronation effectively served as a culmination of their possession, pressing-based approach.
Most of all, it was anything but boring. It was brilliant.
By the quarter-hour, Spain had made a mockery of so many of the debates.
Indeed, the opening goal was almost the perfect illustration of Del Bosque’s entire rationale with the system.
After a kaleidoscopic passing move, the three rotating attackers combined to produce a goal that was at once exhilaratingly complex but also supremely orthodox.
First, Andres Iniesta played a divine through ball for Cesc Fabregas. He went around the outside while David Silva went around the inside, with the latter then very simply heading in Fabregas’s chip.
This has been the whole point of Del Bosque’s system: for the interchanging attacking midfielders to confuse opposition defenders and thereby create extra space.
The key difference between last night and previous matches, though, was that Spain simply looked so much sharper and so much less fatigued. Unlike the four days between the quarter-final and semi-final in which they did so much needless travelling between north-west Poland and south-east Ukraine, the same time period here set up this performance. In a way that they didn’t against Portugal, all of their passes were coming off.
It wasn’t the only difference though. Italy were pressing much more aggressively – in terms of both position on the pitch and physicality – than pretty much any other side that has played Spain.
It also, however, created much more space for Spain; the kind of space they thrive in and which so many other teams have sought desperately to deny them.
Here, it must be said that Cesare Prandelli took a big risk. Having previously been the most tactically astute manager for the vast majority of this tournament, he was shown exactly why so few teams actually take this risk against the Spanish. They tend to get ripped apart.
There were a few moments, it must be said, when they could perhaps have done with a more orthodox forward: not least on six minutes when Alba crossed from the left with no-one there to meet it.
As a result, once Italy finally got to grips with the game after Spain actually scored the first, they were still in it. And, for a 15-minute spell, they put the Spanish under real pressure.
Then, however, Spain simply stepped up again. And, after a largely indifferent tournament for someone of his quality, so did Xavi.
With Jordi Alba thundering forward, the player that has defined this generation played a ball of equal quality to Iniesta’s for the left-back to slide past Buffon.
Xavi didn’t exactly define this tournament though. And, in the end, neither did Pirlo.
That was Iniesta. When it mattered most, too, he had the biggest influence.
As if to add insult to injury, then, Spain did bring on a forward and he did score. What’s more Fernando Torres became joint top scorer.
It was yet another sign of their utter domination. By then, though, any argument was long over.
A version of this originally appeared in the Irish Examiner, June 2012
All of the arguments, all of the debates, all of the questions around Spain are now irrelevant – except one. Is this Spanish team now the greatest of all time?
After an exceptional, exhilarating, crowning performance that was anything but boring, it’s very hard to argue otherwise. By finally beating Italy in such a comprehensive manner, they have become the first ever team to win three international trophies in a row.
Not only that, there is the very strong possibility that, at this very top level, they might well be unbeatable.
Certainly, this entire game served as the culmination of their possession and pressing-based system.
This is what Vicente Del Bosque intended. This was the point of it all. This was perfection.
The build-up to this final, and indeed Spain’s entire tournament, had been framed by the ongoing debate over Del Bosque’s 4-3-3-0 formation.
As expected, however, he did the same last night. For the third time at Euro 2012 and the second time against Italy, he featured Cesc Fabregas in the false-nine role.
By the quarter-hour, though, Spain had made an absolute mockery of so much of the debate.
Indeed, the opening goal was almost the perfect illustration of Del Bosque’s entire rationale.
After a kaleidoscopic passing move, the three rotating attackers combined to produce a goal that was at once exquisitely complex but also brilliantly orthodox.
First, Andres Iniesta played a divine through ball for Cesc Fabregas. He went around the outside while David Silva went around the inside, with the latter then very simply heading in Fabregas’s chip. Brilliant.
One of the main reasons that Spain were able to pull that off in such a magnificent manner, however, was because they simply looked so much sharper and so much less fatigued. Unlike in the match against Portugal, all of their touches and passes were coming off.
That, of course, was because, this time, they didn’t spend the four days between games needlessly travelling from the south-east of Ukraine to the north-east of Poland.
To be fair, the scoreline could have even be more telling by then. For a few isolated moments, you could see the reasons whySpain’s formation has caused so much debate.
After just 50 seconds, for example, Iniesta innovatively flicked through for Fabregas. The midfielder, however, didn’t quite have the acceleration to reach it. Had it been a more direct, pacier frontman – such as Fernando Torres – on instead, an opportunity might have been forced.
There was a similar moment on six minutes when Jordi Alba burst down the left. He crossed… but no-one was there to finish as Silva was on the far end of the box. Here, had it been a player with more of a striker’s instinct – such as Fernando Llorente – the opening goal might have come much earlier.
As it was, it meant that Italy were at the very least still in the match by the time they finally appeared to get to grips with it onceSpain had gone ahead. And, for a good 20 minutes, they produced some good football to make life a lot more uncomfortable for the Spanish.
With Andrea Pirlo – typically – getting things going and making the Spanish work from every set-piece, Iker Casillas and his backline had to be fully focused.
Sergio Ramos certainly seemed fully focused on Mario Balotelli. The Real Madrid centre-half reacted to an abrasive early challenge from the Italian with a series of assured challenges of his own.
But, just as it looked like Italy might force a proper opening, Spain stepped up again.
Even more importantly, after a largely indifferent tournament, Xavi stepped up. Just like the Spanish team as a whole, he was saving his best for last.
With Alba thundering up the flank, the player who absolutely defines this generation hit a pass every bit as exquisite as Iniesta’s for the left-back to easily slide home.
Again, this wasn’t boring. It was simply brilliant.
A clear factor in this, it must be said, was that Cesare Prandelli effectively took a risk to try and go and win this game rather than just contain Spain. Having held Del Bosque’s side with a more conservative approach in the opening game, Italy were much more cavalier in the final.
And, while it created a few problems for Spain – not least when the lively Antonio Di Natale came on – it also gave them the space they thrive in. This was another difference between this match and the performances that were perceived as dull in the past.
Spain had a big enough canvas. As did Iniesta.
With a performance like that, he should probably steal the player-of-the-tournament award from Pirlo.
And, as if to add insult to injury, then, Spain did bring on a forward in Fernando Torres and he did score to become joint top scorer.
It was yet another sign of their utter domination. So was Torres’s assist for Juan Mata to make it a perfect four.
By then, though, all of the arguments were long over.