For the last four years, Spain have not only been the best national team on the planet—winning both the Euro 2008 tournament and the 2010 World Cup—but they've dominated international competition with a grace and flair akin to some of the great Brazilian teams of yesteryear. Winning is one thing, but winning with style can make teams legendary.
There is a fluidity and artistry amidst the Spanish ranks that seamlessly balance the most beautiful aspects of the game with an understated dominance over the rest of the world. Spain came into the Euro 2012 tournament as the team to beat (though to be fair, they were somewhat of a "co-favorite" with Germany). The world not only expected wins, but beautiful wins to boot.
Something seems a bit off. Heading into their quarterfinal match against France, Spain seems undeniably beatable—and maybe a little boring.
This Spanish side seems far less dominant than in years past. The fluidity has begun to stagnate. Teams are figuring them out, and the reaction has led to a bit of an artistic quagmire for long stretches of play.
To be fair, Spain were still somewhat dominant in the group stage, winning Group C with relative ease after a 1-1 draw with Italy, a 4-0 destruction of Ireland and a 1-0 victory over Croatia that seemed much closer than it needed to be. The group stage almost felt like Spain knew it could advance into the quarterfinals at half speed, not wanting to exert too much energy or give away too many secrets before playing the games that really matter.
By the numbers, Spain stood out as one of the class teams of the early stages of the tournament. They are tied with France for the tournament lead in shots per game with 20.3, a stat that is incredible to believe if you actually watched their three matches that left fans begging players to shoot more.
According to UEFA's numbers, Spain have put 39 attempts on target in three matches, scoring more goals in open play (five) than any other nation. Spain's possession, via whoscored.com, is a ridiculous 70.3 percent, 11 percent higher than the next most possessive team.
Always known for their passing prowess, the Spanish pass rate is at 89.8 percent, also tops in the tournament. They've completed more than twice as many through balls per game as the next best team in the tournament (18 per game over three matches) and have a ridiculous 699 short passes per game.
Think about that number: Spain are averaging a flick under 700 passes per game, nearly 200 more per game than France, who sit in second on the list at 501.
Those 700 passes per game average out to nearly eight passes per minute over the course of 90 minutes. If you factor in the 70 percent possession, Spain control the ball for an average of 63 minutes per match and pass the ball 11 times for every minute they maintain control.
The thing about all those passes? Most of them don't really go anywhere.
Sergio Busquets: "Oh look, I have the ball. You take it."
Xavi: "No, you take it."
Busquets: "No, no, I insist, you take it."
Xavi: "Let's ask Iniesta if he'll take it."
Andres Iniesta: "No thanks, you can have it."
Busquets: "Has anyone seen Xabi Alonso?"
Xabi Alonso (yawning): "Oh, are you guys ready to advance the ball up the field? Okay then."
(Xabi Alonso gathers the ball from Busquets and promptly passes back to Sergio Ramos, who passes over to Alvaro Arbeloa, who leaves it for Xavi, who drops to Busquets.)
Busquets: "You guys ready to start now?"
(Busquets sends a drop pass back to Iker Casillas. Rinse. Repeat.)
The Spanish control and midfield dominance can lull teams to sleep, which is when they traditionally pounce. The thing is, with this Spanish team, they've been doing far more lulling and not enough pouncing.
Despite leading the tournament in shots per game, they have lacked that killer instinct up front for much of the tournament. David Villa's absence has already impacted the Spanish attack, so much so that manager Vicente del Bosque has employed a possession-oriented, attack-averse 4-6-0 formation at key moments in the tournament.
The Spanish finishing rate is completely skewed by scoring four goals against an overmatched Ireland team. In the two tougher matches in the group stage, Spain managed just two goals on 32 attempts, 19 of which were on target.
As the competition gets better, the game plan for Spain will likely stay the same. Possession is the key to winning, because if one team has the ball, the other team certainly cannot score.
The odd thing is even if Spain decide to break out the cones and run a few passing drills in the middle of the match against France, totally ignoring the fact there's a goal they should be trying to score on, the strategy is still, in a way, an offensive mentality.
Playing a high-level brand of "keep-away" can frustrate the opponent into over-committing on defense, which leads to fouls in the offensive third or defenders being pulled out of position, leading to open lanes toward the goal.
If passing and patience are the goals for Spain, the system works. (Some may suggest that actual goals should be one of the goals for Spain.) To win a tournament like the Euro, you don't have to be pretty (just ask Greece in 2004); you just need to be effective. Teams do not get extra points for style, so as boring as the Spanish possession game can be, it probably won't change unless one of their opponents can make them change.
How can a team force Spain to change their style? The game plan for France, or any future opponent for Spain, is as simple as it is impossible: Score first.
If a team can capitalize on the limited time of possession Spain give them and put an early goal into the net, Spain will be forced to get more aggressive down the field, leading to more attacking play and, by nature of the pace of the game, more turnovers.
The frustrating thing for fans, and the scary notion for opponents, is that Spain seem to be able to turn it on whenever they want. When Italy scored first in the group-stage opener, it took just three minutes for Spain to equalize. While Spain needed just a tie against Croatia to advance to the knockout stage, they played nearly the entire match for a 0-0 draw before putting away an 88th-minute winner that seemed too easy for them to have waited so long to score.
Perhaps Spain's own brilliance has gotten in the way of our enjoyment watching them. We expect them to play a fluid, attacking 90 minutes because that's the way they have played for the last four years.
The 2010 World Cup Final was a difficult match to watch because the Netherlands grinded play down and bottled up any chance at fluidity for Spain. It was the only way the Dutch could stay close to Spain, and turning the match into a 90-minute grind was the best hope for anyone to keep it close, let alone win.
In the end, yes, Spain won the match and hoisted another trophy, but the victory came at what cost? Teams have figured out how to play Spain—being overly physical and grinding the game down to a halt. Spain's response has been to employ even more patience, playing an hour and a half of keep-away and waiting for the right second to strike.
That may be the effective strategy to employ as the Euro Cup reaches the knockout phase, but it has made for some really boring soccer. Who thought, heading into this tournament, we would ever be saying that about Spain?