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What Makes Spain's Soccer Team So Dominant Right Now?

Posted: 07/09/2012 11:32 pm

This question originally appeared on Quora.

2012-07-10-hlee.jpeg
By Hung Lee, Recruitment Strategist - Founder of Wise Man Say

They have invented a new way of playing the game.

Tiki-taka isn't just a pleasing-to-the-eye brand of attacking football, it is so radical an evolution of the possession game that it's turned into a revolutionary way to play it.

Here are a few key concepts about this Spanish team that most commentators - at least English pundits - don't seem to understand.

1. Spain defends by keeping the ball.
The defensive statistics of this Spanish team are incredible - they conceded only one goal in Euro 2012 and only a total of six across the last three major tournaments - that's nineteen tournament games in total. This is an unheard of achievement that even the most renowned defensive sides in history have not come close to. And yet Spain has very few genuinely destructive players, or even players whose primary role in the team is to defend - to tackle, to head, to block. The Spanish have simply worked out that there is only one ball on the pitch, and if you have it, then only your team can score. And so they have ball players throughout the side, even to the extent of playing six midfielders, and defenders who were once midfielders, in defensive positions. They do not carry a single player who cannot play with the ball to his feet and be part of a network that can be trusted to circulate the ball and utterly dominate possession. Spain regularly 'out possesses' their opponents at unheard of ratios as high as 60 -70%. This means that the opposition routinely has less than half the game to score and win.

2. Spain does not play the contested ball.
An English commentator exclaimed during the recent tournament 'it's almost as if Spain does not want corners!' He could not quite believe his own words, as corners are perceived by almost every other football team in the world (apart from Barcelona, naturally) as an excellent offensive opportunity. But what the commentator said was actually true. Spain does indeed not want corners because they see not an opportunity to score a goal but rather a threat to something they prize more - possession of the ball. Just as you cannot concede a goal when you have the ball, Spain has understood that you can only score one when you do have it. So they keep the ball at all costs, even if that means foregoing a (poor) goal scoring opportunity.

In a corner situation, the most obvious outcome is a contested ball - players from both teams would rise to meet it, and either side, depending on the timing of the jump, has a reasonable chance of getting the ball. For Spain, these odds are not good enough, and they would prefer to retain possession in order to create another chance with better odds in a later phase.

This results in the Spanish often being accused of wanting to 'walk the ball' into the net, an accusation based on the assumption that Spanish team are populated purely by artists who want to score only aesthetically pleasing goals. This is a wrong characterization. Spain is populated by mathematicians, who have worked out, as professional gamblers at any casino might, how to play the percentages, and that you'll actually win more games by taking less chances. You simply need better chances.

3. Spain does not shoot unless they have a very good chance of scoring the goal.
Spain often wins 1-0. They do not do this, as the Italians might, by scoring first and expertly defending a lead, or as the English might, by battling through ninety minutes of constant turnover and winning it through superior morale. They do it by selecting only great opportunities to attempt to score. You will rarely see Spain score a goal from a long distance shot, and they actually take very few shots from outside the eighteen yard box. This is because a low percentage shot is just another way of losing possession of the ball. Even as the Spanish are tiki-taka-ing their way in your penalty box, their primary concern is thinking about possession and not to lose it, rather than to necessarily score a goal in that phase of play. Spain would happily make dozens of short passes to get into the penalty box, only to take another dozen to leave it again, if it mean't retaining the ball and being patient for the right opportunity to score. The English - and to be fair, almost everyone else - would 'force' it if given a similar situation, and maybe or maybe not score, maybe or maybe not lose possession in the attempt of doing so. Spain simply does not tolerate this element of chance.

Let's be clear: this is a remarkable Spanish team but there is more science behind what they do than people realise. They have simply realised a truth that every other nation seems to have forgotten - that there is only one ball on the pitch, and if you have it, you cannot lose. And so they have geared their entire team around possessing the ball to the extent of selecting personnel whose predominant ability is passing and possessing it, irrespective of what position they nominally play on the field

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