Dominant champions: Spain’s Golden Generation


(Euro 2008, World Cup 2010, Euro 2012)

Termed as perennial underachievers in International Tournaments, Spain were a side which hadn’t seen a major success for a long time in the past and the last title won was the 1964 Euros. Often failing to progress past the first few knockout rounds, La Furia Roja were never serious contenders for the major international tournaments. All this would change after their ‘Golden generation’ took center stage towards the fag end of the last decade. Spain became a force to reckon with playing their possession brand of football with their foundations based on the Barcelona side of that time.

Luis Aragones instilled ‘Tiki-Taka’ as the philosophy and the team would flourish with an assortment of technically gifted players in the side. Though this style of play would differ from Pep Guardiola’s ‘Juego de Posicion’ principle,the common misconception that Barcelona played Tiki Taka too, Spain were nonetheless effective in keeping the ball and breaking down opponents.  Here we take a look at how Spain managed to be the greatest national side of this century and one of the greatest of all time.

EURO 2008

Highly experienced Luis Aragones was appointed as the Manager of the Spain National Team on July 1, 2004. In the following tournament, 2006 World Cup, Spain faced the Defending Champions France in the round of 16. A 3-1 loss had them sent crashing out of a major tournament once again. Analysing the defeat in the World Cup, Aragones, touted as the wise man, made some shocking changes. He was inspired by the famous Dutch Football team of the 1970’s and got the idea of maintaining possession to avoid the opponents giving a chance rather than creating more chances up front.

Yes, this is the famous Tiki-Taka. Luis Aragones was the man to have invented or say re-invented the famous philosophy, Tiki-Taka. The Spain team of the previous years used to pass the ball to wide areas and then cross it into the box. Aragones saw this and changed the way as he introduced constant passing and maintaining the ball at the feet. To help his philosophy, he made some astonishing changes to his squad.

He removed players such as Juantino, Joaquin, Lopez and Michel Salgado who were the key members of the team. Even the great Raul became a loose end in his case and was removed from the squad. On the other hand, he brought in players who were astute passers of the ball and had great playmaking ability. He introduced the ever-inventive Cesc Fabregas, David Silva and the defensively sound Raul Albiol.

Tactical Breakdown

In the Euro 2008, the main tactics employed by Spain were based on horizontal as well as back passes. By playing horizontal passes and maintaining the ball at their feet, Spain saw them accumulate a maximum amount of possession. This not only helped them increase their options of opening up their opponents during rare attacking moves but also gave them a huge advantage by wearing down their opponents. This passing scheme was aimed at moving the opposition and exploiting the gaps. Again, this was not Juego de posicion but rather it was having the ball for possession’s sake which could be seen from the video below.

Aragones played two basic formations in the tournament. The 4-1-4-1 and 4-4-2 became the trademark of the Spain team in 2008 and Marco Senna is one of key players in this system. His movement was crucial in determining the overall shape of the team. The fact that Senna held this pivotal role in the team helped the likes of Xavi and Iniesta assert their dominance of the ball.

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The 4-4-2 as shown above was basically played out as a 4-1-3-2 with Senna playing quite deeper than the other three midfielders. Iniesta and Silva tucked themselves into the half spaces on either wings as Villa played as the second striker to Torres. In defensive movements it could be seen that Villa dropped deeper to join the midfielders to help out in defense.

Senna was the key to the system as his presence at the heart of midfield allowed other players such as Xavi, Silva and Iniesta more freedom to surge forward. Also, Senna was adept at collecting the ball from the back and play it to next line of attack. This role however was shared by the Xavi who played as the box to box midfielder in the team.

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The graphic below shows the other system used by Aragones. The 4-1-4-1 which translated to a 4-3-3 in attacks also revolved around the movements of Senna. Here a single striker is deployed and it was Torres in most cases, who was in the form of his life. This allowed the manager to employ the more creative Cesc Fabregas in the central midfield along with Xavi. In the midfield triangle constituted by Xavi, Senna and Fabregas, the former played as the box to box midfielder whereas Senna and Fabregas took up role of a defensive midfielder and a deep lying playmaker respectively.

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Most of the attacks came in from the half-spaces which were occupied by Silva and Iniesta on both the flanks Due to increased possession, the full backs would be free and will join the attacks when the ball is carried forward. In most occasions, the ball carrier in the half-space would ideally have an option of passing the ball to two players and this allows them to maintain possession even though it is played into a tight area. The image below depicts the same as Silva carries the ball in the left half-space and here he had more than three passing options.

