Boring? Don't Blame Spain

By Paul Gardner

There is a soccer version of Gresham's Law. It decrees not simply that bad soccer will drive out good soccer, but that the sport will play an active role in the banishment, apparently preferring bad, or just plain average soccer.

This distorted rule can be seen in action virtually every time that Spain plays. But it is not Spain that uses it. It is Spain’s opponents who try to take advantage of it.

It works like this. Spain is held to be too good, surreally good, it seems, so it’s just not possible to beat them by playing an open game -- one in which you try to dominate by gaining possession of the ball and then launch attacks. The fear has spread that “Spain will kill you” if you play that way.

The mentality was nicely spelled out by the Czech coach Michal Bilek in Euro 2012. As it happens he was talking about Portugal, but his comments apply even more aptly when to transferred to Spain: “If you open up against Portugal, they will punish you. It's very difficult to stop them.”

So the Czechs played super-defensively against Portugal, made it very difficult for the Portuguese, until Ronaldo scored. What the Czechs displayed you could call tactical canniness; or you could call it timidity or cowardice. Whatever, for 80 minutes the game was reduced to a turgid stalemate. And then the Czechs lost it anyway. A 1-0 win for Portugal.

1-0. That is the usual scoreline these days when Spain plays in a major tournament -- a 1-0 win for Spain. Spain won the 2010 World Cup after 1-0 wins in the round-of-16, the quarterfinal, the semifinal and the final. Spain’s four games so far played in Euro 2012, have included a 1-1 tie with Italy, a 1-0 win over Croatia, and a 2-0 win over France (this last game, with Spain’s second goal coming in the 92nd minute, can be considered a 1-0 game). All of Spain’s opponents in those 1-0 games adopted ultra-defensive tactics -- anti-soccer, many would call it. And all of them lost.

Which makes it look as though beating Spain is considered well nigh impossible, and that the sensible pride-saving or (as far as the coach is concerned) job-saving approach is to keep the score down.

Enter soccer’s Gresham’s Law. Play rotten soccer, make it difficult-to-impossible for the Spanish to play their superior game, drain the game of its entertainment value ... and hope for a lucky 1-0 win. No team -- since Switzerland did it in Spain’s first game at the 2010 World Cup - has come away with that elusive 1-0 win. But in the absence of any other solution to the Spanish superiority, the anti-soccer approach continues. Inevitably, the entertainment value of watching Spain has suffered badly.

And soccer being the perverse sport that it is, it is Spain that is getting the blame for that. Its opponents take the field determined to play ultra-defensive anti-soccer ... yet Spain gets blamed for the subsequent ennui?

Yes, Spain is under accusation of being too interested in merely retaining possession, which it is good at anyway, but becomes even better at when its opponents show little interest in challenging for the ball. Spain is not adventurous enough. Spain is now satisfied with the 1-0 win. And so on.

But no, Spain is not to be blamed. Nor, I think, should too much infamy be heaped on the practitioners of anti-soccer. They are doing what looks like the least risky way of getting a win against Spain. What they are doing, the anti-soccer they are playing, may be objectionable and a total bore, but it is something that the sport’s rules permit.

That is as far as I’m willing to go with that argument. At this point it becomes clear where the problem lies. With the sport itself. Because I think that the sport not only permits anti-soccer ... it encourages it.

There is throughout soccer’s rules a strong tendency, whenever there is a contentious issue, to favor the defensive side of the game. We have seen -- and I have recently written about -- three glaring examples of this bias in Euro 2012. Firstly, a minimal offside call that denied Greece a goal. Then another, this time almost microscopic, call that deprived Ukraine of a goal. And most grotesque of all, what should have been a penalty kick for Greece against Russia, was turned into diving call, and a yellow card, against Greece.

The anti-diving witchhunt is, of course, a totally anti-offense maneuver.

On penalty kick calls, which happens more frequently: that a clear PK foul is not called, or a PK is given when no foul exists? It’s not even close -- the denial of genuine PKs category is far larger.

One hears, from time to time, ponderous and apparently genuine talk about the need for referees to protect skilled players. The talk is always vitiated, in my view, by the obvious fact that there is one player on the field who gets protection almost to the point of mollycoddling -- and that is the most defensive player of the lot, the goalkeeper.

In short, playing defense -- the destructive, the least difficult, part of the game -- is made even easier by defense-friendly rules and decisions. The slide into playing ultra-defense -- i.e. anti-soccer -- is all too easy.

