One of the most eagerly awaited group-stage matches this Euro 2012 ended in a 1-1 draw between Spain and Italy on Sunday night.
The stage was already set for a fascinating tactical matchup from the moment Vicente Del Bosque and Cesare Prandelli announced their starting lineups.
Del Bosque decided to leave out all of his recognized strikers and field six midfielders in a 4-6-0 formation, while Prandelli opted to play AS Roma’s defensive midfielder Daniele De Rossi as a center-back in a 3-5-2 lineup.
As with every formation and tactical setup, Spain’s 4-6-0 brought plenty of intrigue, but it has its weaknesses all the same. And while Italy ended the game with only a point, it is fair to say that they exploited some of Spain’s weaknesses.
Here are seven ways to take advantage of the holes apparent in Spain’s 4-6-0 formation.
By playing De Rossi, a defensive midfielder by trade, in the center of defence, Italy boss Cesare Prandelli was in effect shifting his entire midfield and defensive line back toward his own goal.
This was in clear anticipation of the almost inevitable fact that Spain would dominate possession of the ball in their final third, and by putting most of their players behind the ball, Italy soaked up the passing and attacking pressure presented by Spain.
While Spain’s model clearly has its Barcelona influences, it’s clear that, without a recognized out-and-out attacker, Spain will find it harder to move the ball into the back of the net without a player who can reliably come up with the goods in attack.
Of course, Prandelli came up with a tactical masterstroke in playing De Rossi at the back: It added an extra dimension to the defence, with De Rossi able to contribute his ball-playing qualities from the center of defence.
Six midfielders by nature congest the midfield area already. By adding five more in the center of the park, Italy turned it into a traffic jam for Spain’s approach play.
All six of Spain’s midfielders on Sunday night had positional preferences and tendencies to stay central and attack through the middle.
In a bid to find space to work with, they resorted to sideways passing—a lot of sideways passing—which didn’t seem to work as every player was greeted with a swarm of blue shirts around him.
Spain grew in stature after their goal as they finally started to pile on the pressure, but it is telling that chances only started coming their way once Jesus Navas—a real winger—and Fernando Torres—a real striker—came on and started to break through the congested midfield.
It is plain fact that Spain possess admirable and enviable strength in depth.
The two players that Del Bosque sent on from the bench were timely reminders of the fact that, when things aren’t working out on the pitch, he has more than enough options from his substitutes’ bench.
But that also meant an admission of the fact that his central-midfield-heavy armada didn’t possess a single out-and-out winger or striker—the likes of Navas, Santi Cazorla, Pedro, Torres, Fernando Llorente—that could so easily have notched goals to reflect their dominance in possession.
If Del Bosque opts for a 4-6-0 again, the next tactic to foil Spain’s approach would be to focus attention on impact players.
This comes as a logical progression from the previous two strategies, but would require the addition of fresh defensive legs to deal with the pace and dribbling of Spain’s substitutes.
The idea would thus be to frustrate the substitutes, just as they have frustrated the rest of the starting midfielders.
A further approach designed to frustrate Spain would be to close down all over the pitch.
And not only to close down on those players on the ball, but to maintain a disciplined defensive shape off the ball to limit the space that Spain’s players can exploit by clever running.
This forms a more aggressive second half of this list to complement the more passive defensive approach in the previous three slides.
By constantly chasing and applying pressure on Spain’s midfielders (and there are six of them), other teams would be trying to force mistakes in possession by an accomplished group of world-class players.
A tough, tough task made slightly easier when we consider that none of the six midfielders that started against Italy possess outstanding pace as an individual attribute.
Spain’s midfield can outpass you and wear you out, but it’s not one that can overpower you with physicality, pace and power.
And it is exactly because of this that a physical and dynamic midfielder might be enough to exploit a comparatively slower and more technical midfield base.
As congested as the Spain midfield might be, all it takes is a neat one-two or a fortunate deflection to set an opposing midfielder on the way.
A clear example of how the Spain midfield line can be breached was on show on Sunday when Andrea Pirlo, of all players, broke through with a brilliant turn of pace to set up Antonio Di Natale for the latter’s opening goal.
The beauty of this lies exactly in the fact that most teams in Euro 2012 have more players in this physical ilk than in Spain’s cultured passing style.
Of course, they will need to possess the ball control, dribbling and pace required to instigate a counterattack, but one man is all they would need.
Now we get to the really exciting part: How to beat Spain instead of just forcing draws against them.
While Spain have suffered from a well-known striking shortage, with David Villa injured and Fernando Torres off form, the majority of the pre-tournament hype was centered on the absence of central defensive rock Carles Puyol and how his loss would affect Spain’s hopes this summer.
Without Andoni Iraola and Puyol, Del Bosque started with a makeshift back four of Alvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos and Jordi Alba—not a bad combination at all, but their performance against Italy showed that Spain’s defence can be breached.
Consider Sergio Ramos’ lapse in concentration, which allowed Mario Balotelli to take advantage. Balotelli’s inexplicable dallying on the ball notwithstanding, that could have, and should have, resulted in a goal.
Consider also Spain’s extremely high backline, which Antonio Cassano tried and (ultimately) failed to exploit by adopting an advanced position beyond the halfway line.
A constant high pressure on Spain’s defenders might force them into making a mistake, conceding possession to the forwards in a zone with relatively few Spanish players.
And one mistake is often enough to make a difference in a football match.
And how best to exploit this breachable defence?
A high defensive line; relatively less physical and slower midfielders; defenders who might make mistakes under constant pressure: All of which sets the stage for a quick striker spearheading the attack.
Perhaps it is as important to be positionally aware as it is to be quick.
Di Natale’s exquisite nip in front of the defence to take advantage of a Pirlo through-ball was as exhilarating as his cultured finish at the end of the move.
Explosiveness has always been considered a key attribute in the game.
It might be the attribute that leads to a win against Spain.
Of course, this all makes for perfect talk on paper.
If it were that easy, Spain wouldn’t be the best team in the world, the team that everyone is looking to beat this summer.
But, as Italy showed on Sunday night, Spain can be nullified.
What are your thoughts on the 4-6-0 formation? Will we see it again this summer? What do you think is the best way to counter this strategy? Let us know in the comments below.
If you liked this article, you might also be interested in 5 Unlucky Players to Miss Out on Spain Squad. Stay tuned for extensive Euro 2012 coverage on my Bleacher Report writer’s profile, and please check out my blog, The Red Armchair, for Liverpool opinions and match reactions.