The secret to Spain’s progress in Japan has been their defensive work
Eric Garcia explains why the Spanish are so tough to break down
Top quality forwards then make the difference up front
Attacks win games but defences win championships, or so the old saying goes. But how does this apply to major tournaments?
Taking the two most recent examples – namely the 2018 FIFA World Cup™ and the recent European Championship – it is clear that the foundations of the titles won by France and Italy were their incredibly solid back lines.
The same could currently be said of Spain’s Olympic team. The squad is brimming with quality players, with names such as Pedri, Dani Olmo, Mikel Oyarzabal and Marco Asensio immediately coming to mind, while their passing and ball retention is also grabbing the headlines. As such, the fact that it is so difficult to score against this Spain team is perhaps garnering less attention than in should.
During the group stage, Argentina were the only team to put a goal past them, and that came when qualification as group winners was virtually assured. In their two knock-out matches since then, Côte d’Ivoire scored at the beginning and the end of the 90 minutes but were then brushed aside during extra time, while in the semi-finals against Japan, Spain kept their third clean sheet in five games.
“Well we’d obviously like to have scored earlier, but we’re mentally very strong as a team and we know that the chances will come," said Spain central defender Eric Garcia when asked by FIFA.com about the fact that his side have been level at half-time in all of their matches at Tokyo 2020, with four of those goalless.
“I’ve said it plenty of times before: it doesn’t matter who’s ahead at the break, the important thing is to be in the lead when the final whistle blows.”
Indeed, the current Spanish side has so much quality up front that one moment of genius can be enough to swing a match in their favour, provided that they can keep things tight at the back. In the quarter-finals for example, substitute Rafa Mir grabbed a hat-trick in the space of half an hour, and then against Japan, it was Asensio who came off the bench to fire his team into the gold-medal match.
“We played well and earned that win," said Garcia, who this summer returned to Barcelona, the club where he first cut his teeth as part of the youth system, after four years at Manchester City.
“We played well. Our aim once again was not to concede and to get through to the final. We knew that they’d be dangerous on the break and also if they got time on the ball to build up play. I think that we got a whole lot of aspects right. To make it through to the business end of tournaments, you have to play almost perfect football.“
Both Barcelona and Manchester City under Pep Guardiola favour the kind of play that has served Spain well at the Olympics. High levels of possession – over 62 per cent on average in Japan – is not just the cornerstone of the offence but also significantly reduces the number of attacks from the opposition, due in no small part to defending so high up the pitch. If the ball is lost, it is won back via aggressive counter-pressing.
“The team works hard on counter-pressing. You need to be prepared mentally for the moment when you lose possession,” Garcia explained, and while it has become something of a truism that attack is the first line of defence, Spain are a shining example of how hard an entire team can work when they lose possession in order to provoke a misplaced pass from the opposition or another way of getting the ball back.
“Keeping it compact is essential when preparing counter-pressing,” explained Christian Gross from the FIFA Technical Study Group. “In the contemporary game, top teams cover little more than an area between 25 to 30 metres as a unit. Centre-backs are positioning themselves in their opponent’s half, with a sweeper-keeper behind them.”
“We defend as one, we attack as one, we are very compact and mentally very strong. We focus on the little details, work on playing together as a team and hopefully we’ll be able to put all that into practice once again in the final,” said Garcia, looking ahead to the gold-medal match on Saturday against Brazil in Yokohama.
“If you want to win tournaments like this one, you have to beat the best. Brazil have shown that they are one of the best teams out here but we’re obviously looking forward to playing against legends like Dani Alves. They’ve also got Richarlison and Martinelli, so they’re strong across the board.”
And how does Garcia see Saturday’s match panning out? “They also know how to play as a team so it’s going to be really tough. It’ll be a tight game.” An accurate assessment from the Spaniard, with Brazil also making defence a priority and conceding just three goals in their group games followed by two clean sheets in the knockout stage.