Welcome back to another instalment in our analytical and tactical dive ahead of the 2014 FIFA World Cup, as we take a look at each nation in turn to assess their hopes and fortunes in the tournament.
This time up it's the twice-European and reigning World Cup champions Spain, who will, as has become the norm over the last six years, be one of the heavy favourites to land the prestigious and famous trophy. Can they win an unprecedented fourth major tournament title in a row?
Spain were handed a spot in the smallest UEFA zone group, with just four other opponents. It all looked rather straightforward for the most part, with Finland, Georgia and Belarus hardly a match for Spain's all-conquering talents—but the inclusion of France in the group provided an interesting matchup.
France were certainly not the power of the late '90s, but plenty of talent in the squad meant it was a game that Spain couldn't afford to slip up in.
Spain opened with consecutive away fixtures and picked 1-0 and 4-0 wins at Georgia and Belarus respectively. The home and away games against France were naturally expected to decide the order at the top of the group—and a late Olivier Giroud goal in Madrid handed France a 1-1 draw, bringing up the first questions of whether the desire and ability truly remained with this Spanish squad.
Those questions weren't exactly answered in style in Spain's next match, as they were also held 1-1 at home by Finland.
Centre-back Sergio Ramos scored both of Spain's goals in those draws, raising further discussion over the strikers at Spain's disposal and their tiki-taka style of football, as France went two points clear in the group at this stage.
However, the next game was the reverse fixture between the two—and Spain came up trumps with a 1-0 away win in Saint-Denis. With the group back in their own hands, Vicente del Bosque's charges saw out the campaign in relative comfort, beating Finland 2-0 away, before finishing up with 2-1 and 2-0 home wins over Belarus and Georgia respectively to top Group I by three points.
Formation and Style
Spain is tiki-taka. Ever since Euro 2008, that's the association with the national side: Passing, methodical football, domination of play by possession and consistently, constantly pulling teams around and awaiting the chance to strike.
The great technical level of the squad enables the side to put hundreds and hundreds of passes together in a game without allowing the opposition time to rest, physically or mentally, for fear of being split apart by an incisive through pass or a quick-moving attack involving three or four players.
Along with passing, movement and rotation of position are essential to their ability to carve open defences and create opportunities, with the three or four most attacking players repeatedly asked to interchange, drop deep, open spaces behind themselves or make short sprints in behind the opposition defence. Off the ball, Spain are asked to press in a high block initially, before getting numbers back into position in their own half of the field.
Inevitably, they regain possession more by outnumbering opponents than anything else; unwilling to commit numbers forward and expose themselves to Spain's counter-attack, opposition forwards end up trying to beat the entire defence one or two against five, failing miserably, and so the passing phase begins again.
A repetitive, endless cycle of ball retention is labelled boring by some and the height of footballing sophistication by others.
Wherever you stand on the debate, there is no arguing with the fact that Spain's superior ability on the ball has brought unprecedented success to the nation in the football arena.
In terms of their formation, Spain play in a fairly settled manner, though their midfield shape is open to change.
A back and a front three give the base, while the central midfield most often features a double pivot with one further ahead, though Xabi Alonso's injury absence this season saw del Bosque change that to one controller and two pressing higher.
The forwards can also alter vastly; two inside creative players and a central striker has been frequently seen (the Iniesta-Villa-Silva attack, for instance), while the use of Jesus Navas brings a more direct threat in the wide areas. Operating with the now-fabled "false nine" has drawn criticism and acclaim in almost equal measures, with Spain featuring Cesc Fabregas as a withdrawn centre-forward by himself, asking him to move around and create spaces for the plethora of attacking midfielders to take advantage of.
There is so much competition, so much quality and such depth in almost every area of the midfield and attack that del Bosque can change things at will without losing any tactical or technical advantage.
Reasons for Hope
They are Spain; Spain win.
That's the biggest reason for hope. A fantastic winners' mentality, borne of players' success at Real Madrid, Barcelona, foreign teams and the national team over the past decade, has utterly transformed Spain's success on the international stage.
Players go into games now expecting to win, completely at odds with the sporting mentality of "quarter-finals and bust" of the early 2000s and beforehand.
As for the players themselves, the list of world-class talent is endless: Xavi, David Silva, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso...any and all would likely make the starting XI for most other World Cup nations. Some might not even start for Spain.
Reasons for Concern
There are two, in principle: The back and the front of the team.
Carles Puyol's impending exit from Barcelona and lack of fitness means he will not be a starting centre-back, but Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos is a more-than-adequate pairing. Behind them, though, Iker Casillas—though still a top-class keeper—will be heading into the tournament after 18 months of sitting on the bench at Real Madrid.
Champions League action has kept him getting some game time at least, but even if Madrid go all the way to the final, that's barely more than a dozen games for the season.
At the other end, decisions need to be made over strikers. Diego Costa is a man in form, but he is inexperienced at international level and in the team setting of the national side, having switched from Brazil to Spain this year finally.
Alvaro Negredo is struggling for form after a good start to the season, Roberto Soldado and Fernando Torres appear finished at the top level and David Villa is presently in and out of the Atletico Madrid side. That leaves Juventus forward Fernando Llorente to call on, unless faith is kept with Negredo, alongside Costa. If del Bosque picks a third striker, it will surely be Villa, for his goal record and experience, but using Cesc as a third forward looks more likely.
The only other concern has to be longevity. How much longer can this side keep winning?
Conclusions and Predictions
It's almost impossible to not see Spain getting through a group comprising of Netherlands, Chile and Australia at the World Cup finals, even though it is a difficult Group B and at least two of those other sides will have designs on reaching the knock-outs.
Really, del Bosque doesn't have to do much other than keep his squad focused and ensure they keep doing that which has served them so well over the last three major tournaments.
Key, as ever, will be in team selection and in-game management; there will undoubtedly come a point when some side frustrates Spain, defends well and takes the lead themselves. How they react then will dictate how far they go this time.
Prediction: Finalists of the 2014 FIFA World Cup