False-starting 11: Where Del Bosque went wrong in the Confederations Cup Final

Spain vs. Brazil in the Confederations Cup Final 2013

While hindsight is 20/20, the normally astute Vicente Del Bosque underestimated the threat Felipao’s Brazil posed and did not start the right side or make the correct substitutions. I wrote at the start of the tournament that 22nd ranked Brazil were criminally underrated and it didn’t take long to see why.

The absence of Xabi Alonso: Brazil out-press Spain

The absence of Spain’s talismanic double pivot through injury was not just a missing place in the roster, it was also missing from the pitch. Del Bosque went decidedly Barça with his lineups in this tournament, fielding the classic Busquets-Xavi-Iniesta triangle and opting not to straight-sub Alonso with Javi Martinez, but rather just erasing the position altogether.

This allowed for an arguably more offensive lineup, but opened up Spain to same physical out-matching Barça went through against Bayern in the Champions League semifinal. I had indeed suggested that to patch defensive holes, Barça should consider returning to a double pivot. Alonso and Busquets had been the key ball-winners for a Spain that played with high-pressure. Today that system failed and they were handed a defeat to remarkably similar to Barcelona’s drubbing in the Champions League. They gave the ball away and let Brazil, mostly through Neymar, run riot on the counter as Robben had months before.

Whereas Martinez could have matched the tenacious physicality of his counterparts Paulinho and teammate Luis Gustavo, Mata was all but erased from the match by Brazil’s tenacious defending, which was the key factor to their winning this tournament.

The use of the Chelsea boys nullified by tactical fouls

Del Bosque clearly wanted to make use of a dynamic duo in Chelsea teammates Juan Mata and Fernando Torres, but the gambit failed when Spain were unable to create situations for either player. Brazil switched between pressuring Spain’s build-up play in their own half, with Oscar, Hulk, and Neymar sprinting at and almost invariably fouling Iniesta, Xavi, and Busquets and pressuring Spain in the final third with Alves (7 fouls), Gustavo, Paulinho, and Marcelo also tactically fouling as far from the box as possible.

Brazil committed a staggering 26 tactical fouls and were not cautioned once, which if not for home field advantage would normally raise an eyebrow. Spain saw yellows to Arbeloa and Ramos in the first half, and Pique saw straight-red for Spain’s tactical fouls when Brazil slipped through a high-line midfield that had broken down by Brazil’s pressing.

The energy of Brazil’s midfield came from settling their semifinal in regular time as well as their squad’s home field advantage playing in the heat (and not to mention in front of their fans). But there energy was not superhuman. They ingeniously kept up their rate of pressing by alternating between compressing small spaces on different parts of the pitch, rotating different personnel to do so and resting with the ball by at times keeping it away from Spain. The final possession was only 52-48 in favor of Spain (though was closer to 60-40 for most of the match).

Brazil shorten the time as well as space

Apart from comprehensively compressing the space Del Bosque’s men had to play in, Felipao’s men also compressed the time, using similar tactics to Simeone in pressuring intensely at the beginning and particularly at the end of each half. Ultimately a first minute goal in each half, and a last-minute goal in the first half were, coupled with a goal-line clearance and a missed penalty were what did Spain in with a scoreline that flattered Brazil. But Del Bosque didn’t correctly anticipate Brazil’s pressing and two straight subs and the introduction of Jesus Navas were not enough to overturn a poorly chosen first eleven.

Del Bosque arguably should have played Cesc Fabregas as a false nine, and Javi Martinez as a double pivot to load the midfield with strong passers, outnumbering Brazil’s markers and stretching out the space their defensive line had to cover. It may have pushed Brazil back further and made for a more monotonous and lower scoring game, but would also have given Spain the chance to keep the sheet clean for longer.

See you in 2014

And so David beat Goliath in a reverse Maracanazo, and did so with a 22nd ranked arguably pedestrian side. What does this mean for next year’s tournament? It means that Felipao has found his midfield, has always had his defense, and plans to launch an assault with these and other rich talents for Brazil’s sixth World Cup. But Spain remain dangerous, and Italy and Uruguay showed that they are also here to play. Get the usual suspects like Argentina and Germany on board with respective imminent qualification for both and we could have the makings of a classic tournament in Brazil in 2014.

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