– Is Spain’s defensive, yet effective (at least so far) tiki-taka strategy boring?

– What may be the best strategy for Italy to counter Spain in the Euro 2012 finals?

New ideas. New style of play. New Strategy.

Big soccer competitions (World Cups, etc.) were always won by countries introducing a new way of playing the game. Typically, they take on the strategy in vogue in their club football and present it to the world. Think Spain and Barca.

This year it is the defensive style of Spain. But one inferior to Barcelona. Barca without Messi.

Euro 2012 finals: Spain against Italy

Spain vs Italy: Whose strategy is going to prevail?

What is strategy?

You confront many problems in a soccer match, on the chessboard, in a war. You can try to solve them one by one. Alternatively, you can try to create something that produces solutions to multiple problems. Even keeping problems and the enemy from coming to you! It is a system you call strategy.

Strategy is shaping the opponent in such a way that neutralizes his threats. Something that stops the enemy from attacking you. Ideally, to deter his action altogether and obtain Sun-Tzu’s highest aim—victory without bloodshed.

Space and ball control

At a strategic level soccer is very chess-like. Chess is much about controlling space and the same challenge (in a different form) underlies soccer strategy. The key to success is control of the middlefield. The game can be summed up in a word: control. If your team has the ball, the opponent may cause fewer problems to you. The difficulty resides in the technical ability to exercise that control. And that is exactly what sets Spain apart and contributed to its success in recent years.

So how Spain exercises that control? It fields six midfielders or so in a heavy rotation. They play keep-ball, both as a defensive strategy to deny opponents the opportunity to attack, and as a way of breaking down the organization and concentration of the opposing defense by wearing it down.

Football strategy is chess-like

Soccer and chess share the same universal law of strategy: Almira “Chessbaby” Skripchenko,  a French Grandmaster in chess, is a woman of many talents; here she shows us proper ball (er knight) control

Spain does everything through the ball, rests and defends, including wearing down the opposition. Spain completes more passes than any other team. They have just under 70% ball possession. Also they face fewer shots that anyone. All resulting from their ball and space control.

Says the Spain manager, Del Bosque: “We have based our efficiency on good defensive order.” But not the defense as you know it. There is no digging trenches and resisting the onslaught.

When Spain has the ball the opposition is unable to pose threats, let alone score.

“The team is focused on the importance of defending well,” says Piqué. “We know that if we keep a clean sheet one goal is enough and with the control we have and the chances we create, that goal always arrives.”

But to find a way to attack and hurt opponents is not easy for Spain. It is where Spain has actually failed: to employ a productive striker. Hence, low goals tally. Spain’s approach may be pragmatic, yet what brings soccer sophistication and aesthetic appeal is out. One goal – is this your enjoyment from soccer? Do you really want games ending 1-0 every time?

What Spain is missing is what Messi serves up for Barcelona in front of broadly the same midfield. Take Messi out of the equation, and Barca, too, might struggle for goals.

What is a winning strategy against Spain?

In their matches Spain has played against very deep defenses. Confronted by teams scared of opening up, fearing to attempt anything other than survive, just to stay in the game, protect themselves, and hope.

“Our doubts are traitors, And make us lose the good we oft might win. By fearing to attempt” –Shakespeare

But it did not work. And it never does. If that strategy blunted Spain’s attacking, it has also facilitated its defending — their opponents can attack it less.  Spain have won 16 of 17 competitive games, drawing the only one against Italy in the first round of the Euro 2012.  Teams may succeed in reducing Spain’s chances but they reduce their own — Spain’s ability to protect through possession becomes greater.

Opponents think that they are hurting Spain with such a defensive approach. Wrong. The only team not to lose to them, the only team to score, was the only team that pushed high, attacked them and competed for possession. Italy.

* * *

Your strategy should never passively react to the enemy’s one. It must always be oriented on the opposing strategy to degrade it. In the Euro you have not seen it against Spain yet. Let’s see whether Italy will repeat (improve?) the only effective strategy it used against Spain in the round one. The strategy Sun Tzu taught us 2500 years ago: Fight the enemy’s system! And it is something Italy should definitely try Sunday.


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