The success of Spain in the last six years or so has brought them a mountain of trophies, acclaim and comparisons with the greatest teams in the history of the game. At their best, they have dismantled anyone and everyone that has been put in front of them for the viewing pleasure of millions. Their pass and move philosophy has now been copied the world over, as teams of all levels and age groups strive to emulate the undisputed champions.
But since their last major tournament win, Euro 2012, Spain have not seemed to be quite the same dominant force that they had been in the preceding years. Is it because their talisman, Xavi Hernandez, is aging now? Is it because opposition teams have figured them out? Or is it just the end of the Spain cycle, and time for a new country to rise to prominence?
It could well be a mixture of those things; Xavi is certainly aging, the opposition does know what to expect at this point, and all cycles do come to an end — but maybe it’s not the end for this team just yet. Spain still control games as well as they ever have; it’s the cutting edge in the final third which has seemed to have diminished somewhat.
Their one-touch passing is still as effective as ever, but their progressive passing, which slices the opposition open, has lacked the same decisiveness that it had in the past. Spain need to recapture the balance they had in previous years, between holding possession and wearing the other team down, and being expansive and probing for an opportunity at goal.
If Spain can do that and return to the level that everybody has come to expect of them, then they will be the team to beat in this World Cup — regardless of Brazil playing on home soil. If they don’t, though, then they’re destined to hit a brick wall at some point in this tournament. That brick wall may even arrive in their opening game when they take on the Netherlands in Salvador on Friday.
The Netherlands like to retain possession too, and their cutting edge comes from Arjen Robben and Robin Van Persie in attack. If Spain are not clinical enough in that game, then they could be in trouble early, although if they regain their clinical touch, then it could be yet another exhibition of their greatness on the biggest stage.
At this point, that seems fairly standard for this great team. So too does their ruthless and clinical method of shredding the opposition in the final third. After a short absence, that is something they must rediscover for success in Brazil.