Spain won comfortably to relegate Australia to bottom of Group B.
Vicente Del Bosque made six changes in light of Spain’s already guaranteed exit from the tournament, with Pepe Reina, Raul Albiol, Juanfran, Koke, David Villa, Fernando Torres and Santi Cazorla all starting for the first time in Brazil.
Ange Postecoglou was without Tim Cahill through suspension, so Adam Taggart started upfront, while Oliver Bozanic, as expected, replaced Mark Bresciano at the tip of midfield.
Andres Iniesta was the star, but in truth this game felt like the dead rubber it was, with a lack of genuine intensity throughout.
Australia start strong
However, Australia did start with their usual, energetic pressing – passing forwards immediately from the kick-off, then closing down high up in the opening moments. Tommy Oar and Matthew Leckie sat in the channel between Spain’s full-backs and centre-backs, blocking off passes to the side, but maintaining some pressure on the man in possession. This was particularly noticeable at the first few Spain goal-kicks, with Reina and Sergio Ramos passing backwards and forwards to each other in a deep position.
As predicted in the preview, Postecoglou instructed his midfielders to again stick very tight in midfield. Bozanic pushed up onto Xabi Alonso, who replaced Sergio Busquets at the base of Spain’s midfield triangle, while Matt McKay and Mile Jedinak were assigned to Koke and Iniesta respectively.
Spain midfield format
However, Spain circumvented this pressure with three important tweaks. First, Alonso dropped very deep in between the centre-backs, with Bozanic uncomfortable following him so far upfield, and eventually got lots of time on the ball to spread the ball forward and wide. It was similar to how Marcelo Diaz escaped the attention of Bresciano in the opening match against Chile.
Secondly, Iniesta drifted up and down the left channel, constantly finding space away from Jedinak when moving close to Alonso, but also darting forward into pockets of space in and around the Socceroos captain. Jedinak simply didn’t handle him very well, with Iniesta always on the move, helping progress attacking moves forward, and constantly receiving possession in advanced positions.
Finally, Santi Cazorla, playing from the right, drifted inside to become an extra passing option through the centre. Compare the location of his passes received to the left-winger David Villa, and it’s obvious how narrow he was by comparison – helping to create an overload in the centre, and making it difficult for left-back Jason Davidson to decide whether to follow him all the way inside, or leave him free (with McKay preoccupied with Koke).
That opened up space for Juanfran to overlap enthusiastically. The Atletico player was always available for quick switches of play, and assisted the opening goal.
Spain attack Australia’s right
A further flow-on effect of Cazorla’s narrowness was that Spain concentrated lots of their attacking moves down their left, Australia’s right. They always had spare men down that side of the pitch, and seemed like they were deliberating trying to overload Ryan McGowan, who was somewhat shaky at right-back against the Netherlands, clearly uncomfortable against Chile, and going even further back, disastrous in the 6-0 thumping by Brazil – he’s a centre-back pushed wide, and it shows.
His biggest problem was Villa, who always stayed very wide and high up the pitch, happy to take McGowan on 1v1 as well as make runs inside towards the penalty area. With a never-ending series of flicks and backheels, he was Spain’s most dangerous attacking player, and came close with a volley at the far post on the twenty minute mark, before fittingly opening the scoring with a cute finish from Juanfran’s cut-back.
It’s worth noting, too, that Jordi Alba also got forward to compound McGowan’s troubles – the left-back had a powerful low shot well-saved by Maty Ryan.
Alba v Leckie
Alba’s key contribution, however, came defensively (something at odds with his reputation as a recklessly attacking full-back). He stuck very tight to Leckie, happy to follow the forward instead when he drifted into the channels, and was very combative against him – winning all of his tackles, constantly dispossessing him, and pushing him back with his forward running.
Australia clearly had a plan to target the space left vacated by Alba’s forward runs, but even there the Barcelona player did well to cover lots of ground and not leave his defence exposed – helped, too, by the fact Jedinak overhit nearly all of his long balls.
Torres v Spiranovic
Another interesting feature of Spain’s defensive shape was the deliberate positioning of Fernando Torres to block off passes to left-sided centre-back Matthew Spiranovic, forcing all of Australia’s build-up play down their right-hand side. Del Bosque obviously identified Spiranovic as a stronger passer than Alex Wilkinson (which is true) and Torres did a good job simply sitting close to him. A common pattern of play was Wilkinson receiving the cross-field pass, having significantly more time on the ball than Spiranovic, but eventually pressed by Iniesta, forcing him into a long, inaccurate forward pass.
Australia tried to work around this by dropping Jedinak (and McKay to a lesser extent) into space between the centre-backs, but in general their possession play was simply poor – too many misplaced passes, with Bozanic primarily linking the side with his energy, rather than his distribution.
At half-time, Postecoglou brought on Ben Halloran, a substitute in all three games at this World Cup, for Taggart (who’d barely been involved). Up against a new opponent, Alba was still excellent – also sticking tight to Halloran, and preventing him from turning on the ball and running at the defence, meaning Australia encountered similar problems in the second period as they did in the first.
Furthermore, the Socceroos again started the half at a high tempo, but Spain were comfortable playing around this pressure, and settled into their rhythm. It’s symptomatic of the Postecoglou era, and that initial early burst before a prolonged fade has been a recurring feature of his tenure (evident against Ecuador, South Africa, Croatia and the Netherlands). A second, eventually scored by Torres, felt inevitable, and unsurprisingly came in that right-back zone, Australia’s clear area of weakness.
There was little to comment on in terms of changes, even though two substitutes, Mata and Fabregas, combined for the third goal. Bresciano, on for Bozanic, improved the quality of the passing, but by then the game felt well and truly over.
A game that perhaps belies analysis given the context, but still revealing in demonstrating Australia’s reliance on Cahill for goals (as well as his ability to hold the ball up and relieve pressure). It also demonstrated the importance of Bresciano, who is a more natural fit for that number ten role in this particular system. That’s hardly surprising, given those two are Australia’s best players, but with only a few half-chances from set-pieces and shots from range, the lack of incisiveness here was particularly obvious.
That’s largely because Postecoglou, for all his emphasis on the generational transition and looking to the future, has still been pragmatic in his approach – playing to the strengths of Cahill, and building the side around early crosses and quick, direct attacking down the flanks. The challenge now is to remodel the side towards a more multi-faceted approach, and having had the benefit of a ‘honeymoon’ period at this World Cup, must turn performances into results at both the Asian Cup and the 2018 qualification pathway.
Here, though, at the end of an encouraging World Cup, the story was about Spain’s possession, especially after they shrugged off Australia’s early pressure at the start of both halves. The minor tweaks to the positioning of Torres and Villa, as well as Alba’s assertive defending, were important, but more crucial was Spain’s simple superiority, demonstrated by the quality of their goals.