The Spanish Golden Generation is perhaps the best ‘Golden Generation’ ever produced. The moniker is used by every country to varying degrees of severity. For all its talent, Portugal’s didn’t win anything. France’s won successive Euro and World Cup titles. The U.S. still hasn’t had one.
Two Euros and a World Cup later, though, the tensile strength of Spain’s Generación de Oro is being tested, and it may have snapped in half on Wednesday. Chile’s comfortable 2-0 win over Spain sent the reigning champions home after two games. This kind of collapse seemed utterly inconceivable just a week ago. Now, with a 7-1 goal differential chasing them home, Spain’s third group game against Australia is merely academic.
Xavi and Pique didn’t start against Chile. Iker Casillas’ plunging form carried over from a sketchy string of games in Real Madrid cup matches, and he’s looked utterly lost in Brazil. The fractures in Xabi Alonso’s game are showing, as it did when an appalling back pass led directly to the first Chilean goal. David Silva, who’s spotty international form left him as a question mark to start, has used his mazy dribbling to little effect in Brazil. The back line is a festering, undisciplined mess. Even Iniesta, the once infallible midfielder, frustratingly pushed the tempo into the red until the engine block cracked. He was largely left alone in the rainforest.
Spain is in a precarious place. Based on two embarrassing losses, Vicente del Bosque’s charges are caught in the confusing viscera between what they were and what they seem intent on becoming. Tiki taka may not be dead in so many words, but the national team that brought its principles to the fore is certainly done using it as a system.
The issue begins with the back line and ends with the striker.
As individuals, the Spanish defense is phenomenally talented. As a unit, it’s been disjointed and confused. Sergio Ramos has been a provocateur, but in the way a weak-limbed bully might try to steal your lunch money. It’s easy to merely brush off the initial soft punch and go about your business normally. The pairing of Ramos and Pique – who’s been declining in form for years now, so maybe blame Shakira – was so poor that del Bosque dropped Pique for Chile.
Javi Martinez fared no better. Both he and Ramos roamed aimlessly, opening up pockets of space and stepping to challenges Sergio Busquets had otherwise ignored or simply let go. With Jordi Alba roaming too high, Cesar Azpilicueta was the only Spanish defender who’s looked even remotely like stopping an attack in Brazil. And one isn’t good enough. In truth, they still haven’t recovered from the loss of Carles Puyol.
Spain has long relied on its back four to draw the line and provide a foundation set on stilts instead of lower to the ground. Spain plays in your end, not in theirs. Historically, it’s that ease of mind that’s allowed Iniesta and Xavi to create. Without controlling the back line, Spain has a fleet of technical midfielders with car-sized holes punched in the hull. The whole system leaks if the Spanish midfield is forced to play both ways. The Spanish attack is a static battery emplacement, not a mobile hand cannon. The only reason Spain perked up at all in the second half was that it finally seemed to remember. But the attacking punch was long gone.
Here’s a stat. In two games, Spain has one shot on goal in the run of play. One. Which brings us to Diego Costa and the mystery of the Spanish hold-up striker.
Throughout its history, this Spanish generation has largely leaned on a winger-as-striker to slot in up top. When this system was purring at its best, David Villa was its striker. Villa is hardly a classical striker. He’s more of a center forward, and when given the freedom to drop into the midfield and generate chances for others, Spain’s attack has never been better. Even Fernando Torres, maligned as he is, has the athleticism to find channels and open them for others.
Diego Costa is Jozy Altidore with better feet. In Brazil, he looked more like the evil side of Emile Heskey. Costa wants to lash himself to a central defender and play off the shoulder, but Spain’s attack isn’t built for him. Costa isn’t going to tuck himself into the attack. He wants direct service, an occasional long ball and to use his short-burst athleticism in confined spaces. Spain has never enjoyed playing like this with its current midfield. It’s needed its forward to play some soccer.
And here’s the real patch of turbulence. This isn’t really Spain as we’ve known them. The back line can still trace a high line, but it’s in pencil now instead of ink. And with the foundation cracking, Iniesta, Silva and Xabi Alonso can’t ever really turn up with confidence, and any team with pace can hit and destroy Spain with alarming regularity. The Dutch are perhaps the tournament’s most capable counterattacking team, and they hung five on Spain. Chile’s two could’ve been more. Caught between the directness required of its back line and striker and the intricate style required of its midfield, Spain could do nothing but break apart. It’s a shame to see this star collapse on itself and turn black. It forced you to look at soccer through a new prism, interpret things in a new way. I, for one, will miss them.
Tiki taka is not dead. But this Spanish side in transition is not the team to carry its banner forward. Instead, they carry it home, many of them never to return.