In defence, the captain Casillas guarded the goal as he was supported by a back four of Ramos, Puyol, Marchena and Capdevila. As said earlier, the overall defensive movements of the team depended upon Senna’s movements. The team falls back to defend in two banks of four with Senna falling in between the lines to stop the opponent player from breaking it. In most occasions the team defends in a 4-1-4-1 but this changes when Senna comes forward to join the midfield line, they defend in banks of four and five. One can understand that Senna’s movements actually depended on the movements of the opposition playmaker and Senna was equally tactically astute to position himself in order to negate any danger. The image below depicts the defensive scheme.

However when two forwards are deployed in the side, then the second striker, David Villa in most cases, would fall behind to join the midfield. This allows Senna to follow the attacker. The video below explains how these defensive movements rightly happened.

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These tactics and the right players to utilize them in an astute manner were nurtured by Aragones. Often forgotten when associating the term tiki-taka with the Spain National Team, the wise man is the one who should be praised for bringing it in the first place. This philosophy, though deemed to be boring and less creative, gave Spain their much-needed success.

David Villa ended the tournament as the highest goal scorer on the way to help his side to win the first major tournament after 44 years. At the end of the tournament, Aragones decided to step down on a high note as Vincente del Bosque was appointed as the Spain NT’s new manager. Though this win didn’t mark Spain’s total dominance, this was just the beginning of an era of total domination. The new chapter for their jaw-dropping story had just started.

World Cup 2010

Following the exit of Aragones, Vincente del Bosque took charge of the reign. In Spain, del Bosque inherited a side which were groomed technically and tactically. However, major players such as Marchena and especially the king-pin of the team, which won the Euros, Marcos Senna decided to hang up his boots. The gaffer decided to keep the philosophy which brought the Euro 2008 trophy to the country. He even stated that he wants to add more to the style of play and in doing so, he recruited the likes of Busquets, Xabi Alonso and Pedro into the starting XI.

Tactical Breakdown

The main idea, going into the 2010 World Cup, was to maintain the same philosophy and play even better than they played in the Euro 2008. In Busquets, del Bosque found a great replacement for Marcos Senna and developed a midfield which were one of a kind by including the versatile Xabi Alonso in the star-studded line-up. In the heart of the defence the tall and physically strong Pique was added to partner his Barcelona captain Puyol. With these inclusions, del Bosque could finally hand the total reins of the team to Xavi and Busquets as the duo were crucial in their team’s success.

Xabi Alonso poster
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The manager prepared his side in a basic 4-3-3 shape. However they started many of the games in a 4-2-3-1 as Xavi joins the attacking three. Known as the tournament of the 4-2-3-1s, almost most of the teams including Spain executed the basic structure. In the attacking front, both Torres and Villa started in most of the games up front and one of the two would tuck into the left wing to cut inside. This position was taken up by Villa in most instances to provide the width in left and both the strikers swapped their roles in the course of the games. The graphic below depicts the 4-2-3-1 employed by Spain.

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In the later stages of the tournament, Pedro was preferred as he gave the much-needed width in the left-wing while Villa started upfront. The central duo was composed by Alonso and Busquets. Busquets was the natural defensive midfielder in the team and Xabi Alonso would join upfront in attacks and offensive pressing. del Bosque’s side improved on many areas as evolved from the side which won the Euro. Two of the most brilliant things done by Spain were:

1. Providing more width in wide areas

2. Zonal pressing without more emphasis/aggression (Passive pressing)

On the right, Ramos was brilliant in giving Spain the much-needed width. This allowed Iniesta to play inside drifting from the flank whereas on the other flank, it worked differently. Capdevila was not as technically astute as Ramos though he was a very good defender. To provide more width on the left often Villa would drop into the flank as said earlier. To solve this, Pedro was introduced into that position in the later stages of the tournament and he provided the width which gave Spain another weapon to add to the attacking armoury.

On the other hand, Spain’s zonal pressing to win the ball back was evident from their style of play. Only one player would go on to press when the ball and he would often be covered by two or three teammates at his back so that even if he fails his attempt, the team wouldn’t get affected from it defensively. This pressing was also carried out in such a way that it had very minimal or zero risk. Most of the pressing attempts were made with less vigour and this meant clearly that Spain didn’t want to involve too much to win the ball and was content with pressing the player and stop when he runs out from the middle third to the opponent’s defensive zone.

This was much in contrast to the way Barcelona operated. However, this Spain team too had similarities with the way they looked to regain the ball back. There was emphasis on the blocking of passing lanes and intercepting the passes. This could partly explain as to why there was not high pressure on the ball carrier. By retaining their structure, Spain could still effectively look to press and win the ball back.

