The Breakdown: Why the Socceroos should thank Spain

If Australia's Group of Death at the World Cup was a footballing lesson, then they already had a thorough understanding of the final part of the curriculum. Spain's identity, after all, has become as well-known as their success, centred on an almost abhorrent obsession with possession.

It has historical roots in Dutch football, but the extremity to which Spain executed their precise passing, averaging well over 70% in three major tournaments, is unprecedented. It has led to a revolution of sorts in how the game is perceived, as well as in expectations, with sides now building teams around technical, rather than physical, styles of play.

There are very few teams at this World Cup, for example, that hoof the ball long from the back, and the overriding focus is on smooth, controlled possession starting from deep. An important distinction has to be made, of course, between the inherently cautious Spanish approach - where possession is a means of defence - and the more direct variant being favoured by their subscribers, but the fundamental change that has occurred in the past eight years in football is, by and large, Spanish-flavoured.

The Socceroos have participated in this transition, of course, symbolised by the changing of the guard at this World Cup in both personnel and philosophy under Ange Postecoglou. Holger Osieck's basic, old-school 4-4-2 (and 4-2-3-1 variant) is gone, and in has come a modern passing game. All players are expected to be comfortable on the ball, with possession starting from the goalkeeper. 

The final match of Group B then was, paradoxically, a vitally important dead rubber. It was the opportunity for Australia to complete the stylistic transition that has well and truly been enacted at this World Cup, ironically, at the same time as Spain reach the end of their own cycle. 

For the first 15 minutes, it seemed Australia would be able to go where Chile and the Dutch had been before them, imposing a high tempo on the game and surprisingly, being able to hold possession for an extended period, working it forward from the centre-backs and progressing forward via passes to the feet of the attackers. Postecoglou's Australia aren't Spain, but they're undoubtedly Spanish in the key features of their possession game.

Still, even after a shellacking at this particular tournament, Spain remain an extraordinarily good side, and they were able to ride out Australia's early momentum with controlled, measured passing. There was an indescribable, intangible moment when Spain suddenly clicked into gear, like a car shifting from neutral, and a goal felt inevitable.

By constantly targeting Australia's right-hand side, with David Villa staying high up, Jordi Alba supporting from full-back and Andres Iniesta drifting over to that side, they built continuous pressure, scoring albeit from the opposite side, so betraying their favoured route of attack in the game, but it was befitting of their momentum.

Still, Australia pushed on, undeterred.

They opened the second half with a similar energy to how they started the first, but still struggled to slow Spain's mesmeric carousel of passing, eventually tiring and conceding twice more. There was never any expectation, though, that Postecoglou's side would park the bus, or even simply play longer to a 'big man' upfront. The absence of Josh Kennedy from the squad, albeit with injury, still in many ways sums up what this campaign has been all about: a discernible shift from results-based football to a more proactive school, wherein good results are still possible because of the example of Spain.

So, if Spain are a footballing lesson, then it's because they redesigned the syllabus. Their success with a possession based brand of football has reconfigured expectations and led to the general dissatisfaction over the Osieck and Verbeek reigns.

Spain have made "good" football the norm and demonstrated why, with this straightforward 3-0 victory that showcased all the qualities that have made them both successful football stylists. They are directly responsible for Australia's new mentality. Now, the challenge is to one day try and match them at what they do.

Tim Palmer writes extensively on A-League tactics at AustraliaScout.com


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