Australia’s departure from the World Cup at the group stage was all but expected, but Spain’s early exit has been the shock of the tournament.
That makes this game particularly difficult to preview, as both sides will probably use the dead rubber to experiment. Spain could take two different routes – farewell a crop of older, experienced players for whom this will almost certainly be their last World Cup match, or begin the inevitable transition into a new era with a younger, new-look side.
Vicente Del Bosque is renowed for his loyalty, however, having primarily succeded as Spain coach because of his role as a paternal figure. He’s consistently kept faith with players he trust (something that’s being touted as their downfall) and it would be surprising to see him make wholesale changes. Rather, a mix between the two ‘eras’ seems appropriate, with three or four changes to the usual starting line-up being predicted.
There’s also the question of what team Ange Postecoglou will pick. He’s publicly stated that they’ll keep with the same approach, but Milligan and Bresciano are injured, while Tim Cahill is suspended, meaning he might take the opportunity to hand starts to players like Ben Halloran who have featured consistently off the bench, or to other squad players who haven’t figured in the tournament so far.
Neverthless, he’ll encourage the Socceroos to make the most of a rare chance to play the defending World Champions – one of the great sides in footballing history.
Spain are remarkable for both their unprecedented success, and their unprecedented style. It’s an extreme version of possession football, and they’re one of the few examples of a side being able to retain the ball in a purely defensive sense – effectively denying the opposition the chance to compete by nullifying them of possession. They generally average around 60-70%, and those figures haven’t dropped at this World Cup.
Importantly, the possession is predominantly in dangerous territory – Australia will have to withstand heavy pressure in the middle and final third.
Spain’s training session on Saturday suggested Del Bosque was originally going to start Cesc Fabregas in his midfield triangle, but was dismayed at the Chelsea-bound midfielders attitude and application. According to this video, Xabi Alonso will instead start in what will be his final game before international retirement. He plays quite deep and left-of-centre, and hits longer passes towards the flanks.
Xavi, too, seems another set for a farewell, and will play as the top of midfield – higher up the pitch than he’s used to for Barcelona, which, combined with his decreased mobility, means he’s not the metronomic force he once was. He is, however, still incredibly dangerous sliding passes in behind the defence, demonstrated by a superlative assist for the penalty Diego Costa won agains the Netherlands.
Update: Del Bosque has confirmed Xavi is not fit to play, but it remains difficult to determine who would play CAM. Silva, Mata, Cazorla or Fabregas can all play there, as well as Koke, of Atletico. The youngsters tends to drift towards the left, and likes to curl through balls in behind. His set-piece delivery is also very good.
At the base of midfield should probably be Sergio Busquets. He drops into the backline to create a numerical advantage and allow Spain to pass forwards, but generally sits in as a holder in front of the defence. It should be noted Busquets is capable of incisive forward passes, and can hit clever straight balls through an opposition’s lines.
However, both the Netherlands and Chile games have demonstrated the susceptibility of all the midfielders to being pressed. Jonathon de Guzman and Nigel de Jong did a very good job up sticking tight in the opening match, while Chile man-marked 3v3 in midfield by removing number ten, Jorge Valdiva, and replacing him with centre-back Francisco Silva – freeing up Marcelo Diaz to close down David Silva (who replaced Xavi at the tip of the triangle), Charles Aranguiz picking up Alonso, and Arturo Vidal pressing on Busquets.
It was extraordinarily effective. The consistent, intense pressure forced Spain into rushed, harried passes, and they barely found their rhythm – Aranguiz, in particular, was superb against Alonso, forcing the Real Madrid player into one of the worst games of his career, exemplified by the cheap giveaway that lead to Chile’s opening goal.
That’s hugely encouraging for an Australia side that pressed excellently against the Dutch by pushing their front three forward onto the back three, and marking up 3v3 in midfield – De Jong and De Guzman had no freedom on the ball. Postecoglou has already promised to keep with a similar strategy, and it will be fascinating to see if Australia can maintain a similar intensity against a side better suited to withstanding that sort of pressure. However, this World Cup has suggested Spain’s ability to do so has diminished.
Matt McKay looks set to keep his place, but might switch from the left of Jedinak (his usual position) to the right so he can move forward onto Alonso, allowing the Socceroos captain to stay deeper and protect the defence. If not, Jedinak should look to replicate Aranguiz’s role against Alonso, who can’t cover ground as easily as he used to.
The difficulty of pressing Spain in midfield is the question of how to deal with the wide players, who typically drift inside to overload in the centre. This, of course, depends on who exactly Del Bosque starts, and this is one particular selection issue that’s difficult to discern. There are a number of options at his disposal.
Andres Iniesta and Silva is the usual combination. They both drift inside to maintain Spain’s numerical superiority in midfield, and make the side very narrow – with both sets of wide players coming inside, there’s a lack of running in behind or genuine directness. The counter-effect, of course, is that they can find space between the lines, generally for the centre-forward or Jordi Alba bursting forward from left-back.
Another option (generally the second-choice) is Pedro, a speedy wide forward who isn’t the greatest player, but understands his role very well (doing basically the same job at Barcelona), which is to make runs in behind from wide positions and provide a goal threat. He scored 12 times in qualification, and in the absence of Jesus Navas, injured for this tournament, is the one wide option capable of providing ‘verticality’ – the penetration necessary to complement Spain’s patient passing.