As mentioned earlier, Spain played in a 4-2-3-1 which translated into a 4-2-1-3. Instead of trying to push Villa and Torres into the same side, del Bosque made sure that he got the width by pulling Xavi into the midfield triangle and playing wide players like Pedro in the squad. In some occasions in the right, Navas was introduced as a substitute since he was a natural winger. His pace and ability to hug the touch line gave his side the width with del Bosque was looking for. The graphic below shows the 4-3-3/4-2-1-3 used by the Spanish manager.

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After the loss in the first game of the World Cup, del Bosque made sure that his side was excelled in defensive discipline. Not many teams would’ve won the world cup in this manner. After the Group stages, the next four knock games witnessed Spain win 1-0. In the match against Germany in the Semi-Finals, it was a Puyol’s header from a Xavi corner which sealed the win.

Though Spain dominated all the possession and also managed to create good number of chances, the biggest talking point was how Spain was able to restrict their opposition from creating chances. And the most intriguing fact was that they made this happen not by employing great deep blocks but through maintaining high amount of possession.

This victory was Spain’s first ever World Cup triumph and credit should be given to del Bosque for not tinkering much with the squad which won the Euro. That said, he actually contributed more when he developed this side into an even better one. This title win meant that Spain proved to be one of the best National teams to have ever played his game.

EURO 2012

Winning the World Cup for the first time ever, Spain were on the verge on creating history when they entered the Euro 2012. A win in the tournament would’ve made Spain the first team to defend the Euro championship and three consecutive major international titles. It is always easier said than done and it was not easy for the majestic Spain as well. Spain had a difficult time after the World Cup triumph and they had to be tactically astute as they dreamed of creating history by adding the icing on the cake.

Vincente del Bosque had had success in the past. With Real Madrid, he did wonders as his Madrid side was the best in the modern era. With Spain, he had landed the first World Cup title. Though he had the history and laurels to back him, he and his team were doubted whether they will excel like they did in the previous tournaments. Vincente del Bosque proved to everyone why he is a brilliant manager when he came up with a solution for Spain’s problems.

Tactical Breakdown

No striker. The Spanish Manager introduced his side to play without a striker up front. The trust was put up on a midfield which boasted the best names in this generation altogether. Containing the likes of Busquets, Xabi Alonso, Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Pedro and Fabregas all in midfield, del Bosque decided to play the 4-3-3-0 system. Fabregas was often preferred as the “False 9” who played in the centre alongside Iniesta and Silva. The image below shows the structure adopted by the team.

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In certain occasions, either Navas or Pedro would be assigned in the right wing. Torres had got a new role under del Bosque and even he was asked to drop deeper rather than play as the striker who stands upfront.

The full backs became one of the important factors of Spain’s success in the tournament. Both the full backs Alba and Arbeloa not only provided width but also joined in attacks taking up very high positions. This frequently happened in Spain’s possession with the ball and gave numerical superiority in both the flanks. The graphic below shows how both the full backs were stationed high up the pitch.

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The more important of the two was the Barcelona left back Jordi Alba as he joined up attacks frequently bombing up and down the flank. Comparatively he even took more touches than his compatriot in the opposite flank as he often became the outlet in the flank. His combinations with the players in the left flank were creating havoc for the opponents. His pass combinations with Iniesta, 21 and Alonso, 19 were the highest in the game against Italy in the Final.

Spain 4-0 Italy: Positioning of Alba and Arbeloa

Graphic credits:

In this tournament, Spain were able to play the tiki-taka to its fullest though it received criticism as the style of play tactically was not easy on the eyes. Spain were able to negate the threat posed by opponents which means that they outplayed the opponent’s tactics by not allowing their opponents to get into their natural game. Spain had some tough games on the road in the likes of a 0-0 draw against Portugal only to win it through penalty shoot-out. In the end, Spain were able to ease past Italy to defend their Euro title for the first time and win three international titles consecutively.


Touted as the “Golden Generation”, the Spain team proved everyone how simple tactics when played in the right way can bring great accolades. It was Aragones who brought the tiki-taka to Spain but it didn’t stop there. Vincente del Bosque helped the team evolve to another level and also used innovative tactics to sustain with success. The Euro 2012 will always be remembered for removing the center forward and play a playmaker as the “False 9”in the biggest stage.

In all the three tournaments, Spain completed more passes than any other team. Though there was criticism which targeted the style of tiki-taka, one cannot deny the fact that this Spain team of 2008-2012 is one of the best ever to have dominated his game. By creating history after winning the Euro 2012, Spain have shown how they totally dominated in their era. From reinventing the tactics to bringing it to the fore, Spain have been very brilliant in executing their ideas as well. Possessing all the resources that are necessary to not only achieve success but also to sustain with it, Spain Golden Generation are Football Bloody Hell’s Dominant Champions.