The origins of soccer’s version of Gresham’s Law, then, are self-inflicted. They are born of a disturbing bias to see defensive play triumphant, to make it easy for attacking play to be squelched. As I stated in my opening paragraph, a desire to have good soccer replaced by average or even poor soccer. That is the inevitable result of soccer’s Gresham’s Law. And that law is the direct result of the pro-defensive bias that permeates the rules.

That bias -- I suppose it must go back to the sport’s early Victorian days when, possibly, attacking play was thought to be too dominant -- could quite easily be corrected. Rules can be changed. But there is a formidable barrier to change: our old friend, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the torpid committee in charge of the sport’s rules.

It is under IFAB’s pro-inactive leadership that the sport has been allowed to reach the point where its most skillful, its most imaginative, its most attractive team is, in game after game, compelled to play in a way that makes the exhibition of those vibrant qualities very difficult indeed.

Yes, bad soccer will very likely drive out good soccer. But only when the rules allow it to do so.

19 comments about "Boring? Don't Blame Spain".
  1. Carlos Thys, June 27, 2012 at 3:40 a.m.

    So this makes Bradley's win vs Spain at the 2009 Confed Cup all that much more special? Yes, I guess so. Mr. Gardner, I heartily submit that what Spain is doing presently at EURO 2012 is not, in the end, that glorious. Yes, I positively love the pannache, ease, flair of ball control that Xavi, Iniesta, Fabregas, & D. Silva offer. That is well worth watching all by itself. It is remarkable; it is ball skills on the highest plateau. However, let's remember that this Spain teetered mightily on elimination from the tournament as they only just achieved a very fragile, very slim, very late 1-0 against Croatia (88th minute! goal by Jesus Navas). Several easily achieved scenarios in the closing 10-12 minutes of Spain-Croatia, Italy-Ireland Group C pairings could certainly have seen Spain on a flight home next day. The Spaniards did not "manhandle," deflate the Croats by the 60, 70th minute. That is what is meddlesome when trying to give this Spain 2012 rendition any praise. To my mind, a good team puts the issue to bed latest by the 70-75th minute. This is why I prefer Luis Aragones when he led at EURO 2008. He did the hard work; he got these Spanish players to believe they are winners; he had them playing better football while showing them that they are champions. The Spain of that 2008 tournament is the football worth watching. Del Bosque can justly be criticized for what we now see & for large portions of what we saw in S. Africa. You just cannot tell me that players like Llorente, Fabregas, Pedro, Negredo, even ole Torres are yippy skippy happy to have another teammate make the goal and then just ride out the result with fingers crossed. Good footballers don't think that way. Good fans don't think that way either. If you're the best, well then wins by 2 or 3 goal margin ought to be rather achievable. It should have been against a very ordinary, disjointed, lackluster France 4 days ago. The standout game of the last four years for Spain is one from Euro 2008. That match is Spain-Russia June 10, 2008 (the Spain - Russia semifinal in Vienna June 26 is a close second). That 4-1 win is the game that you show to youth, to teens, to college kids, to those you wish to introduce and enthrall with this World Game. That's the game where you roll out the superlatives and say, "Yes, I was glad to be alive to see and enjoy that kind of football on display." Presently Del Bosque (and the players themselves) could unleash a more offensive, goal-oriented, shot-oriented, results-oriented approach, positively pounding the opposing goalkeepers. Why they don't given all their talent is beyond me. They have decided not to put this on display. Again, as a fine example, just see France-Spain in Donetsk. Yes, it was hot/humid in that stadium - I get that. But that was a chance to "let it flow" yet they preferred to own possession, hope a 1-0 holds up. Only they, the Spaniards, are responsible for this odd display of reluctant, unwilling, just marginal football.

  2. Carlos Thys, June 27, 2012 at 4:27 a.m.

    Let me be far more direct, to the point: Yes, Spain can and should easily be blamed for their own pedestrian ways -- in this current tournament. Look no further than their last two matches. Despite coming off what should be a very reassuring big win over Ireland (with 4 points in the bag) Spain offers no offense at all in the first half against Croatia. Remember the long range shots by Sergio Ramos & G. Pique as the ONLY highlights for the first 45 minutes? The ESPN commentators ALL agreed it was the most lackluster segment of play (at that point) in the tournament. Mr. Gardner, one cannot blame anyone else but the Spaniards themselves for this. Ditto for the game versus France. Just look at total shots on goal with only a very meager five Spanish shots on target. Somebody needs to scream at Xavi, Iniesta, and Co. that they are indeed the best team (except perhaps the Germans), so...please, just uncork it! Let it rip! Unchain yourselves. Show us the Beautiful (offensive-shooting, real chances created every 3-4 minutes) Game. This will be the last chance to do so in this tournament as they face Portugal. Mr. Gardner, the Spaniards are deciding to play in this unadventurous manner, no one is boxing them into this. No rules are doing it either.

