In my last piece on a Spanish defeat, I argued that the Netherlands had developed new tactics to overwhelm Spain. The directness of the Dutch attack unsettled Spain. Its focus on central areas of the pitch where Spain’s defenders and midfielders could be beat for pace, opened up holes in a defense which had previously been one of the best in the world. Once the Spanish went a goal down, they were not only vulnerable to the Dutch counter but practically unable to defend it.
This time around, after a loss to Chile has knocked the defending champions out of the tournament, the evidence is more mixed. Spain more easily retained possession deep against Chile. Spanish players completed 139 passes in the final third, while against the Netherlands they had completed on 86. Chile sat a little deeper once Spain broke through its midfield press, but with more time to work around the box, Spain found opportunities for good attempts at goal. It tallied eight shots from the danger zone, compared with just five in the Netherlands match.
There is similar evidence that Spain’s defense was more effective against Chile. Where the Netherlands took eight danger zone shots, Chile had just five. No Dutch shot was a lower-value header off a cross, while Chile had a pair of those. The Netherlands completed five through-ball passes, including four for shot assists, and three for goals. This reflects the direct passing attack that broke open the Spanish defense. Chile managed only one completed through-ball against a notably tighter Spanish back line.
Of course, that one completed through-ball came in the 20th minute. Alexis Sanchez picked out Charles Aránguiz running behind the Spanish defense. He fed a square ball to Eduardo Vargas, who calmly dribbled keeper Iker Casillas and slotted home from the center of the box. This was the story of the match for Chile: their calm efficiency in front of goal. When later in the first half, Casillas punched a ball back into the danger zone, Aránguiz collected it and with a beautiful, slicing outside of the foot strike he sent the sphere sailing beyond Casillas’ fingertips and into the top corner.
Spain had no final ball to match that. Two huge chances that fell to Xabi Alonso and Sergio Bousquets nearly at the face of goal went begging for a good final strike. Forward Diego Costa did not get himself into great shooting positions regularly, but on his best chance of the game he could only manage to hit the side netting. In need of a goal, Spain worked the ball into dangerous areas but could not finish a chance.
Among the obituaries for the Spanish side, mine is more ambivalent. Spain will need to figure out a response to the direct Dutch tactics that truly seemed to have “solved” their system. But Spain prevented a repeat of that loss in its second match. In this case, Spain ran into an opponent which was absolutely clinical in dispatching two good chances in the first half. Its own players failed again and again to finish chances set up by good passing in the final third of the field. This is the sort of loss that even excellent sides cannot always prevent in soccer. If Spain had not been beaten badly in its previous match, it would be the sort of loss that would probably augur a coming bounceback, as did Spain’s early loss to Switzerland in the last World Cup. Instead, this is the end of Spain’s World Cup.
Tournament soccer is a harsh game. A side can survive either one truly poor performance or one day where only its opponents can finish. When both happen in back to back matches, you go home disgraced. I expect that this Spanish side will bounce back in future tournaments.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.