This was an upset that absolutely no one thought would happen, except, perhaps, for Switzerland’s veteran German coach Ottmar Hitzfeld, who has, as they say, seen it all, or at least he’s seen the film of how the United States beat Spain last summer in the Confederations Cup. His surprisingly simple game plan gave the world a blueprint to beat the European champions. Journalists like the venerable @sidlowe are saying that Switzerland’s goal was “absurdly silly and fortunate,” but France went down to such a goal against Senegal and never recovered in 2002. It looked unlucky at the time, but seems indelible in retrospect.
Because Spain’s football is considered the standard for beauty, symmetry and international poetry, watching the Swiss defend them out of the match was a little like watching Republicans outmaneuver Harry Reid. It simply isn’t fair! Still, Spain will have to be more than poster children for liberal self-congratulation in their next game. They will have to adjust. Here are five issues Spain will have to understand if they are going to survive what is now a very tricky group:
Switzerland played Spain very narrow and took away the eye-of-the-needle through balls and little angles favored by the champions of Europe. A good way to understand how they foiled Spain’s lolcats is to consider the performance of midfielder Andreas Iniesta.
Among obsessive fans, Iniesta is one of the world’s most revered players. His exceptional close control, incredible technique, flawless passing, great positional sense and movement set him apart from every other midfielder in the world, except his teammates Xavi Hernandez and David Silva. Everyone who knows the game respects him. He is a living treasure of Catalunya.
But Iniesta, for all his greatness, isn’t a winger, though his manager, Vicente Del Bosque, is playing him there to fit him into the team. All game long, Iniesta chased rolling balls into space against taller, stronger, faster defenders who pushed him around with diabolical glee and confidence that grew as the game went on and they saw how ineffective he could be. At his club, Barcelona, he always receives the ball in stride, with defenders on his hip, and weaves between them, makes a pass and finds more space. Today, he was shunted to a corner and physically punished; his lack of size and strength worked against him, for once. He rolled around a lot and had a sad. It seemed he wanted to go home.
Jesus Navas came on late in the match and fared much better. Although he, too, is small, he’s a natural winger, and used to navigating corners in ways that Iniesta isn’t. His crosses were dangerous; he changed the game. More of that.
How To Fix The Problem: Bench the insipid Sergi Busquets, put Xavi in his place next to Xabi, start Jesus Navas or Juan Mata on a wing, and play Iniesta in the middle, where he belongs. The presence of natural wingers will give the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and David Silva room to construct their precious little snowflakes.
The Torres Injury
I have already exhausted every known superlative. But Fernando Torres really is the best center forward in the game when he is healthy. He is tall, very fast, and has courage and technique, but the human body isn’t meant to do what his can do, and Torres is healthy about as often as Andrew Bynum. His knee has been reconstructed twice in less than a year.
A healthy Torres would have scored at least one time today, and would probably have terrorized the Swiss into capitulating. He really is that good.
How To Fix The Problem: Spain have no choice but to hope he plays himself back into shape.
Right back Sergio Ramos is an excellent athlete: tall, broad, very fast and nimble, and starved for glory. But his judgment is hilariously bad, and he is somehow involved in every Spanish gaffe; he is the author of every groan. This was especially true today, when Spain needed width, but he kept wasting the ball and getting caught out of position. He is the least disciplined player on the team, and a disaster waiting to happen.
How To Fix The Problem: Hang on for dear life? Play Carles Puyol at right back? Tell him to pass more accurately or not cross the center line?
The Confidence/Arrogance Binary
Spain deserved to be the favorites in this tournament. At their peak, they play some of the finest, most beautiful football ever seen, and that is not an exaggeration. But they were unprepared today, and arrogant. Center half Gerrard Pique spent more time showboating in Switzerland’s penalty box than he did defending his own, so it wasn’t a surprise that his lack of concentration helped to gift the Swiss a goal. Now, Pique has incredible technique for a defender, and almost scored a fabulous goal, which is to be commended, certainly, but the Swiss scored instead, and, if Spain go out too early, people are going to wonder why their best defender didn’t bother to do his job.
All of which is to say that Spain aren’t going to win because they have a lovely reputation. They need to buckle down. They beat the bigger, clumsy Germans in the final of 2008, who were way, way better than the Swiss; they specialize in making other teams look helpless. They can do this if they want to.
Until they won the European Championship in 2008, Spain were known as terminal underachievers. They had the talent, but not the hunger. Another result like today’s will make 2008 look like an outlier.