England’s surprise victory over European and World Champions Spain certainly came as a shock, even to the most loyal fan. It had been billed as a question of how many Spain could score against the hapless and much maligned English side. Although England managed to hang on for a well deserved victory the game could easily have been won by the visitors if they have not been so profligate in front of goal.
The opening few minutes set the scene for the remainder of the game. The home side were effectively stuck in their own half with only a long thump enough to give them much needed respite. The superior Spaniards were playing tika-taka almost at will; but, were not really threatening the keeper Joe Hart. The way England played was very reminiscent of how Switzerland played against Spain at Euro 2008; they stuck men behind the ball and smothered the central midfield.
For all the sublime control and technique on display it resulted in very little end product. Although the ball was moving around crisply there was little incisive play from the Spaniards. Occasionally an opening would appear but either the pass would be misdirected or an English defender would eventually fill the gap. What Spain needed was the dynamism and acceleration of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.
Having watched Barcelona on numerous occasions in recent years it became evident that it was going to be one of those nights for Spain. David Villa is not quite on top form, Fernando Torres is still trying to get back to where he was and even David Silva did not look like the player who has destroyed the Premier League thus far this season. The ball was not being passed at enough pace, there was not enough off the ball running and the incisive passing we see so often was not finding the player often enough.
What separates Messi and Ronaldo in modern football is their initial acceleration away from the first defender. Once Messi has received a pass he is looking to beat the nearest opponent and run into space where he is at his most dangerous. The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger spoke of Messi after his side had been hammered in the Camp Nou two years ago and said he had never seen a player who could change direction at such speed and remain in complete control of the ball. It is this unique ability that makes these two players stand out from everyone else in the world and is exactly what Spain were lacking.
The slump in form and morale of Fernando Torres could actually hurt Spain more than Chelsea in some senses. David Villa is still the best finisher around in my humble opinion but since his move to Barcelona he has become more of a player than the ruthless striker of old. The side missed someone who could run on and break the line, rather than looking for another pass. What Torres did give them, once he came on, was that option and it was no coincidence that suddenly they improved - although with time running down it was likely they would step it up too.
It is often slightly ridiculous to criticise sides that have been as successful as Spain have in recent years but they must retain their ruthless streak if they are to remain on top. The same criticism can be levelled at Barcelona and it is why Real Madrid now find themselves in pole position in Spain. They will increasingly come up against sides that have set up to defend deep for 90 minutes and the key is getting beyond that. There is no doubting the fact that Spain will be one of the serious contenders for the European Championships next summer but they have to forget they don’t have a Messi or Ronaldo in the side.