He can be difficult to track for opposition full-backs, because he makes clever runs into the channel between the centre-back – picking the ball up on the run, rather than dribbling it forward. He’s also an outlet at counter-attacks.
Otherwise, there’s the possibility of one or both Juan Mata and Santi Cazorla, similarly ambidextrous playmakers who wander around looking for possession, and hit ambitious forward balls. They give Spain the same problem with narrowness, however, and give the ball away more often, which, considering the obsession with possession, leaves the side more vulnerable to counter-attacks.
Interestingly, in the video that supposedly shows Fabregas being ‘dropped’ for Alonso, Mata’s in a purple bib, the supposed ‘starting XI’ – he’s dangerous in both a creative and a goalscoring sense, but isn’t entirely comfortable receiving the ball with his back to goal. He should be closed down quickly to prevent him from turning and facing the play.
Meanwhile, Diego Costa, who started the two group stage matches, will probably be dropped. He’s a powerful, aggressive runner who works the channels excellently and is thrillingly direct when receiving long passes on the break – perfect for a counter-attacking Atletico Madrid, not quite what was needed for a patient Spain outfit. Still, he made good runs in behind, and lead the pressure nicely.
Instead, either Fernando Torres or David Villa will probably play (again, in what will probably be their last matches before retirement). Torres can come short towards the play but offers a sporadic goal threat, while Villa’s exact role for Spain is unclear after a season basically playing as a defensive forward for Atletico. He could play wide left, where he’s always dangerous cutting inside onto his right foot.
Fabregas is another option (although probably not, for reasons already stated). Not quite a false nine, he’s simply a midfielder playing further forward, linking up play along the ground and running in behind.
At the back, Alba and Azpilicueta should retain their places at left and right-back respectively. Alba’s easily the more attacking of the pair. He covers incredible distance to, amazingly, provide a goal threat, and his overlapping allows Iniesta to drift inside. His acceleration makes him incredibly difficult to track. It’s unrealistic to expect a right-winger to follow him all the way into deep positions, and the communication has to be good down Australia’s right-hand side to ensure Alba is ‘passed off’ onto Ryan McGowan when the full-back enters his zone.
Azpilicueta is capable of getting forward, but plays more reservedly for Spain. He sticks very tights to opponents, and Oar could struggle to beat him in 1v1 battles. It seems likely Juanfran starts instead – he’s similarly combative, and makes late charges forward from deep to provide a sudden passing option.
With Gerard Pique ruled out with injury, Del Bosque will probably continue with the Javi Martinez-Sergio Ramos partnership he used against Chile (with Raul Albiol also an option). It didn’t feel entirely comfortable, but that was a consequence of Chile’s intense midfield pressure more than anything, which meant when possession was turned over the Spanish defence were facing a 4v4 break, most obviously for the opening goal.
Both Ramos and Martinez are fairly comfortable in the air, and Taggart/Leckie will have a tough time getting the better of either of them. Instead, they might be better off working the channels in between a centre-back and full-back, where Spain can be exposed. Ramos, in particular, never seems comfortable when moving out towards the flank to cover an advanced full-back, and can be beaten for pace.
Iker Casillas has had a disastrous tournament, but will probably start. Australia might try and push high up the pitch at goal-kicks to force him long, something they did very well to Claudio Bravo against Chile.
Update: Del Bosque has confirmed Pepe Reina will play.
A constant feature of Australia’s games at this World Cup has been their attacking approach – primarily through early crosses, or quick counter-attacks. Although the Spanish wingers can be slow to press opposition full-backs, demonstrated by the time Daley Blind had on the ball to assist two goals in the Spain v Netherlands match, the absence of Cahill means Australia have lost their only target for crosses.
Therefore, they will want to counter-attack quickly and effectively against a Spain side that has twice demonstrated their struggles in defending against said tactic – particularly when pressed in midfield, which means the opposition is higher up the pitch when the ball is turned over, thus closer to goal, and with players nearby to support the break. It’s difficult to determine what Spain’s starting XI will be, but Xavi and Xabi Alonso, once legendary figures of the side, now appear the most vulnerable, and will probably be closed down quickly by McKay and Jedinak.
Spain’s defensive record in major tournaments recently is incredible – ten cleansheets in ten knockout games. That reputation has promptly been dismantled in the space of the past week, and Spain are simply more vulnerable to counter-attacks, as well as being caught out with runners in behind their high line.
As explained at length above, it’s difficult to say how Spain’s front three will be formatted, but either way, Australia’s defensive concern will come in these areas. The by-effect of the Socceroos midfield pressing is that they’ve often left lots of space in front of the defence, and playmakers like Iniesta, Silva, Mata or Cazorla could find space by darting in between the lines, and receiving the passes that Spain manage to work around Australia’s pressure.
It’s also worth noting that Del Bosque likes to start with passers, and then gradually introduce more attacking options. That means Australia, if they suffer from the fatigue of pressing like they noticeably did against the Netherlands, could be exploited by fresh legs off the bench.
As a dead rubber, however, any analysis must be taken with a grain of salt. Spain’s motivation for this one has obviously been lessened, and that might mean the game is played at a slower, relaxed tempo. If Postecoglou wants his players to take something tangible out of this World Cup, they must impose a high tempo from the opening minutes.
It’s also worth remembering, even in their currently humbled state, Spain are the defending European and world champions.