Spain shows the way for Australia’s youth

by Michael Huguenin on Jul 01, 2011

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The past couple of weeks and the rest of this Aussie winter are an exciting time to get out your crystal ball.

Australia’s three youth sides (the Olyroos, Young Socceroos and Joeys) have, are or will be playing matches throughout June and July. It’s a chance, as Australian football followers, to play that game we all like playing: What Will Be The Socceroos Starting Line Up at the 2014 World Cup?

(Of course this game can be tweaked slightly and 2014 can be replaced by 2018)

It’s not just supporters of the Socceroos that will be playing the game. Holger Osieck and every other member of Australian coaching staff from Han Berger at the top to Jan Versleijen at the bottom will be doing their own review of Australia’s best young talent over these winter months, trying to plot the best way to ensure Australian success at senior national team level.

But I hope Australia’s coaching hierarchy haven’t just focused on our local product.

The past fortnight or so I have covered the UEFA Under 21 European Championships in Denmark. On Saturday night Spain won its third title at this level. The Spanish followed the playing style that has ensured so much success for both Barcelona and the senior Spanish national team in recent years. The young Spaniards showed that there’s a lot to get excited about if you’re a Spanish fan.

I hope that the likes of Berger, Aurelio Vidmar and Versleijen have watched some of Spain’s games (or at least plan to in the near future) because the Spanish Under 21 side plays the kind of football I believe every country in the world should be trying to emulate. Berger, Vidmar and Versleijen should be teaching our young kids a similar type of football. Australia shouldn’t be left behind.

Now I’m not normally the person who argues that Australia should simply copy what other more successful football nations do. I believe that the Socceroos should play a style of football that is uniquely Australian. Attacking, tough, full speed and high intensity. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn off other countries.

Spain started with the same line up every match with one exception (Manager Luis Milla replaced Jeffren with Iker Muniain after the first match against England) and this stability allowed the young Spaniards to roll on, almost like a club side. Every player knew his role but each individual also had the skills and class to improvise and move around the pitch at will.

Spain played a fluid 4-1-4-1. Milla’s go to line up during the tournament (apart from the aforementioned early change) was the following:

----------------------------------------David de Gea----------------------------------------
Martin Montoya-------Alberto Botia-----Alvaro Dominguez--Didac Vila Rosello
----------------------------------------Javi Martinez----------------------------------------
Juan Mata----------Thiago Alcantara--------Ander Herrera------------Iker Muniain
----------------------------------------Adrian Lopez----------------------------------------

This formation allowed Spain to have overlapping fullbacks, almost three strikers when attacking and a midfield that was almost completely interchangeable. To do this, however, required a supreme amount of skill, understanding and, of course, some key players.

Javi Martinez was the first of these players. The captain was Milla’s defensive rock. Spain’s two weakest players were probably Alberto Botia and Alvaro Dominguez in defence. Martinez provided stability between the two central defenders, which allowed Spain’s fullbacks to bomb forward at every opportunity. Almost nothing got past the Athletic Bilbao youngster. Martinez is an imposing figure that wins most physical battles both on the ground and in the air. But he also has a silky side. Martinez would regularly stride forward with the ball almost glued to his feet, weave in and out of unsuspecting opponents and set up a Spanish counter-attack.

Just ahead of Martinez, Thiago Alcantara weaved his magic in the midfield. The Italian-born son of Brazilian World Cup winner Mazinho was the Xavi-like player of Milla’s side. Yet Thiago has a bit more natural flair than the Barcelona conductor. Barcelona has been chasing Cesc Fabregas’ signature in the current European transfer window but Thiago seemed to make a statement in Denmark to Pep Guardiola that Fabregas isn’t needed at Camp Nou. Thiago was named man of the match twice during the U21 finals and wowed the crowds with his quick feet, pinpoint passing and fun-loving attitude on the pitch. Watching Thiago was a joy.

In between the midfield and lone striker Adrian Lopez, Juan Mata was the star for Spain. The Valencia winger, who, along with Martinez, was part of Spain’s World Cup winning squad in South Africa last year, was regularly the player that turned Spain’s extensive possession into something substantial. The Spanish number ten scored two goals during the tournament but also set up a few more. Mata’s clever little runs and ability to find space when apparently surrounded is something that is almost impossible to teach and shows why, at just 23, he’s already one of the best forwards in the Spanish Primera Liga. Mata’s two assists against Czech Republic are worth watching time and again. It was mainly due to Mata’s skill that Adrian won the Golden Boot Award as the tournament’s top scorer.

Spain deservedly beat Switzerland 2-0 in the final of the U21 tournament. While I don’t want Australian youth sides to simply try and become a carbon copy of this young Spanish side (for example, I sincerely hope that Australian players never milk free kicks the way Iker Muniain does) I do believe it is worth learning from the best and right now, Spain is playing the best football in the world, at both senior and youth level.