Friday, 9 July 2010

Thank God for Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan Wilson's tactical survey of the World Cup focusses on Spain, while also reassuring me over my own sanity:

There are those who protest at [Spain's] lack of goals (no side has reached the final scoring fewer) but they are a classic example of a team that prefers to control the game than to become obsessed by creating chances. Perhaps they at times become mesmerised by their passing, perhaps there is even something attritional about it, wearing opponents down until they make the mistake, but it is beautiful attrition. Those who have protested at the modern Holland, and their supposed betrayal of the heritage of Total Football, which is being painted as the ne plus ultra of attacking football, should perhaps look back at the European Cup finals of 1971-73 when Ajax expressed their mastery by holding the ball for long periods. Frankly, if they ever faced a side who took them on rather than sitting eight men behind the ball, we may see a more overtly attacking Spain.

Which brings us to Germany. They too play a 4-2-3-1 and, although Philipp Lahm breaks forward occasionally, theirs is essentially a defensive set-up. Here again goals are the great betrayers; it was bewildering how much praise was heaped on their supposedly fresh, open approach just because they scored four goals in three games. This Germany was superb on the counter-attack, and the interaction of the front four of Miroslav Klose, Thomas Müller, Lukas Podolski and Mesut Ozil was at times breathtaking. But this was reactive football.

In three games, Germany scored an early first goal – against Argentina and England, it was essentially handed to them – and in those games they ruthlessly took advantage of the space opponents left behind them as they chased an equaliser. England, Argentina and Australia all defended idiotically against them, and were severely punished. In the other three games, teams defended decently against them and the early goal didn't arrive surrounded by watercress on a silver salver. In those games Germany managed one goal, and that a wonder-strike from Ozil. Against Spain their poverty of ideas was such they ended up sending the lumbering centre-back Per Mertesacker forward as an auxiliary striker, an idea so bereft of subtlety that the only time I remember it working was when Dennis Smith once sent Gary Bennett forward for Sunderland against Oxford in 1990.

Although incredibly, Wilson's famously encyclopaedic brain has forgotten that putting a centreback upfront almost saw Barcelona through to the European Cup final this year:


  1. "Reactivity, in fact, has been a feature of this World Cup, which is one of the reasons the proactivity of Spain is so welcome" - Jonathan Wilson

  2. Give me Germany's reactivity over Spain's 'pro-activity' any day. Doesn't Spain's intensely self-involved play collapse the reactivity/ proactivity distinction any way?
    And wouldn't the condition for a "more overtly attacking Spain" be that their opponents, like those of Germany, "defend idiotically"?

  3. Interesting reference to Ajax 71-73. The last 15 minutes of the 1972 ECI final does indeed resemble Mark's "big boys won't let the smaller kids play", with Ajax winning 2-0 they endlessly played the ball around with Inter looking totally helpless.

    Of course this famously went wrong in the 1974 World Cup final when Holland immediately went into this mode after the one minute lead. They truly turned sadistic and passed the ball around for half an hour until the German players (if heard Breitner tell this in a documentary) basically said "well, fuck this, were not going to get humiliated at home, whatever the consequences", started to pressure and turned the game around.

    Although I have yelled at the tv sometimes "just score the 2-0 already!" I'm glad Spain don't possess this sadistic streak, the Dutch players did really want to humiliate the Germans (an insane mistake), Spain don't have any historic beef that would short-circuit them (maybe in the 50s England but not now) maybe if they had played Argentina this tournament because of Maradona's obsession with Spain and him talking bollocks all the time.

    There is a sense Spain are made to resemble the CCCP ice hockey team of the 70s (a charge that has been made here in Holland in regards of Ajax in 1995). I wonder how Russians watched/experienced those games.

    Even so, however good Spain are at the moment they can only lay a string of ghosts to rest by winning on Sunday. If you're Spanish you know this (you know the litany by heart that starts with Cardeñosa's missed chance against Brazil in 1978) and this constitutes the real excitement. I repeat: Spain are playing against themselves (which of course is the least boring thing I can think of. :)

  4. Is the point from Wilson not that Germany's reactivity can only take place in certain conditions? i.e. when the other team is chasing the game. Spain have show they can be equally reactive in the same situation (i.e. the last 10 minutes of the final when pedro should have squared to Torres.)

    Really can't fully grasp the disdain for Spain on here . . . the dogma of counter attacking football? A cultural gap (in Spain and Italy etc this sort of engineering of opportunities, slower pace and patience is celebrated)? Or transference of the english love for plucky failure? Player hating?

  5. sorry correction: that should be 'semi-final'

  6. Anonymous
    I just can't agree that they way Spain play is 'pro-active' - seems that, for the most part, the times when they are positive are mainly when they are being 'reactive' - i.e. hitting teams on the break.

    Surely you do actually grasp the disdain, even if you don't share it. I mean, I do see theoretically why people like Spain. It's just that they do in fact bore me.

    Partly, this is a cultural gap for sure. Maybe I'm just unsophisticated, but I confess that I don't much like the slower pace style of football. At the same time, I do think there's a difference between the classic Italian catenaccio style and how Spain play. Catenaccio is much more like the Mourinho (or indeed German) method - concede possession and let teams come on to you and then sucker-punch them.

    And I think it's a false dichotomy to put Spain on the side of attacking football (as opposed to counter-attacking football). They play a kind of possesssion football which is neither attacking nor counter attacking. They're more like a snake that hypnotises its prey then suddenly strikes.

  7. I keep thinking of Ali Vs Foreman, the rope-a-dope... I'll get back to you on that one... for one, I'm not entirely sure which one is Spain...

  8. Oh, I really don't know that I'd characterise the German set up as defensive. And not because I think that "defensive" carries negative connotations. Bearzot's Italy and Mourinho's Inter were defensive, but scored lots of goals and were great to watch. If you watch again the first halves of the games versus England and Argentina, Germany really wasn't that reactive. But they had a particular way of creating counter attacking-like spaces up front even in the absence of an overcommitting opponent that reminded me of Del Neri's legendary Chievo team of 2001.

    (The parallels with that team are very interesting actually: young players playing a strong system and who in the main didn't turn out to be stars when they moved to bigger clubs, much in the way many of the German players don't shine in theirs. But I digress.)

    Germany played a good system, an attacking system, it just proved not to be flexible enough to respond to the way that Spain played. (And I wouldn't characterise Spain as defensive either, mind. Just excruciatingly slow attack, if that makes any sense.)

  9. By the way, don't all these discussions we're having prove what nobody is disputing, namely that the Spain v. Germany game was a bloody classic? Not the kind of game you'd rewatch to get pleasure out of it, which was hardly the case the first time around for me personally, but people will be studying the tape for quite some time I think. And it's not like you can say the same of your average dour, paralised, boring world cup fixture, even at semi-final or final level. So there has to be something in that. Something that will help us think of South Africa 2010 as not having been half bad, I think.

    Also: am I the only one who regrets we can't sublimate all these learned conversations by having a game of actual football? Damn geography.

  10. A classic in the 'let the memories begin!' sense, sure.

    It reminded me of nothing so much as the Zidane film - absorbing and even enlightening in its way, but not something you'd watch again for pleasure, and not a great deal to do with football.