  3. bF BF, June 27, 2012 at 8:34 a.m.

    @Carlo...let me be direct. You got it all wrong my friend.

  4. Gene Jay, June 27, 2012 at 9:05 a.m.

    Paul gardner is not giving any credit to what Spain does best--play stiffling team defense. when Spain loses the ball, they usually get it back instantly because their ulta-talented midfielders actually are ulta-talented defenders too. Teams only play defensively when the do not have the ball. But pretty much all teams do try to attack when they finally get posession; problem is after a pass ot two, Spain regains possession and are coming back at you-quickly!

  5. I w Nowozeniuk, June 27, 2012 at 9:32 a.m.

    Possession, simplicity, and efficacy; if that's boring, stick with the MLS, it's your cup of tea. Total futbol played the right way is awesome.

  6. Theodore Eison, June 27, 2012 at 9:52 a.m.

    I don't care how much possession you have. If you don't pass the ball forward, you are not playing attacking soccer. Spain is in plain fact boring. If you want excitement, watch Germany and Portugal. I am so sick of the same tired Paul Gardner argument. He's been writing the same article since the 70's.

  7. Kent James, June 27, 2012 at 10:22 a.m.

    Provocative, as always, Mr. Gardner. Spain can be criticized for not attacking the goal enough (as Theodore points out), and Gene is right that Spain doesn't get enough credit for their defense (it's not like opponents simply give Spain the ball; Spain takes it back quickly). Where the opponents can be criticized is when they do get the ball, most of their players take a breather rather than attack as a team; you can't win if you don't try to score (though I guess you can hope for a draw and a victory on kicks from the mark). But PG is right that there is a problem when the best, most creative team ends up playing a lot of games that are difficult to watch. I'm not sure the referees can do much about it (they're only human). But making the goals slightly bigger (for symmetry and karma, I'd recommend a foot taller and a yard wider) would open up the game, without making it too easy to score). How often have you said to yourself "this game needs a goal"? Bigger goals would also allow teams like Spain to shoot past a "pack it in" defense, and have some success in doing so, which would force the defense to come out farther to close down the long range shots, which would open up space for the "ticky-taka" play the Spanish have mastered. Additionally, with more goals in a game, referees would be more likely to award penalties since they would have less to fear about "deciding" the game by awarding the game's only goal-scoring opportunity. That would open up the game and lead to a more attacking style.

  8. Ramon Creager, June 27, 2012 at 10:24 a.m.

    Carlos, Spain pedestrian? That is a serious abuse of language. If Spain is so "pedestrian" why don't all the really pedestrian teams emulate it? The answer, obviously, is that they can't. So by definition Spain is not pedestrian. They are the elites of the sport. And, ahem. No offense? They have the second most goals in the tournament, only one back from "juggernaut" Germany. They have the second most attempts *on frame* (avg 11 per game), behind Italy (12.5). Germany only have 8.25 per game. They are 9th in attempts off target, with only 5.75 per game, which means when they shoot, 2/3ds of the time the shot is on target. They have conceded the fewest goals. They have conceded the fewest shots on goal. They have by far the most possession, the most passes completed. They are near bottom on fouls committed, near top on fouls suffered. Any claim that they are all about possession and no offense is belied by these stats. They have the most possession *and* they are at the top in offense categories (goals and attempts) in this tournament. Anyone who finds this "boring" and "pedestrian" just has no appreciation for this sport.

  9. Ramon Creager, June 27, 2012 at 11:46 a.m.

    You can blame the rules all you want for defensive "anti-soccer." But I contend that what makes the Laws so good is that they don't dictate strategy. That is up to the teams in question. Defense is always easier than offense, so the mediocre will always turn to defense first regardless of the rules. Making defense harder will have the counter intuitive effect of making the game *less* exiting (ho hum, another Spain/Italy/Germany 4-0 win. Next victim!) Rather, the problem is one not even discussed here: poor player development and soccer culture in leagues of countries not named Spain and Germany, Italy and Brazil, etc. Take Spain's la Liga: the majority of top La Liga players in the Euros are on the Spain squad (19 of 32, with 13 of the 19 from the top two clubs, and 13 more worthy Spanish players in the player pool not picked due to the injury/roster limit). Now, look at England: EPL clubs have contributed an astonishing 70 players to the Euros, but how many of these are English? The 23 that the England squad needs, of course, but only 7 of those are from the top two clubs, and none play in any other top league ( The bulk of the England team come from mid-table EPL clubs. In other words, the EPL is awash with talent, but comparatively little of it is English. And we wonder that these guys can't hang with Spain or Italy or Germany? No rule changes will paper over this gulf in quality. You will either have Spain patiently picking apart an ultra-defensive mediocrity, or Spain crushing a defenseless mediocrity. Pick your poison. But the pendulum will swing. There will be pressure for other countries to catch up to Spain, Italy, Germany.

