Spain’s defeat to Chile and elimination from the World Cup is surely the end of this Spanish side’s unbelievable reign. By the Euros in 2016, the Spanish team will likely include a majority of younger players and the pillars that built Spain into European and World champions will be far gone. Everyone involved with the team over the last 6 years should be praised, remembered, and immortalized.
The blame for Spain’s early departure and embarrassment is not solely on Del Bosque. The players themselves were far too complacent and didn’t work hard enough on the pitch to warrant positive results. Further, Spain could point to a myriad of factors— the weather, luck, environment, injuries (Thiago Alcantara could have helped) — that contributed to their demise. However, Del Bosque’s decisions before and during the tournament were the major factor in Spain’s disastrous Cup and consequently, the end of its title run.
Most importantly and inexplicable, was Del Bosque decision to ditch the strategy—possession based football— that turned Spain into champions for what seemed like a strategy of counterattacking through long balls. Spain’s recent success came from the implementation of Barcelona’s tiki-taki tactics. By using Barcelona’s exceptional midfielders, Spain controlled possession and therefore, the game. And through creating space, players making dangerous forward runs, and perfectly timed passes (helped through the familiarity of the players being club teammates) Spain broke down opponents and scored at optimal times. For some reason, Del Bosque decided to drop this successful approach for a strategy that was unsuitable for Spain’s skill set— quick counters with long balls. The results were predictably negative.
Additionally, beyond the possession based strategy playing to Spain’s strength, it also helped to cover up Spain’s major weakness—its lack of pace in the back. Using tiki-taki, Spain helped to protect its defense by never letting their opponents have time on the ball which would allow them to exploit Spain’s defenders. However, in this tournament Spain seemed more than willing to give up the ball by just booting it almost aimlessly downfield. This put Spain’s defense under constant pressure and forced them to react rather than impose. Thus, both The Netherlands and Chile were able to make dangerous runs and put balls into space where Spain’s lack of speed (and inability to recover) allowed both teams to score.
Moreover, it is now clear that Del Bosque’s decision to not only take Diego Costa but start him in both games was a mistake. Before Spain’s roster was announced, I wrote that Spain may benefit by leaving Costa back in Spain. The argument was simple; playing Costa upfront would more than likely force Spain to ignore what made them successful—working through the midfield. This was evident throughout both of Spain’s games as the defenders constantly bypassed the midfield with long balls directed at Costa. When Costa couldn’t win the ball (which was often) Spain would be out of position and their opponents were able to counterattack dangerously by exploiting Spain’s inability to close down on the ball and their lack of pace. And in the rare time when Costa did win the ball, he had no support as the rest of Spain was still in the defensive third. Consequently, Costa could be easily dispossessed and Spain was unable to create constant attacking pressure on the opponents (something their possession based tactics were famous for).
Further, because Spain seemed adamant on quickly sending the ball to Costa (who was largely ineffective), Spain’s best players became invisible. Spain has arguably the best midfielders in the world and yet throughout their first two games, rarely did Spain’s midfield seem to be active on the pitch and combining for passes. Something that Spain became Spain’s trademark—triangles of Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, Silva, and Cesc throughout the field moving the ball around— were nonexistent. How a manager can field a team of the best midfielders in the world and then actively set a strategy (based around Costa) that makes them redundant is beyond reason.
By including Costa Del Bosque turned his back on what made Spain World and European Champions. Thus, the inclusion of Costa in the squad and his selection to start both games was a complete failure. (If anything, Costa should have been used as a substitute near the end of matches to offer a new threat in the final third).
The reasons why Del Bosque decided to switch strategies is unknown. Obviously the coach has more information than outsiders, but still his decision to change what made the team great is vexing. The weather in Brazil is hot and heavy, so a possession based game would have kept Spain fresh while tiring out their opponent. Further, playing against a team like Chile, which was a large fan presence at the game, holding possession could have helped calm the crowd down and take some wind out of Chile’s sail. Instead, Del Bosque decided to try a completely different approach on the eve of the biggest tournament in the world and failed miserably.
Would Spain have done better if it stuck with the strategy that had made them Champions? Who knows, but they couldn’t have done worse. When a team crashes out of the World Cup in an embarrassing fashion like Spain has, there is always plenty of blame to go around and Del Bosque shouldn’t be used as the scapegoat (and needs to be remembered for the success and mindset he brought to the national team) to brush aside all the problems facing the Spanish team. The Spanish Federation needs to analyze what happened over the last two weeks and work hard to overcome their weaknesses and decide the best approach for the future.
However, it is the coach’s job to make the decisions to give the team the best possible chance to win. Before Brazil and during it, Del Bosque failed in that mission. Therefore, the next and last decision he should make for the Spanish national team is to step down.