Campeones … but for how long?

Whenever Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta retreat to their personal homes, they probably look in amazement at their personal trophy hauls and medal collections. There, right before their eyes lay gold medals for every competitive football competition in which they have ever participated in for Barcelona and Spain at senior level.

Apart, of course, for the FIFA Confederations Cup.

It is that trophy which in these period of dominance, Xavi and Iniesta personally, and Spain collectively, has not acquired. Their only possible outing four years ago in South Africa ended with the surprisingly less glamorous bronze medal.

This could be the year to make things right, and in no country would it be more apt than in Brazil, football’s proverbial spiritual home.

As Spain begin the conquest of the 2013 Confederations Cup, they will do so in the full knowledge that this is the final international competition left in their roster. Indeed, winning this will prove something – that just like Brazil in 1997 and France in 2001, they can hold the continental, world and inter-continental crowns at the same time.

For Xavi and Iniesta, it would complete an otherwise dominant cycle. Beginning in 2008, these two players have won the most important football trophy of the year in every consecutive year since. But whether in this year the Confederations Cup matters more than the Champions League is up for debate – what is not is that it is certainly more important than the La Liga which they cruised to. It would also give them a sense of completion.

That however is not to say that the cycle would be complete, and Spain would rather prefer losing this competition as long as they go on to win the more important one that takes place in Brazil in 12 months’ time.

As a consoling factor, it could be that loss in the Confederations Cup in 2009 led to victory in the World Cup in 2010. Certainly, before that semi-final loss to the USA, Spain had not met a team that was so disciplined and so organised as to allow them to have the ball then catch them on the counter attack. When it again happened a year later in the opening game of the World Cup against Switzerland, La Roja realised they had to adapt. A slight change in tact, from gung ho to patient led to the assuring manner in which they won the trophy in South Africa, even if it went deep into extra time. That same assurance also saw them through a tough Euro 2012.

It could be that lessons learnt from this competition are more valuable than the arrogance earned from its conquest. Certainly, since FIFA began using it as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup in 2001, the winning team has not gone on to produce at similar levels at the major tournament that comes a year later. France failed to score a goal in South Korea and Japan in 2002, Brazil were a shadow of themselves in Germany 2006, while Brazil again seemed to hit a brick wall when finally faced with a team of some quality when they came up against Holland in 2010.  All this was different from the travails these teams had had 12 months’ prior as they had approached the World Cup as Confederations Cup champions.

Somewhat  luckily for Spain, this tournament comes at exactly the right time. Doubts have started creeping in as to their passing philosophy, fatigue is taking its toll, age catching up with their senior players, and a superpower in Germany seems to be waiting on the wings ready to take over the reins of football dominance. Spain’s resolve has not been tested to these extremes in over five years now.

Yet, these are the situations upon which Spain has established its legacy. Whenever there have been doubts about their resolve, or their passing, they have conditioned the wins and broken the records that have left them standing  high above their doubters.

There is however another precarious situation that Spain has not had to contend with before in this period of dominance. Despite the brave faces put up, Jose Mourinho’s destructive ways may have finally found its effects within the Spanish national team. Ironically, the team chemistry is not divided along Barcelona-Real Madrid lines as expected, rather it is the Real Madrid players themselves who are providing the in-fighting. Even up till the end of Jose Mourinho’s career at Madrid, it is believed Xabi Alonso and Raul Albiol stood by him and still approved of his methods. This obviously did not go down well with the hugely popular Iker Casillas and Sergio Ramos, and that has transferred onto the national team with the rest of the squad players siding with the Madrid captain.

Luckily for Vicente Del Bosque, such a drift in the dressing room has been potentially averted with the injury picked up by Alonso thus ruling him out of the squad for the time being. It thus not only gives Del Bosque a chance to put things in order, it also gives him the chance to alter things tactically.

Spain 4-2-3-1
The Double Pivot formation

One of the major criticisms leveled against the Spanish manager has been his use of a double pivot, with both Alonso and Sergio Busquets starting at the base of midfield. Without Alonso, it will be interesting to see what he does. He can elect to stick with the double pivot and introduce Javi Martinez in place of Alonso, or he can go with a 4-3-3 and aim to mirror Barcelona’s three man midfield of Busquets, Xavi and Iniesta. This latter option though comes with a caveat, as it is the fatigued Barcelona players who were destroyed by Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-finals who will be leading this charge.

Yet, one of the main tools that helped Bayern get the better of Barcelona’s midfield was Martinez himself, and to possess the ammunition that could potentially lead to their downfall is a luxury Spain have. Either way, whichever of the two systems Del Bosque uses will provide more fluidity to the rigid approach that has been so effective for them of late.

Barca-like 4-3-3

A third option however may present itself, and it involves going back to the formation that started all this for Spain in 2008. Then, David Silva, Marcos Senna, Xavi and Iniesta all lined up in midfield with Cesc Fabregas deployed just behind Fernando Torres. Now, it would be Busquets in place of Senna and David Villa for Torres. This return to the formation of Luis Aragones would also provide solutions as to Spain’s unbelievable strength in depth. The likes of Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, Jesus Navas, Pedro Rodriguez and even Torres himself from the bench would provide seamless adaptation, as they are far better squad members now than they ever have been by virtue of being starters at big clubs. It could be that Spain’s bench is more powerful than its starting XI this time round and Spain could do with some freshness.

This option, while deviating away from the false nine mode, would also provide David Villa with the chance of final redemption. The soon to be sold Barcelona striker has not been at his best of late (and that broken leg suffered in December 2011 has had a huge say in that) but he remains his country’s record goal scorer.  How long he will remain on the grand stage is a question that seems to point in the negatives rather than the positives, but this would be the chance to prove his undeniable predatory powers once more.

Spain 4-4-1-1
A return to the formation of 2008 (pre-false 9)

With that however, Spain may either be in the midst of a blessing, or a very unlucky turn of events. It is no secret that Spain would want to become the first team since Brazil in 1962 to defend their world crown. Yet if they are to do so, they must, it seems, answer all the questions required of them – beginning with the Confederations Cup.

Winning this may give Spain the impetuous to go on and win next year, or it may produce the sort of complacency that may deprive them. Losing may, as it did in 2009, provide the valuable lessons for a World Cup win, or it may signal the end of a generation by sapping their confidence and in the process allowing other countries to plot their downfall. Whatever happens, Spain are in a precarious position.

It is for this reason that whatever is to become of Spain’s legacy over the next year will hinge mightily on how they answer the questions of the present – and those that will inevitably come in the future.

[It should be noted that Andres Iniesta was ruled out of the 2009 Confederations Cup by injury and thus did not take part. This fact may alter slightly the implications of the opening paragraphs.]

*** As we could not come up with a comprehensive preview of the Confederations Cup ourselves (regrettably), we recommend the Previews done over at superfoota.com ***

[image courtesy of zimbio.com and formations drawn up via footballuser.com]