  10. Scholes Scholes, June 27, 2012 at 12:24 p.m.

    Gardner is right....they should call the game a bit tighter to give the attacking team more advantage...this will open game up .....simple call do not allow defenders to grab attackers...and when in doubt leave flag down on offsides...

  11. John Hooper, June 27, 2012 at 1:48 p.m.

    I find the way Spain plays fascinating and their patient attempts to break down a defensive side raise the tension in the game. Then, when they finally break through, often they give us something spectacular. I can live with that. It's also fascinating to watch how Spain (and Barcelona) are changing the way other teams play and leaving the 4-4-2, which not long ago was thought to be the perfect formation, on the trash heap. I can't wait until WC 2014 to see how the other great teams, especially Argentina and the ever-adaptable Brazil, rework their strategies and tactics to try to beat Spain. I think the best thing about this Euro tournament is that the attacking sides, in the end, are winning and the defensive sides are not (with the unfortunate exception of lucky, lucky England). We also get to see how the good teams make those defensive formations look truly pedestrian. The number of times I almost laughed and then beat my head against the table when Gerrard and Parker got too close together to figure out who should step up onto Pirlo, resulting in them both standing flat-footed epitomizes what I think is the future of ultra-defensive tactics. They won't work anymore, and so they will be (slowly, gradually) abandoned. Defensive teams will start to look more like Italy in the first game against Spain, going back to a sweeper system with wing-backs. Attacking teams will counter by widening their play and using wingers (like Navas), and things will go on from there.

  12. Daniel Clifton, June 27, 2012 at 3:54 p.m.

    I agree with the comment by Gene. Spain is not given enough credit for their ability to win the ball back quickly. I think this is a major reason teams that play Spain end up looking so defensive. Whether they plan it or not they can't gain possession of the ball. When they do gain possession of the ball they want to be careful with the ball so that Spain doesn't win the ball back quickly (which is usually what happens). This was the problem I saw France experience and why I thought at times even late in the game they were so conservative with the ball, whenever they got aggressive with the ball they almost immediately lost it. It will be interesting to see how Portugal plays them. In the 2010 World Cup Portugal played very conservatively. I think in this game they will go after Spain. They have the one element that could really unlock Spain - speed and skill on the outside.

  13. Byron Tang, June 27, 2012 at 8:54 p.m.

    I have no qualms over the way Spain plays, but I'm going to play devil's advocate here.

    It can be argued that the way Spain/Barcelona plays is actually very defensive. I would call it even ultra-defensive. To keep possession without the intent of attacking only to deprive the other team of chances is a defensive tactic. It is so defensive that in sports like basketball, the shot clock was invented to prevent this kind of behavior. Think about it, other sports CREATE rules to BANISH the kind of tactics Spain is using.

    Again, I personally don't mind the way Spain is playing and find it legit, but I also love watching teams play ultra-conservative defense too. Playing good defense is very tough to do. This whole anti-futbol thing is nonsense. Why can't people appreciate both? Please stop trying to remold the game in some image that you prefer like it is clay.

    For kicks, go on youtube and search "basketball game low scoring" and watch the first video. Look familiar?

  14. Charles O'Cain, June 28, 2012 at 8:58 a.m.

    Exactly, Byron. Spain/Barcelona play the football equivalent of the "four corners" offense, with multiple "point guards" (midfielders) holding the ball, waiting for an open shot or lay-up. Interesting as a tactic, but not enthralling. Give me the occasional alley oop, slam dunk or even three-pointer (now there's an idea for the rules-tinkering Mr Gardner). Pressure on the goal is more exciting than keep away.

  15. Millwall America, June 28, 2012 at 9:21 a.m.

    Charles and Byron have it right, and Paul has it wrong -- the problem is Spain/Barcelona and not their opponents. If you really want to fix this problem, you do need to change the Laws of the Game. However, the answer isn't to make the goals larger -- that would just mean Spain wins every game 4-0 instead of winning every game 1-0. Instead, the rule would be that you have a certain number of seconds/minutes or are allowed a certain number of passes, and if you haven't shot at the goal by the end of that time, you have to give the ball to the other team. This would force Spain/Barcelona to actually attack when they have possession, rather than passing the ball back and forth between midfield and the back four until the opposition gets so bored or frustrated that they make a mistake.

