By Paul Macdonald
Since Spain’s historic World Cup win in Soccer City, their performances have been anything but vintage.
Comprehensive friendly defeats against Argentina and Portugal were followed by lumbering Euro 2012 qualifying wins over Lithuania and Scotland. Their outing against Colombia in Madrid last month was another below-par display that barely deserved victory, and throughout all their post-South Africa appearances, an underlying theme has developed - they currently lack a cutting edge.
Indeed, it could be argued that the problem was prevalent last summer, too. After all, had it not been for the individual ability of David Villa to finish clinically, Del Bosque’s side may not have won the tournament at all. The Barcelona striker bailed them out against Honduras, against Chile, against Portugal, against Paraguay.
His continued rise crossed paths with the incomprehensible and rapid demise of Fernando Torres. In Del Bosque’s 4-2-3-1 formation, Villa was shunted to the wing to accommodate El Nino, but now the Chelsea striker is afforded no such echelon of indispensability. During the World Cup itself the strategy was abandoned due to Torres‘ worrying ineptness, and hasn’t be revisited since.
Torres’ problems, despite being an obvious worry for those who revelled in his explosive pace and predatory instinct, are however for another day. He is a player whose game needs serious consideration before international starts can return to his agenda. David Villa is Spain’s first-choice forward - but is he the right man for the job, based on the opposition awaiting the world champions?
There is another who can flourish in the lone striking role - Fernando Llorente. The tall striker has, for the best part of 18 months, been utilised as ‘Plan B’, the ‘in case of emergency, break glass’ option when things aren’t going well. His physical attributes, plus his excellent ability in the air, make him the prime candidate when intricate passing is forgone, and when time is running out.
He selflessly fulfilled his duty against Portugal last summer, arriving as a second-half substitute and providing an alternative to the 'tiki-taka' tactics that had barely infiltrated the staunch defence of Carlos Queiroz’s Iberian neighbours. He scored a well-taken consolation against Argentina in Buenos Aires last September, and struck a priceless winner, once again as a replacement, versus Scotland at Hampden when the hosts had fought back from two goals down.
Lion King | Llorente should be given chance from the start
He has proven his worth from the bench, and has also played a pivotal role in Group I’s qualifying campaign so far. The 26-year-old was given the nod against Lithuania, and duly provided two excellently taken goals that were typical Llorente, but so untypical of Spain; wingers reaching the bye-line and swinging in crosses, with the man known as ‘The Lion’ in Basque country ruthlessly dispatching them into the net.
It’s plain to see that Spain can’t play in such a manner with Villa through the centre, and teams are beginning to realise this - and responding tactically. At the Santiago Bernabeu last month, Colombia narrowed the pitch, playing a high-paced pressing game that forced the likes of Andres Iniesta and Xavi into compact areas that lessened their impact. The South Americans knew that in the unlikely event Spain were to bring their wide players into the game, their central defenders could easily cope with high balls against their relatively small opposition.
Czech Republic, whom they face in Granada on Friday evening, will have studied that performance, as will Lithuania. The Czechs are not the slick passing side of the days of Pavel Nedved, and they will look to stifle in a similar manner. By closing the channels, Spain can be reduced to threading passes through the eye of a needle in a small section of the pitch - and their play can become predictable as a result.
Llorente changes all that. His aerial prowess is invaluable, but also deflects from the fact he has a considered touch and all-round awareness (the player himself has confessed to being a hot-heeled winger in his youth, before a growth spurt shifted him into the central striking position). So, if Spain want to play to feet, they can use Llorente to build up attacks, but can also feed the play wide - more options make them less obvious to anticipate.
Villa is unquestionably the more prolific goalscorer - playing for Barcelona, rather than Bilbao, will tend to reflect that - but his form in front of goal has dipped slightly at the Nou Camp of late, and he is arguably a different player now than the central striker Spain need. Playing as the left man of Pep Guardiola’s front three has necessitated a change in attributes for ’El Guaje’, and although he has adapted superbly, it is difficult to revert back to the position he once knew so well.
Furthermore, he has yet to surpass Raul’s international record, and judging by some of his hurried finishing in the red of Spain, it is playing on his mind. One goal, a penalty against Scotland, in his last five internationals (his worst run for the national team) appears to give weight to the notion that he is not as confident in front of goal as he maybe once was.
Llorente is a player in his prime, and one who deserves to be given the opportunity. With Villa indecisive and Torres in limbo, Del Bosque has the chance to let The Lion roar - and he is unlikely to be disappointed.