World Cup 2014: Diego Costa offers Spain the chance to go forward

Del Bosque’s policy of using a ‘false nine’ to be ditched against the Dutch on Friday

Starting a World Cup defence is not always easy. Italy drew  1-1 with Paraguay in Cape Town in 2010, needing a late Daniele De Rossi equaliser. Diego Maradona’s Argentina lost 1-0 to Cameroon at San Siro in 1990. France, famously, lost 1-0 to Senegal in Seoul in 2002 in one of the greatest opening-day upsets of all time.

When you are on top everyone wants to knock you down and for this Spain side, winners of tournaments in 2008, 2010 and 2012, that is trebly true. They do not have the luxury of an easy start either, facing the team who they  beat in the 2010 final, the Netherlands.

Vicente Del Bosque, then, is facing the perennial issue for any winning team: whether to stick with what has been successful or to change to avoid being caught by the rest. Almost the whole Spain side is settled, but the big choice – which will define the direction in the team is going – is up front.

Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa will play in different positions for Chelsea next year – Fabregas in fact is likeliest to sit deep in a 4-2-3-1 – but they are vying for one place, albeit in different roles, in Del Bosque’s side.

In recent years – most spectacularly in the final of Euro 2012 – Spain have opted for a “false nine” rather than a conventional centre-forward. This might have been for the simple reason that their best players are all midfielders, and David Villa and Fernando Torres could not replicate their form of five years ago. Some accused Del Bosque of pursuing passing for passing’s sake when a more conventional option was available.

 

The Spanish argument, though, is that they are facing uniquely defensive, cautious opponents and so they need to find unique solutions. If teams line up with a deep narrow back four, then there is no space for strikers to attack. If they need someone to come short, play on the half-turn and keep attacks moving while they wait for an opening, then why not use a midfielder?

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The “false nine” approach paid off in the final of Euro 2012, when Fabregas helped to deliver a 4-0 rout of Italy that will be remembered as one of the great nights of European football history. But Del Bosque has an alternative on offer today, in Costa. Spain did not have a forward on top of his game two years ago but this time they do, after Costa’s brilliant season for Atletico Madrid that has earned him his own move to Chelsea.

Choosing Costa would allow Spain to play more directly, with more crosses and balls into the box, and slightly less throat-clearing in their build-up play. Similarly if they include Pedro instead of David Silva they can add incision and athleticism to a team accused of lacking both recently.

Having persuaded the Brazil-born Costa to identify as Spanish, and having picked him despite his Champions League final injury, Del Bosque must be quite keen to play him. So does he take a slight step back into the more conventional past, or push on into the future?

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