  16. Kent James, June 28, 2012 at 10:34 a.m.

    Ramon is right about picking your poison. When you have disparities in skill between teams like Spain and almost everyone else, you can either have a game in which the better team wins (more just), or one in which both teams have a chance to win (theoretically more exciting), even if one does not "deserve" to (by not being as good). While I appreciate the occasional FA Cup or Open Cup game in which a minnow, that is clearly not as talented as their major league foe, can win, overall, I'd rather see the better teams win. And Millwall America, while you are right that bigger goals would mean Spain would have more lopsided scores, I would rather see a 4-0 Spanish win in which both teams have multiple chances on goal than a 1-0 win in which Spain scores on it's only chance on goal while not letting it's opponent have the ball. As an example, the Germany-Greece game was one of the more exciting games, even though the final score was 4-1. I'd rather watch that than Italy-England, even though there was more tension in the Italy-England game.

  17. Carlos Thys, June 28, 2012 at 3:48 p.m.

    I guess I truly have a problem comprehending what Spain some of you claim to be seeing. Spain needed 101 minutes yesterday in Donetsk before it brought its first shot on goal that Rui Patricio needed to save. (It was a good chance for Iniesta and a truly great save from the Portuguese GK.) 101 minutes! And then there was only one more real Spain testing of Patricio before we hit the final whistle at the 120 minute mark. As I firmly assert above: This little flair, little offense, lack of shots, all of this is Spain's own self created problem. Thus, to really examine this, I once more have to also assert (and this is more important) that what we are seeing is manipulated. It just does not stand to reason that Spain produces so little offense (Portugal did not bunker down in defense) and Portugal really did not produce much of anything either. That was another dullsville game -- so I believe fully in various forms of manipulation. Look with open eyes; I think you'll see it. Please consider at least this: Is it not much more financially beneficial to UEFA and these national federations (TV, sponsors, media outlets, etc.) to have the game go into overtime? Perhaps the "drama?" of penalties, too? Sponsors are very happy to have their very expensive TV ads shown more than the contracted times. I think any way one examines what we now see in so many CL situations and at World Cups and at these UEFA Euros is -- manipulation.

  18. Bill Anderson, June 28, 2012 at 4:47 p.m.

    Boring, Boring Spain. No excuses, or blaming the other team for parking the bus, Spain is simply BORING. They peaked eight years ago at the Euro 2008, and since that time have become less and less of an entertaining team. You can try and gloss over their lack of attack, but you would only be pretending Spain is something that they are not. They are still a very disciplined and competent team, but the panache is gone, dead, and buried. They may defeat Italy in the final, but this will be their last hurrah.

  19. John Hooper, June 28, 2012 at 6:48 p.m.

    Before writing Spain off entirely, consider the extra time periods. With two genuine wingers on in Navas and Pedro, Spain ahd all the width they ahd been lacking earlier. The game sped up and Spain worked good scorng chances. The problem then was that without Villa, and Torres a shadow of what eh used to be, they don't have a player to finish the chances and be the focus of the attack. Fabregas is great, but he's Xavi-lite, not Villa-lite. What I would like to see Spain do is focus on fielding the best TEAM, rather than the best players. For instance, Silva, Iniesta, and Xavi together step on each others' toes too much--adding Fabregas just compunds this. I would like to see Spain play wiht only two of these (Xavi and Iniesta would be my choice) and only one of Xabi Alonso and Busquets (there I would pick Busquets--and yes, I know I just made the Barca midfield, btu I think it is the best formation for Spain in the middle). Then, I would like to see two genuine wide players. I thought Navas and Pedro looked good, but Mata could play this role as well. Maybe Silav could do this, although I think he's better in the center. Then, and most importantly, I want to see a "pivot player", and all-around forward up front to focus the attack. Ideally, this would be Villa (unless Torres returnd to form). I haven't seen enough yet of Negredo and Llorente to know if I'd like them in this role, but I do know that I don't like Fabregas there. So I guess I've got a midfield of Busquets, Xavi, and Iniesta, with Xabi Alonso, Fabregas, and Silva on the bench to step in for any of those. The front line would be (now that I think of it) Mata, Villa, and Pedro, with Navas and Torres on the bench. With Villa out and Torres out of form, try Negredo or Llorente in the middle.

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