Spain perfect the art of passenaccio
Despite a reputation built on the sweeping quality of their attacking play, Spain will also rely on solid defensive foundations when they meet Italy in the Confederations Cup semi-finals on Thursday.
Of the teams in the last four, in descending order, Italy have conceded eight goals and committed 51 fouls, followed by Uruguay (3/52), Brazil (2/67) and finally Spain, who have committed only 30 fouls and let in just one goal (and that a superb free-kick by Uruguay's Luis Suarez).
The world and European champions have also accumulated the lowest number of yellow cards of the eight teams to have contested the group phase (three, equal with Nigeria).
There is disciplinary rigour to Spain's play but also, and especially, tight defensive control.
The team's statistics are worthy of the finest Italian practitioners of the defensive art of 'catenaccio', with two goals conceded in seven games at the 2010 World Cup; one in six at Euro 2012 (scored, ironically, by Italy); and two in five during qualifying for the 2014 World Cup.
It has given rise to the term 'passenaccio', in homage to Spain's habit of killing games off by endlessly rotating the ball, but coach Vicente del Bosque says it is unfair to dub Spain a negative team.
"If you had to define our national team in one word, it would be difficult to say they were defensive," he said during a recent press conference.
Although he insists he has "no magic recipe", he conceded: "We defend through possession."
There, Spain do seem blessed with a magic touch, having enjoyed an average of 64 percent of possession during the group phase.
Paradoxically, their lowest percentage (58 percent) was recorded in the record-breaking 10-0 annihilation of Tahiti.
Their last-four rivals trail behind: Uruguay with 44 percent, Italy with 49 percent, and Brazil with 55 percent.
The strategy of defending by monopolising the ball, which Spain have elevated to the level of footballing art since their breakthrough triumph at Euro 2008, is nonetheless nothing new.
It was developed and applied for the first time by the great Ajax and Netherlands teams of the 1970s, led by legendary coach Rinus Michels and the great Johan Cruyff.
Cruyff imported the concept to Barcelona, less so as a player (1973-1978) than during his time as coach (1988-1996), when he constructed a feted 'Dream Team' around players such as Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov and Pep Guardiola.
A faithful adherent to the 'Dutch way', Guardiola applied the same principles during his four extraordinarily seasons as coach of Barcelona between 2008 and 2012, when the Catalan club amassed 14 trophies, including two Champions League titles.
The Barcelona trio of Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets are the modern exponents of the style, which was put in place in the national team by Luis Aragones, architect of the Euro 2008 triumph.
But the defensive work is also a collective obligation, as it begins with high and aggressive pressing from the forward players as soon as possession is ceded.
Hard-working winger Pedro Rodriguez and Cesc Fabregas, a central midfielder turned 'false nine', form the front line of the Spanish defence, their intense harrying rewarded by long spells of possession that oblige the opposition to put in the leg work.
More passing, less tackling, fewer fouls, more clean sheets.
Conceding so few goals "is a very important factor" explains left-back Jordi Alba. "It's the work of the whole team, not just the defence and the goalkeeper," he says.
"The credit belongs to everyone," adds centre-back Sergio Ramos. "And when we win, it's not only thanks to those who score the goals, but to the balance."
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