Are Spain trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

The Spanish national team has been known since 2008 for producing one of the finest generation of midfielders in the history of the game. Indeed, they have even been known to field the six-man midfield in the absence of a striker. The absence of a target man has been so conspicuous that many forget that the Spaniards also boast the most depth in that position. The competition for the Spanish number 9 jersey is so fierce that four of the five top choices made big summer moves to get more exposure during this World Cup year.

That’s why it’s so shocking to see Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque courting La Liga’s early season revelation: Atletico Madrid’s Brazilian star Diego Costa. Long gone are the days when Spain lacked the depth of talent to resort to calling up the likes of Juan Antonio Pizzi and Marcos Sena. Conversely, Brazil may be underrated, but no one would call this a Golden Generation where second tier strikers would take their chances abroad.

Is the Spanish manager serious? Is it possible Spain are trying to keep Diego Costa from Brazil?

Spain’s next number 9? Image: Carlos Delgado

 

The Decline of the top two choices

Spain’s record scorer David Villa and his strike partner/replacement Fernando Torres have not been at their best in the four years since the last World Cup. Part of this is due to age, Villa is 32 in December, and injuries have hampered both he and Torres. Both have suffered for form due to a lack of continuity in recent seasons, and while each is still capable of genius in the course of a full season, few would start them regularly in a seven game tournament.

The ones who left the League

Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo, and Roberto Soldado each left La Liga with the latter two making public statements that it was impossible to win the league without joining one of the big two. So far Llorente has mostly been a bust at Juventus, but the season is long and while Negredo seems to have a place sealed, a lot can happen over the course of the year to change that.

Spain have taken three target men to each of their last three successful tournaments: Euro 2008, WC 2010, and Euro 2012. One could argue that it’s time for the two historic starters to step aside, but Del Bosque will probably only sacrifice one, leaving two open spots for three players. This is where Costa comes in.

Diego Costa, Spain’s gain or Brazil’s loss?

Diego Costa has been a revelation in La Liga this season. He is in the form of his life, and while most in their right mind would not rate him anywhere near the level of talent and experience his Spanish counterparts, he has something none of his competitors can offer. Costa is a master of controlling the temperature of a match, the conductor of an orchestra of chaos on the pitch that can get under the skin of impressionable opponents and can be used to manipulate the referee.

When he is at his best, Diego Costa is the perfect foil to the otherwise typical narrative most Spain games take; with one-sided domination of the ball rubbing up against a 10 man wall of defenders outside of their 18-yard box. But more importantly, he is the perfect weapon against a team with more energy than Spain. The Confederations Cup final saw Brazil simply outwork Spain physically.

In Costa, Del Bosque has the kind of player that can neutralize the work of both teams and turn the game into a personal contest between himself, his markers, and the ref. So for a side that has one old guard, one upstart, and one empty spot, Del Bosque may choose the unconventional pick, the specialist, for a role that arguably needs less depth than we may have originally thought.

Either that or Del Bosque terrified of facing a Brazil featuring Diego Costa. If Costa is not called up for the final 23, we can assume the move was to keep him from Scolari’s squad. But if he is called up, he probably won’t start, but will be a specialist on the bench for emergency situations, or the eventual matchup with Brazil.

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Is the three-man defense coming back?

Introducing 3manDefense: The name of this blog comes from my favorite formation and personal conviction that the best football is played in the midfield possession game. As a formation that takes a man from defense and adds one to the midfield, the three-man defense makes a lot of sense. Yet given recent trends that have seen the three-man defense decline in popularity, as well as the difficulty of its reintroduction by ambitious tacticians like Mancini, it is quite rare to see the managers of top sides field this formation.

A decade ago, Marcelo Bielsa used two wing-backs in the midfield for Argentina in Zanetti and SorĂ­n, who would dutifully drop back depending on which side was being attacked. More recently, the current Athletic Bilbao coach has switched to a back four but uses midfielders in the back line, a move mimicked by Barcelona under Guardiola and currently under Tito. Van Gaal’s storied Ajax from the mid 90s used no wingbacks, but rather played Frank Rijkaard as an advanced central defender. The flexibility of the three-man defensive formation is adjustable to the personnel and takes advantage of dynamic players.

One recent example was seen in the second leg of the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 between hosts Barcelona and AC Milan. It was one of the most compelling matches in this edition of the tournament because Barcelona had played predictably in the first leg and lost 0-2 in Milan. With their backs against the wall after an elimination at the hands of Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey as well as a league loss at the Bernabeu, many asked if Barcelona’s season was unravelling incredibly after an undefeated first half. Barcelona have been less tactically ambitious under Tito Vilanova/Roura (more on that in a future post) but fielded a formation nearly identical to the three-man defense Pep Guardiola played against the same team last year and won emphatically with a one-sided score of 4-0.

Barcelona’s recent 3-4-3 against Milan

It’s debatable whether this is actually a three-man defense or just an admission that Alves is not a defender, but either case supports my point that more sides can play it, and many already do. Moving a wing-back forward in a tactical drawing is one way to start, but the idea that the wing-back is a flexible position that already spends most of his time attacking and defending in his opponents half shows that sides in need of goals can opt for the three-man defensive line if they can utilize the talents of wide or central defenders that feel comfortable in multiple positions on the pitch.

Barcelona’s victory last month was not directly due to the back line of the formation, but rather to the inclusion of the criminally underused David Villa and the phenomenal high pressure Barcelona applied in Milan’s half after losing the ball. Yet, it’s nice to see the good old three-man defense in action.

My idea with this blog is not to solely cover my favorite formation, but rather to pay tribute to the beautiful game and its protagonists. I closely follow several domestic leagues, continental leagues, and international tournaments and will use this site as an outlet for my thoughts. I am also a big fan of football history and will on occasion blog about great players, coaches, and plays from the history of the game. I hope you enjoy.