Five things Del Bosque got wrong
Spain put up one of the worst World Cup title defences in history, and the analysis has been unpleasant reading for fans who have been used to glory in the three previous tournaments. Hindsight is a beautiful thing, so here are five decisions by coach Vicente del Bosque that resulted in Spain's dismal performance.
1. Sticking with Iker Casillas in goal
Regardless of the reasons behind it, the keeper who led Spain to three consecutive titles lost his place in Real Madrid's starting lineup two seasons ago. As a result, the 60-plus matches he averaged every year since he joined the first team in 1999 were halved in 2012-13; he managed only 24 in the season just finished.
So the dilemma appeared: Should Del Bosque start a club substitute -- who, by the way, is well-known for playing himself into shape as the season goes on -- who knew Spain's back four by heart, or should he invest in building that same level of synchronisation with another goalkeeper?
The need to find an alternative grew once Casillas' natural replacement, Barcelona's Victor Valdes, picked up a serious knee injury that kept him out of the World Cup. At that point -- and given that Napoli loanee Pepe Reina has never been seriously considered an option in the squad -- getting Man United youngster David de Gea up to speed seemed mandatory. However, Del Bosque decided to use the pre-tournament friendlies to give Casillas more playing time, while De Gea got only seven minutes of action, hardly enough to give him a start.
After Casillas' horrible opening performance against Netherlands, Del Bosque had no real options off the bench to replace him -- and to make things easier for the manager, De Gea picked up an injury before the second group match (versus Chile). Essentially, Spain went to the World Cup with only one goalkeeper, and he was far from being in his best shape. You could tell.
2. Avoiding a much-needed midfield renovation
One of the biggest misconceptions about the way Spain plays -- or used to, anyway -- is that the physical component is secondary to skill. On the contrary, the fact that most Spaniards in this squad aren't gifted physical specimens makes it all the more important that they are in good shape in order to get the team to perform.
At the end of the domestic season, it became obvious that Xavi Hernandez, Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso, the core of the midfield, were running on fumes. Del Bosque showed his concern by calling up Athletic Bilbao's Ander Iturraspe for the provisional 30-man squad list and also brought Atletico Madrid's Koke into the team -- although the manager left out Atletico Madrid captain Gabi.
The message was clear: Spain needed new blood in the middle of the park. However, it took Del Bosque too long to understand that the physical issue was bigger than anyone imagined. Slow and off pace, Alonso and Busquets played their poorest two matches in a Spain shirt against Netherlands and Chile; Koke did not get much of a chance to impress; and Javi Martinez, another excellent option to refresh the side in midfield, was busy replacing a dismal Gerard Pique in the centre of the defence. Spain lost their first two matches by not exerting their usual control of midfield, and that had little to do with their technique, but with their lungs. A 3-0 cruise against Australia was played at little more than testimonial pace.
3. Turning Diego Costa into Spain's Plan A.
One can hardly question the fact that Del Bosque went out of his way to fit La Liga's third-best scorer -- behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Leo Messi, no less -- in his squad, especially bearing in mind Spain's glaring issues in front of the opposition's goal. The Spanish coach had insisted several times that the false nine formation appeared not by virtue but by necessity, given that, after David Villa's injury in late 2011 and his subsequent struggles to regain his shape, Del Bosque hadn't found a real scorer who knew how to play with a very demanding midfield.
Now we know that Costa, far from being a plug-and-play option, demands very specific service; one quite different to the usual that Iniesta, Silva and Xavi and others usually provide. And without enough flying hours for them to learn how to play together -- and with Atletico Madrid teammate Koke waving the towel on the sidelines -- Costa should have been an option off the bench to Spain's better-trained false nine setup, and not the other way around. His fitness issues alone before the tournament could have been a reason for benching him, but clearly a new plan is needed.
4. Filling the bench with strikers who peaked six years ago
Once it became obvious that Costa hadn't quite worked out, journalists and fans alike looked at the bench and were not exactly thrilled by what they saw. Having tested other top-level strikers in the 30-man list -- Fernando Llorente, Alvaro Negredo and Roberto Soldado -- Del Bosque instead chose the same couple that took coach Luis Aragones to success in Euro 2008.
Even though both managed to get on the scoresheet in the final match versus Australia, the fact that both David Villa and Fernando Torres have not resembled their best versions for years is impossible to ignore. Villa still shows his legendary ability to show up unmarked in front of the goal, although he tends to get there half a second late these days. Torres, coming off the bench in both matches, hardly terrifies opposing centre-backs or energises his own teammates and fans anymore. Actually, one could say he has the opposite effect. After all the time devoted to selecting his strikers and his gamble on Costa, Del Bosque found himself with no offensive punch off the bench. Villa and Torres' final goals should also come with their final appearances.
5. Reducing the amount of dissent among his technical staff
Del Bosque employs a very tight group of close advisors, among whom Toni Grande, his right-hand man, possesses the biggest influence over the manager. Having worked together since Del Bosque coached Real Madrid over a decade ago, the level of agreement between them is now close to 100 percent in most tactical and personnel issues.
In the past, the figure of the Spanish FA sporting director -- occupied by former Real Madrid legend Fernando Hierro during the 2010 World Cup -- represented the dissenting opinion. Out of the huge respect they hold for each other, Del Bosque would pick Hierro's brains over one controversial topic or another, and the well-traveled and knowledgeable former player (building on experiences Del Bosque didn't enjoy during his career as a player) performed the devil's advocate role quite well.
After Hierro left the position in 2011, no one occupied his role in Del Bosque's team. The Spanish FA has already considered fresh blood for that position, and that would benefit both the manager and the squad if they are to bury the ghosts of this awful tournament.