Through recent years, and especially at the current Euro 2016 tournament, Spain are often judged much more harshly than any other national team.
Opinion was very mixed after Spain’s opening Group D game, the 1-0 win over the Czech Republic. Vicente Del Bosque’s side had played really well, controlled the game pretty much from start to finish, although their winning goal did come on 87 minutes from a Gerard Pique header.
Pretty much every other team at the finals, including hosts and pre-tournament favourites France and 2014 World Cup champions Germany, had less impressive opening games. But nobody was criticised as heavily as Spain, no other team’s approach to the game was deemed to be as fundamentally wrong. Even the haphazard supposedly positive style of Roy Hodgson’s England was generally praised, and Italy’s 2-0 win over a profligate and poor Belgium side deemed a tactical masterclass. Meanwhile Del Bosque’s side were somehow unconvincing.
One pundit, Iain Macintosh even compared them to Arsenal - in a piece for ESPNFC.com headlined “How far can Spain go at Euro 2016 if they keep playing like Arsenal?”
The Arsenal theme also continued with discussion of the performance of Spain centre forward Alvaro Morata, who had a pretty good game against the Czechs, but was twice denied by good Petr Cech saves.
It was all pretty weird, comparing a team who had won three of the last four big international tournaments, unprecendented success, with an Arsenal side notorious for always flattering to deceive and blowing up in usually hilarious fashion at the end of the Premier League or Champions League campaigns.
Many of those doing the criticising, and the comparing, appeared to have either not watched or completely forgotten what had happened at World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012. By keeping control of possession and territory, and wearing their opponents down before scoring in the 87th minute, Spain were doing pretty much exactly what they had done in winning both trophies.
Or maybe they were well aware of how Spain had been successful in the past - but for some reason just don’t like the way Del Bosque’s side play. Some of last week’s criticism of their play against the Czechs recalled a piece written by Barnay Ronay in the Guardian in 2010 entitled ‘Why are Barcelona so annoying”
“Above all I dislike their non‑contact tippy-tappy style of play, often deemed, like Barcelona themselves, to be intrinsically "good",” Ronay wrote then. “I have a theory the popularity of this style owes a lot to the fact that it looks good on TV: a televisual style, suited to the armchair rhythms of possession-foul-replay-pundit-blather. It is so obviously and demonstrably high end. Oh look – a backheel! A dinky one-two! This is good football even if you don't really know that much about football, accessibly high spec like a £40 bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.”
There are some pretty big differences between the way Pep Guardiola 2010 Barca team, and the current Spain side, approach the game. Particularly how Del Bosque’s team have a much stiffer spine and do not tend to give up silly goals. But they both play very good football for sure - suited not to armchair rhythms but to minimising risk through knock-out competition - even if for some reason many people often prefer not to see it.
Far from being feckless fancy-dans, Spain went through the knock-out stages in both South Africa and Poland & Ukraine without conceding even once. More recently they have let in just two goals in qualifying - both in one game against Slovakia in October 2014 when they were still not over the trauma from their awful World Cup experience in Brazil. They have had all clean sheets in competitive games since then and they’re now 904 minutes without either Iker Casillas or David De Gea being beaten.
They did have one slip-up before this summer’s tournament, embarrassingly losing 0-1 at home to 137th ranked Georgia in their final warm-up friendly. That result lead to questions at the post-game news conference from critics who had immediately decided that Georgia had shown opponents just how to stifle Spain and beat them.
Del Bosque rejected the premise of that question. “The good part was how secure we were in possession, we dominated the game, although we should have scored,” he replied that night. “I would like for all games to be played in the opposition half - I always say that, and I hope the three opponents we have now play just like that.”
The veteran coach was also not at all ruffled by the criticism following their opening Euro 2016 game. For For the first time in 52 games he had not made a change to his starting XI, keeping the same side who had apparently almost ‘Arsenalled’ against the Czechs. Turkey were outclassed completely, with Spain 3-0 up soon after half-time and easing to a win which ensured qualification for the last 16.
Croatia’s [Gunners-style] late meltdown in their game against the Czechs, was also useful for Del Bosque’s side. It now means a draw in Tuesday’s final Group D game in Bordeaux will see them through as group winners, likely putting them on a favourable side of the draw away from France, Germany and Italy.
This has lead to further reappraisals among pundits outside Spain, with the Mirror’s new ranking of the 24 teams putting La Roja now top, although still claiming they have “a problem in the penalty area”.
Spain do not have a problem in the penalty area, nor do they need to change their style. They have a super experienced team who are experts at playing in a way which is perfectly suited to tournament play.
They should be overwhelming favourites to win this tournament.
Read more from Dermot Corrigan