Analysis: How to beat Spain (or go down fighting)

Who can stop the champions? Alex Keble uses FourFourTwo's completely free Euro 2012 StatsZone app to analyse the action so far – and suggest teams who could counter the kings...  

Spain reasserted their dominance in European football after thrashing the Republic of Ireland. So how, if at all, can any nation at Euro 2012 beat the Spaniards?

Nullifying the threat of Spain's world-class midfielders is perhaps the most pressing concern for any nation that believes they can win the tournament. Perhaps nobody has the answer, but there are certainly a few dos and don'ts to be learnt from Spain's opening two performances.

Sit deep, and containThe most stark contrast between the approach of the Italians and Irish when facing the world champions was their defensive set-ups.

The Azzurri, in typically Italian fashion, absorbed the pressure and allowed Spain time on the ball. Sitting in deep lines of four, they allowed Xavi, Iniesta & Co. to pass the ball freely in front of the defence, safe in the knowledge that nothing will pass behind them. Spain were frustrated, and the tactic worked.

In direct contrast to this, Giovanni Trapattoni decided to press high up the pitch in an attempt to stifle the Spaniards, putting them under pressure and denying them space.

The positioning of interceptions and tackles strongly suggests that Italy were sitting deeper and giving Spain space until they approached the Azzurri goal, whereas Ireland attempted to harass the Spaniards all over the pitch.

Intriguingly, if we drill down into Ireland's tackling and compare the positions in the two halves, they seem to have dropped deeper in the second half. This may have been a loss of energy or a deliberate tactical move, but the fact remains that in the first half Ireland pressed constantly high up the pitch.

It was certainly an interesting decision by Trapattoni: recent history strongly discourages this approach when facing tiki-taka, most vividly exemplified by the changing fortunes of Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid against Barcelona, whose possession and passing game is the template upon which Spain's international triumphs have been modelled.

For his first Clasico in November 2010, Mourinho employed a high pressing game – and Madrid were humiliated 5-0. By April 2012, the Portuguese had learned his lesson: reverting to a deep containment strategy, he oversaw a 2-1 win which more or less sealed the league title. Even the mighty Mourinho, with his world-class (and mostly Spanish) players, ultimately accepted you must approach with caution and humility.

The problem with a more adventurous approach – as Ireland discovered to their peril – is that the Spaniards are able to overwhelm the central midfield area, exacerbated by the willingness of Spain's wide men, usually David Silva and Andres Iniesta, to drift inside. Their player dashboards indicate the support they provide in the centre of the park.

When the Irish pushed up in their attempts to break up play before the final third, they left holes between their defence and midfield, giving Spain's dangerous playmakers crucial time and space in front of the penalty area.

The player influence diagrams, which show each player's average position on the ball during the game, show the success of the Italian system over the Irish: Xavi, Alonso, Busquets, Iniesta and Silva all played higher up the field.

Crucially, Xavi enjoyed much more time on the ball. The Italian system made him rove around to find space; against the Irish he rarely left a central band 20 yards wide between halfway and the penalty area, directing traffic and causing havoc.

Conclusion: You can't stop Spain outpassing you, or disrupt their rhythm. Accept that they will dominate and sit back, soaking up the pressure and focus on a crowded defence that prevents the killer pass. Barcelona were rendered almost harmless by Chelsea's reactive containment, and Italy did a great job preventing Spain from tearing them open.

Who can implement this the most effectively? In reality, with years of defensive heritage and three central defenders, Italy's group-stage display was as proficient as you are likely to see against Spain. The point Italy captured shows that Vicente Del Bosque's men can be stopped – but can they be beaten?

Counter-attack with a target manAgainst opponents who dominate possession, teams need quick counter-attacks via a target-man who'll win the majority of his long passes.

It sounds like a straightforward point, but it's a very difficult issue. Expecting 35% or less possession, teams must be decisive, clinical and consistent when the opportunity of a counter-attack presents itself. The only way to achieve this is a well-drilled plan.

Both Italy and Ireland attempted long, direct passes to the Spanish right-back position, presumably recognising Silva's tendency to drift in from right midfield and provide little defensive cover. Italy's long passes, particularly to the left flank, were far more successful than Ireland's.

The Spanish midfield's overwhelming presence makes this direct approach, spreading the play wide rather than attempting to work it through the densely-packed midfield, the only realistically viable option. Notice how almost all of the passes Ireland made in Spain's half and in the centre of the pitch failed, and how infrequently the more successful Italy team attempted to play in this zone.

