Battle with club-mate Ronaldo hands Arbeloa the chance to justify Spain spot

ZonalMarking.net's Michael Cox uses FourFourTwo's Euro 2012 StatsZone app to demonstrate the role played by Real Madrid fullback Alvaro Arbeloa in Spain's back four

In an ideal world, Vicente del Bosque wouldn’t be starting with Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back.

That’s a harsh assessment of the Real Madrid full-back’s ability, but it’s true – had Carles Puyol been fit, he would have joined Gerard Pique at the back, with Sergio Ramos playing at right-back, where he played throughout Spain’s tournament victories in Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010.

But Arbeloa has kept his place ahead of Atletico right-back Juanfran, and has started all four of Spain’s matches at Euro 2012 so far. He is not a spectacular player, but instead a very functional one. His versatility means he’s assured of his place in the squad – more so than some of Spain’s bigger names, and besides, his experience means he’s not overawed by the matches.

While he hasn’t looked out of place playing for Liverpool and Real Madrid, he’s struggled in a couple of Spain’s matches so far. Defensively, there are no problems – and Spain enjoy such a large proportion of possession, Arbeloae rarely has to perform any particularly taxing tasks in his own third. But his passing has often been slow, frustrating Spain’s creative players, who want the ball played into their feet more quickly.

Another problem has been his poor pressing. In Spain’s opening game against Italy, Xavi Hernandez could be seen shouting at Arbeloa to move forward quicker, to pressure Emanuele Giaccherini in possession. Arbeloa eventually did so – but by the time he did, it was too late in Xavi’s book. This was slightly unfair on Arbeloa – he was a full-back in a back four, while Giaccherini was a wing-back, with more license to push high up the pitch. Arbeloa’s pressing seemed leisurely in comparison, but he did have a different tactical role in the side.

Since then, his pressing has improved – but more interestingly, so has his distribution and his attacking positioning. Against France, for example, Laurent Blanc tried to shut down Jordi Alba by deploying two right-backs, Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Reveillere, in tandem. That evidently failed, as Debuchy’s slip allowed Alba to cross for Xabi Alonso’s opening goal.

But it was equally interesting what France did on the opposite flank. Franck Ribery, whether because of managerial instructions or pure laziness, had no interest in tracking Arbeloa. The Bayern winger stayed high up the pitch, the closest man in support of Karim Benzema. Arbeloa would have been informed by the Spanish coaching staff (who put considerable effort into scouting individual opponents) that Ribery had counter-attacked past Ukraine right-back Oleg Husiev in France’s second match, setting up the winner. He could have been cautious.

Instead, Arbeloa motored forward, stretched the play, and provided the constant out-ball on the right, generally found by Xavi or Xabi Alonso’s long diagonal passes. He may not have been involved in play as often as Alba, but the distance on the passes shows that his positioning allowed Spain to switch the angle of attack, moving France across the pitch.

Of course, Arbeloa isn’t as naturally attacking as Alba, a former winger. “The manager asks me to be aware when Jordi Alba attacks, to cover,” Arbeloa told Sid Lowe of the Guardian. “I go on to the pitch focusing on trying to be defensively perfect. That's my first objective…the quality of your runs up the wing is more important than the quantity.”

Tonight will be the biggest test of Arbeloa’s tournament, as he faces club teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. In Arbeloa’s Liverpool days, he famously did a fine job on Lionel Messi when playing at left-back, taking advantage of Messi’s tendency to come inside onto Arbeloa’s stronger right foot. This challenge will be very different – the reverse, in fact.

It will be fascinating to see how Arbeloa plays against Ronaldo. Will he remain cautious and stay close to Gerard Pique, denying Ronaldo space in that zone? Does he stick very tight to Ronaldo, as the Czech Republic’s Theodor Gebre-Selassie did in Portugal’s previous game? Or is he even braver, and do what he did against Ribery – pushing forward and trying to force Ronaldo back?

As Portugal play no true attacking midfielder, Sergio Busquets would be able to move across and cover.

Ronaldo is clever and varied with his positioning – against the Czechs he got away from the man-marking but drifting into the centre of the pitch much more frequently than he did against Holland.

Arbeloa is the most important player when it comes to stopping Ronaldo – but Spain will need to deal with him as a team.

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