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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How to ironically avoid an all-Spanish final in the Champions League

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr

Photo by cuttlefish via Flickr

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we begin the highly anticipated semifinal round of the Champions League, we see one of the great ironies afforded to us by the beautiful game. The best strategy to beat both Real Madrid and Barcelona is exactly the same. How can it be that the two sides, despite playing such contrasting styles, are essentially interchangeable for their German opponents?

Let’s go over how to beat each team, starting with Real Madrid. Under Mourinho, Real Madrid play a counterattacking game. They absorb pressure very well and transition from defense to attack as quickly as any side in the history of the game. But, for all their strength going forward, their weakness is that they are uncomfortable on the ball and can be effectively countered with their own strategy. In their meetings in the first round late last year, Dortmund, a side otherwise known for keeping possession and applying sustained pressure in their opponents half, outmaneuvered Mourinho by giving his side the ball. The results of being handily out-possessed over two matches was that they won 2-1 in Dortmund, and due to a last-minute game-tying goal were unlucky not to win in Madrid.

In the knockout stages of the Champions League, Manchester United were nearly successful while playing this way, while Galatasaray gave Madrid too much space in the first leg and squandered what could have been a great home win in Istanbul. The strategy of giving Madrid the ball has been applied domestically by several teams in La Liga in this campaign, and has led to Madrid only winning about two-thirds of their games, losing pace very early in the season to their bitter rivals Barcelona.

Barcelona are the tactical opposites of Mourinho’s Madrid. They are almost too comfortable on the ball, and will seek to attack and dominate possession even when they are winning and whether or not they are playing well. One of the fascinating tactical battles of the season was seen in the second leg of the quarterfinals between Barcelona and PSG. Ancelotti’s men needed a goal from the first minute of the match, so they sat back and let Barcelona attack, hoping to open up space on the counter. It worked as they were by far the more dangerous side and eventually went up 1-0. Amazingly, after Barcelona scored the 1-1 that would put them through, PSG once again sat back and Barcelona still attacked despite not needing a goal and risking the tie if they conceded. In the end they went through very uncomfortably against a tough team that gave them the ball.

The difference with Madrid is that virtually every side plays Barcelona this way, so they rely on their prodigious offensive talents to win games. Bayern are actually a team that can counter Barcelona’s midfield possession game, but if Heynckes has been observing the last few rounds he’ll go for the counterattacking strategy despite playing the first leg at home after seeing PSG go home on away goals.

So there it is. Two sides that could not play more different football, but need to be played with exactly the same strategy. With each of the first legs being played on German soil, the home teams have the chance to impose their strategy, but neither will want to go into Spain needing a win after having conceded away goals. The odds point to an all-Spanish final, but whether it happens, and in particular how easy it is for it to happen will depend on how the German sides approach the matches.

The German Spanish rivalry that many missed in Euro 2012 has a chance of being played out here as well, albeit with interesting caveats like the Germans who are key players for Madrid, and the Spanish tinge Bayern will likely get next season through Pep Guardiola. How would Bayern play if Pep were already at the helm?