Ewan Macdonald argues that Spain's victory in Euro 2008 was not only notable for its being the side's first piece of silverware in four decades, but also because a diminutive midfield refused to be bullied off the ball and stayed true to its style...
Not only did La Furia Roja win every single one of their matches - albeit one on penalties - but they did so, for the most part, with an eye on how they looked while doing so. Most impressive of all, they turned what may be seen in this day and age as their physical limitations into an asset: as we will see, Spain's midfield is, to put it politely, small, yet they played with a confidence that belied their stature.
First of all let it be said that I am no purist of the "beautiful game." I am of the unfashionable view that professional football is a game in which victory is the overriding principle, and so long as it is within the rules and the laws then any tactical approach goes, no matter how utilitarian and crude. But if a team is able to be both easy on the eye and capable of winning then so much the better: they earn admiration as well as silverware. This Spain did.
No Rose Garden
Still, it wasn't easy for them, and nor were they perfect in all aspects. In the early spells against Germany last night the play was characterised by wastefulness, while Marcos Senna's role was unclear. Often he was deployed ahead of Michael Ballack, meaning that his defensive characteristics were secondary at best. For 20 minutes it was a rough ride.
But once they hit stride they were excellent to watch and effective with it. Spain began to build from the back with more purpose, and did not rush the ball over the halfway line. This allowed the full-backs to maintain a balanced presence rather than adopting a costly headless-chicken approach, and also allowed Xavi, Iniesta and Silva time to plot their various moves. Iniesta in particular, switching to the left flank at will, was able to time his runs into the box with perfection, and even though he tried the same cut-inside move each time his trickery (such as it was) was too much for Mertesacker to bear.
Such passing play only intensified after the goal, which was itself a masterful piece of central passing and timed runs. Senna, in the second half in particular, also came into his own. With Spain able to counter, he offered creative, loping runs forward and twice very nearly managed to create goalscoring chances. The German defensive midfield, such as it was by this time, had absolutely no answers to his tenacity.
It's incredible considering that, to look at them, Spain should have been bullied out of the game. Of the five midfielders, The Spanish people are small - less so than in te past, but it remains a European stereotype with a hint of truth to it. Three of the central line stood at just 5'7", while Francesc 'Cesc' Fàbregas - who often looks rather dwarvish in the Premiership, towered above them at 5'9". Even Senna, a new, naturalised Spaniard, stands at just 5'9".
All, of course, are meticulously trained professionals with tone and upper-body strength - not least Cesc - but nonetheless their German counterparts must be considered simply bigger. Frings and Hitzlsperger are six feet tall (or very close); Ballack is a man-mountain, and even the wingers are of considerable stature. Yet such was Spain's movement off the ball that the boys in white were seldom able to press their advantage, and even when they did they were often found wanting.
This even extended to the back line: Arne Friedrich found himself beaten to a header by Fernando Torres, and but for the woodwork Spain would have scored from that chance. (A German side being beaten on the ground and in the air?!)
Above all, Spain were completely united for the latter 70 minutes of the match, especially at the end. Their defensive line compensated brilliantly for the throw-forwards-up idea of Joachim Löw, while the midfield backed them up valiantly.
Sure, some will state, with more than a touch of truth, that this German side is not all that it was cracked up to be. For example Goal.com's own Sulmaan Ahmad drew flak from some by questioning the Nationalelf's title credentials despite their semi-final. victory. But he and countless others also tipped Spain, and in the end it was the Furia Roja's ability, and not the German's lack thereof, that won the day.
They did it with guts and they did it with style. You really can't ask for anything more.
Ewan Macdonald, Goal.com