Conclusion: Spend hours on the training ground working on a counter-attacking strategy. Players need to know instinctively where they are going to pass the ball, and who is going to support the strikers. On match day, they need to be able to turn possession in their own penalty area into possession in the final third within a matter of seconds.

Who can implement this the most effectively? The obvious answer: Germany. Brilliantly organised and ruthlessly efficient, they have the counter-attacking prowess could make for a great Euro 2012 Final with Spain. The Germans had a lot of success with their direct counter-attacking style against Holland, and would be more than happy to employ it again.

Spain's high pressing gameIreland's ball retention was criminal, and this is in no small part to the Spaniards' own high pressing game, stopping the less talented Irish making the passes they needed. Spain work tirelessly to close down their opponents all over the pitch, pressurising them into misplacing their passes.

The majority of Spain's tackles are made high up the pitch, suggesting a successful high pressing game. Studying Ireland's incomplete short passes shows how they struggled with the Spanish defensive system.

Italy overcame this problem by cutting themselves out of that midfield battle, refusing to take part in a passing game in the centre of the pitch, as shown above. It's notable that Spanish interceptions of Italian passes were more uniform and deeper than against the Irish, whom they robbed all over the park.

Conclusion: As the Spaniards give you no time on the ball, a direct tactic that minimises passing and time in midfield is a must. Who can implement this the most effectively? Possibly England: Ashley Young and Wayne Rooney supporting Andy Carroll, with long driven passes from Steven Gerrard, could do the trick.

Spain don't counter-attackOne substandard element of Spain's play is their ability to counter attack. Just as Barcelona can appear frustratingly one-dimensional in their approach, so too can Spain seem overly insistent on a specific style of build-up play. On a number of occasions when Ireland had poured men forward into attack, Spain were unable to break at speed. David Silva is perhaps the only player with dribbling speed in the squad, and their breaks after regaining possession were slow.

Spain don't really do long balls, except to spread the play to the wing; their long balls forward had a 0% success rate, and their infrequency suggests an unwillingness to commit to a swift counter-attack. Similarly, dribbling around the opposition is sporadic and, again, infrequent.

It would appear that counter-attacking is not their strong point. Considering their possession statistics, this isn't particularly pertinent to them – but it is for their opposition.

Conclusion: At attacking set-pieces, do not be afraid to commit men forward; Spain are unlikely to find much success if you lose possession deep in their half. Who can implement this the most effectively? Croatia have already scored a couple from set-pieces, while France, England, and Italy all have height on their side.

Fernando Torres vs Cesc FabregasIt's easy to criticise Del Bosque for failing to field a striker against Italy, particularly given subsequent success of  Fernando Torres against Ireland. In reality, the decision was pretty ingenious, and undoubtedly a decision based on the opposing defensive set ups of Italy and Ireland.

As discussed, Italy sat very deep, refusing to allow the ball to be played in behind them. Fielding Torres – a striker who plays best on the shoulder of the last defender – would probably have been fruitless. Against Ireland, who played with a higher defensive line, Spain's midfielders were able to play passes through the defence and find Torres, as they did for the third goal of the game. The diagrams below show how the inclusion of Torres, coupled with the defensive strategy of the Irish, allowed for a greater number of incisive passes to the front line.

This is reflected further in the attacking intent of Spain over the two games. Against Ireland, the champions played more successful forward passes – and higher up the pitch. (Note also the higher number of failed long passes in that Italy match as the Spanish got frustrated.)

Conclusion: Torres & Co. cannot break through the defensive ranks if the lines of four are deep enough. To come full circle, a compact, deep-lying defensive line is a must for any team that wishes to end 90 minutes against the world champions with their defence and dignity intact.

To conclude, there are some basic rules that should be followed by any team hoping to beat Spain. * They need an organised and disciplined defence, willing to absorb pressure and sit on the edge of their own penalty box for the majority of the match. * When in possession, they need quick, direct and incisive passing to counter-attack, which should come through the wings. * They must be bold and commit men forward at attacking set-pieces, considering Spain's lack of height and counter-attacking speed makes them vulnerable to an onslaught at corners and free-kicks.

Doesn't that sound remarkably similar to the way Roy Hodgson has always drilled his teams?