The post-mortems following La Furia's defeat to Switzerland have raised questions that have left inconclusive and divisive interpretations: did Spain lack attacking width? If so, was stretching the attack and launching high crosses the most conducive plan to discomforting the massed ranks of Swiss who defended with the solidity of their medieval Landsknechts forebearers?
Was Spain's conglomeration of playmakers in central areas necessarily doomed to stagnate from the beginning, or would the same set-up have flourished (as it often had during the qualifiers) had only the Spaniards circulated the ball with more urgency?
Two issues, however, do seem to have struck a common denominator with those critics of Del Bosque's tactical plan for the opening group game in Durban.
The first points to the redundancy of Spain's doble pivote of Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets (despite their undeniable technical attributes) when facing against sides such as Switzerland and Honduras who will display a reserved game plan.
The second gripe is not unrelated to the first, and it concerns the presence (or lack thereof) of llegada, or breaking into the box, arriving as a surprise element for second balls and generally just shooting! Xabi Alonso can launch thunderbolts from distance but he tends to do so only when the play has stalled to a static stage with the opposition defence already amassed on the edge of its 18-yard box. What is needed to punctuate Spain's neat mastication of passes when approaching the final third is a dynamic presence, the arrival of a midfielder who will break the lines and carry the ball beyond the defensive barrier(s) before either culminating or else setting up another attacker.
It would appear that the stage is set for Cesc Fàbregas to enter. That he is a playmaker who has acquired a box-to-box verticality to his game since maturing in the Premier League, we know all too well. If reports from Spain's training camp are to be believed, Del Bosque is all but guaranteed to add Cesc to the line-up for the Honduras clash and this adjustment will coincide with other team changes which interest us on a tactical level.
Once consequence of Cesc's inclusion will be the reassignment of Xabi Alonso to the centre as sole holding midfielder, thereby excluding the other holding player Sergio Busquets. There is an argument as to whether Busquets might acquit himself better in a lone-anchor role than would Alonso, who lacks the dynamism (in terms of speed of movement) and thus seldom has been entrusted with such a brief at top-level football over the past few years. The argument that overrides such concerns and supports the inclusion of Alonso has two facets; negative - the likelyhood that Honduras will probably sit very deep (thereby aleviating much of the destructive component of this positional portfolio) - and positive: with Spain needing to stretch play by occupying more areas of the pitch and speeding up their circulation of the ball, the Basque midfielder's inimitable long-range passing becomes a vital tool for rapidly switching play across the pitch.
A further effect of these changes will be to change the role of David Villa somewhat; irrespective of formation.
Fernando Torres looks set to start to add a further striking presence alongside Villa. The only question concerns the positioning of the Asturian striker, whether he will play centrally with Torres in a pairing as per Euro 2008 and the Confederations' Cup or if, more likely, he will resume a role sometimes resorted to by Del Bosque during the later qualification rounds which sees him take up an outside-left position (with one from Silva, Navas or Pedro mirroring these duties over on the right flank). I say "more likely" since this second arrangement affords Del Bosque the option of simply alternating between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 depending on the circumstances of the match and without having to utilise substitutions (if Del Bosque wants pure width he can add Navas, Pedro or Mata later on, plus the battering-ram Llorente remains the 'chips-are-down' option).
As to the systems themselves, it should be clear from the diagrams below that in the case of (1) a fluid 4-4-2, it basically reprises the 4-1-3-2 template bequeathed by Luis Aragonés and is largely transformed by the positioning of Xavi who can act as an occasional auxiliary to Alonso in deep central areas. Xavi's starting position, as brilliantly dissected by Zonal Marking.net, will not be as advanced as his mediapunta/enganche role, but probably somewhat closer to his Barcelona role, where he has the play ahead of him.
David Silva and Cesc will likely start as mediapuntas interiores (advanced playmakers stationed wide) from left and right midfield respectively; with play in the middle third, both will seek to move inside and occupy the 3/4 hole behind the opposing central midfielder(s) with the result that the left-footed Silva and the right-footed Fàbregas might ocassionally switch flanks lest this movement become stale. It will also give both players the opportunity to move onto their favoured shooting foot, whilst the other remains relatively wide on his strong foot at least until the arrival of his overlapping full-back.
