Control. The flair that once characterised Spain's tiki-taka has faded somewhat, but they remain as effective and dominant as ever. Last night's quarter-final victory was their seventh win to nil in a row in knock-out tournaments and, as in the previous six, they were rarely threatened as they recorded their first ever competitive victory over France. A philosophy based on ball possession has mutated from the excitement of four years ago into something more mechanistic. Tiki-taka has become ticky-tock.
Neutrals may have preferred the more visceral thrill of their football in Austria and Switzerland, but there is something admirable still about their relentless pursuit of possession. Arsène Wenger has spoken of Barcelona's "sterile domination" and while there is something slightly grudging about the term, in essence he is right. Spain, like Barcelona, are a hugely gifted side capable of using their gifts not to thrill but to win, less concerned by the creation of chances than by preventing the opposition creating anything.
Xabi Alonso's 19th-minute opener was a goal of rare beauty but thereafter this was about stopping France from playing. "Sometimes if we defend we get closer to success," said Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach. "Our defenders know how to play in this sense."
After giving Fernando Torres two successive starts, Del Bosque reverted to the strikerless formation that has caused so much consternation. It was predicted by Carlos Alberto Parreira at a coaching conference he runs in Rio de Janeiro in 2003: he foresaw teams playing with four defenders and a fluent midfield six, offering an array of angles of attack to confound marking systems.
Spain haven't quite achieved that level of interchangeability and their system has two clearly demarcated lines of three – Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso holding with Xavi linking to a nominal front three of, on the left, Andres Iniesta, and then Cesc Fabregas and David Silva, who took it in turns to operate as the false nine.
Having faced criticism after the 1-0 win over Croatia that ensured they topped their group, Del Bosque stressed that while his side had lacked penetration in that game – even with Torres starting – they had controlled the game. It was a similar story last night.
"Playing with a true forward gives you more depth and continuity but we wanted to dominate," Del Bosque said. "We wanted possession of the ball and we wanted to create chances. I don't think this is an unfair result; they didn't really have chances. We were in control most of the time. Matches like these are very intense. It's very important to be focused to win and that's what we did."
That seems to have become his prime concern: control the ball, control possession and you control the match. If the opposition don't have the ball, they don't create chances. This is tiki-taka as a predominantly defensive mindset. It's proactive in that it seeks to dominate the ball but it's negative in that it is more about stifling the opposition than creating chances. It may even be the end point for systems based on passing and intermovement: Ajax's Total Footballers won their third and final European Cup in 1973 largely by keeping the ball away from Juventus having taken a fourth-minute lead in the final through Jonny Rep.
This time the penetration was there. Spain tormented France with their passing, the eternal triangles spun across midfield, but this time – unlike against Ireland or Croatia – their full-backs got forward, and it was Jordi Alba, a converted winger, who laid on the first goal for Alonso with a cross after 19 minutes.
It may have been finished by a Real Madrid player, but it was a goal conceived in Barcelona. Busquets fed Xavi in the centre-circle. He moved it on to Iniesta who drew Anthony Réveillère, playing at left-back as Samir Nasri was omitted and Mathieu Debuchy moved forward to the right side of midfield in his place, and slipped the ball beyond him for the overlapping Alba. He had two years at Barça's La Masia academy before moving to Valencia – and is likely to join Barcelona this summer . He held off Debuchy to allow Alonso to mark his 100th cap with a goal.
Laurent Blanc described the goal as "infuriating" given his side had set up precisely to stop that sort of move. "It was the only cross Alba got in and then Xabi Alonso strolls in and puts it in the back of the net," he said.
France had far more of the ball after the break, but their only real chance came as Debuchy headed a Franck Ribéry cross over. Eventually, Spain got the second that sealed the game on the break, Réveillère tripping Pedro to give Alonso his second from the spot. "We'll stick with same plan," Del Bosque said, looking ahead to the semi-final against Portugal. "We'll try to get a lot of players around the ball and keep passing till we find the best option."
Meanwhile Nasri had an altercation with journalists after the match in which he allegedly said: "You're always wanting to write crap stuff about us." It was a fitting end to a poor performance by the French.
Spain (4-3-3): Casillas; Arbeloa, Pique, Sergio raos, Jordi Alba; Xavi, Busquets, Xabi Alonso; Silva (Pedro, 65), Fabregas (Torres, 67), Iniesta (Santi Cazorla, 84).
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris; Réveillère, Rami, Koscielny, Clichy; Cabaye, M'Vila (Giroud, 79), Malouda (Nasri, 64); Debuchy (Ménez, 64), Benzema, Ribéry
Referee: Nicola Rizzoli (Italy)
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