Spain left with selection dilemma

Michael Cox, editor of, on the World Cup semi-finals and the selection posers facing each manager...

Spain and Holland have something in common at this tournament. Both have got to the semi-finals and yet have slightly underwhelmed with their progression – slightly odd, considering they are two matches away from the first World Cup win in their history.

Perhaps our expectations for them were simply too inflated. The sides feature some of the world’s best most technically-gifted footballers – Xavi, Andres Iniesta, David Villa, Xabi Alonso, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie amongst others – and both countries’ football is generally associated with style and excitement rather than cold hard success in terms of results – probably as a consequence of both sides’ historical underachievement.

That flair has not been in evidence so far at this competition. Neither has won a game particularly convincingly throughout the tournament – each has only recorded one victory by a margin greater than a single goal – Holland with an opening day 2-0 win over Denmark, and Spain’s 2-0 win over minnows Honduras. We’ve yet to see a genuinely top-class performance from either team.

And yet, the results keep coming. This raises an interesting question about both – are they more pragmatic, unspectacular, efficient sides than their predecessors, that are happy to scrap to one-goal victories rather than play fancy football, or are they trying to play their traditional style of football and simply not clicking?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between. Both sides are slightly struggling in the same two departments – first, with a lack of width, as covered previously (Robben has returned for Holland, but his tendency to cut inside against Brazil was rather predictable) and secondly, with concerns about their main striker.

The problems with Fernando Torres’ form, fitness and confidence have been well-documented at this tournament, and a look at Spain’s performances  after his departure in their most recent two games leads to the inevitable conclusion that he deserves to be dropped from the side.

Spain simply lack cohesion in the final third when he plays –the driving runs of Cesc Fabregas, the width of Pedro or Jesus Navas, or the more direct route of Fernando Llorente seem a better option.

Robin van Persie hasn’t been that much better, but his place is assured because of the relative lack of alternatives. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has a good record at international level but still lacks the true quality required, whilst the other option – pushing Dirk Kuyt forward and bringing in another winger – would destabilize the team because Kuyt’s defensive awareness has been vital for the Dutch so far.

Aside from suspensions, both Holland and Spain will probably play the same system and players in the final four.

All of this ignores the fact that both have done rather well to reach the last four of the competition – if it had been Italy or Germany battling through with narrow victories, we’d probably be slightly more convinced of their competence – it would be typical displays from both.

Germany, of course, are the team who have been by far the most exciting of the final four. They’ve scored twice as many goals as Spain, and four more than Holland, playing some wonderful football along the way.

The 4-1 win over England didn’t receive as much credit as it should have done in the British media, with England’s woes getting far more attention. The 4-0 victory over Argentina confirmed their class - results like that very rarely happen in the knockout stages of international tournaments – and let’s not forget that they started the competition as relative outsiders compared to England and Argentina.

The surprise in the semi-finals is Uruguay. They are unique in tactical terms, as they are the only one of the four not to have played a 4-2-3-1 (or close) throughout the competition. Indeed, Oscar Tabarez has deployed three separate formations and used his star man, Diego Forlan, in a variety of roles so far.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the absence of Luis Suarez. Sebastian Abreu looks the most likely replacement in what would be a straight swap, especially with the news that winger Nicolas Lodeiro is out of the tournament.

So the only team that are without suspensions – Spain – are the only side who have real selection and formation dilemmas as a whole. All four managers have big decisions to make ahead of the semi-final clashes.

More from Michael Cox:
June 28: Five defensive lessons
June 22: Mind the quality? Feel the width
June 17: Defences on top in first round
June 12: Back three back in fashion

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