Figure 1 (above left): a fluid 4-4-2 as per Luis Aragonés's interpretation in 2008. It may be defined as 4-1-3-2 depending on Xavi's approximation to the other playmakers (indicated by the unbroken white line). Alonso's propensity to take long-distance shots is denoted by the broken white line. Cesc's movement is detailed as well as his arrival onto the second ball (broken white line). Note Villa's lateral movement in support of the full-backs and interiors, thereby creating triangulation.
The movement of David Villa is vital in order for this system to bear fruit. He must make wide runs to either flank so as to offer a passing triangle with Cesc/Silva and the full-back (naturally Fernando Torres would be expected to shoulder the more physical duties in central areas although it would help if he too made sorties to the wide channels). Villa's productive running all across the front line will also entail his incorporation into the first (advanced midfield) line of pressure once Spain lose possession for an extended period; he will simply slot into whichever of the three posts he finds himself closest to (the other two slots being filled by Silva and Fabregas) and so Spain's 4-4-2 shape (4-1-3-2/4-2-2-2) will become a 4-2-3-1 in acknowledgement of the Capello Dictum*.
Figure 2 (right): the 4-1-3-2 shape gives way to a 4-2-3-1 in the defensive phase. Xavi and Alonso assist the flanks rather than having the advanced trio track all the way back. This trio consists of Cesc, Villa and Silva who will take up their positions here according to whether each finds himself left, centrally or right when Spain lose possession. Villa's defensive movement is indicated by the broken yellow lines.
Villa will also sacrifice himself defensively should Del Bosque opt for his makeshift 4-3-3 formation wherein Spain's second-top goalscorer of all time would start from a position on the left of a three-man attack. David Silva in such a scenario would start from outside-right and the dynamic is best explained thus: both players start from wide-positions and move onto their strong foot, hence it is imperative that Joan Capdevila and Sergio Ramos advance with more intent from their full-back positions to provide width. Understandably this will cause concern for those who note that a) Ramos and Capdevila hardly offer the offensive prowess of Daniel Alves and Maxwell that have made this system such a success for Barcelona in recent years, and b) Villa's and Silva's inward movement might arguably lead to the same traffic congestion that hampered Spain's incisiveness in the Switzerland game. Whilst the first concern is difficult to remedy (beyond a willing application on the part of the full-backs) the second fear is misplaced, I would argue. How come?
Because playing as outside-forwards rather than wide-midfielders, Villa and Silva will look to move inside more diagonally (as opposed to horizontally), more rapidly (instead of taking their time to pick out a pass and elaborate the build-up) and more objectively (i.e. heading for goal). Basically, they will need to exploit whichever of the three inner-channels that Fernando Torres is not occupying at a given time. Accordingly, this out-to-in movement will occur at a more advanced stage of the attack and within a higher band.
Figure 3 (left): 4-3-3 as used by Del Bosque towards the latter stages of Spain's qualifiers. Again, Cesc's box to box movement is denoted by the broken white line. Silva and Villa start from outside-left and -right positions respectively in attack. Alonso remains crucial for switching the play across the field whenever the attack begins to stagnate.
Defensively, this 4-3-3 shape will morph into a 4-1-4-1, thereby facilitating a high line of pressing in which Silva and Villa will have more fixed roles along their respective flanks; Xabi Alonso will form the intermediary role (the second line of pressure) which permits the first and third lines to extend and spread out, as per the 4-2-3-1, over a vertical distance of 22 - 25 metres (something not possible in a defensive situation of two flat banks).
Figure 4 (right): 4-3-3 becomes 4-1-4-1 with Silva and Villa joining an advanced line line of pressure formed by Xavi and Cesc. This movement should already be familiar to Villa not only from the qualifiers but also from the 2006 World Cup.
Of course, this 4-3-3 set-up will benefit Xavi for obvious reasons of familiarity. Cesc will find himself in a comortable role (going by last season's instances when Arsenal played this system) which will sufficiently liberate him to rush forward onto the second ball or simply advance through the centre in lieu of the likely to be rested Andres Iniesta. But neither will it force him to play extended periods with his back to goal which is what happens when he is 'parked' between the 3/4 lines.
* = More on this later; I accept the pretentious nature of my coinage here, but it certainly describes an observable phenomenon that has been in evidence in top flight football over the past decade, so much so that the phenomena described almost appears a maxim, a dogma, certainly in professional European football.