Spanish Superior: Villar and Diaz dazzle in Spain’s dominant display
This week, the UEFA under 21 European Championships got underway, with much excitement building around several teams as fans want to see wonderkids showcase their talent and potential. While there were a couple of surprise results in matchday 1 of the group stage phase, one of the favourites to win the whole thing, Spain, got off to a flyer, picking up a 3-0 win against Slovenia. With a good number of their squad already plying their trade at La Liga, this Spanish side clearly possesses a depth of talent that they will look to transfer into the senior side in the coming years. This tactical analysis will briefly look at how Spain set up – the tactics they deployed to put on such a dominant display. We will also analyse the top two players from this fixture, with a scope on their role in the team – these players will be Brahim Diaz and Gonzalo Villar
Spain’s line-up & system
Spain deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation, a very popular shape that you are likely to see throughout this competition. Braga striker Abel Ruiz led the line for the eventual match-winners, with wide midfield support coming from former Manchester City player Brahim Diaz, who is currently plying his trade with AC Milan in Serie A (on loan from Real Madrid), and Marc Cucurella of Getafe. Espanyol’s Javi Puado operated in the attacking midfield role, with defensive cover being provided by Martin Zubimendi (Real Sociedad) and Gonzalo Villar (Roma). From left to right, the back four consisted of Juan Miranda (Real Betis, on loan from Barcelona), Jorge Cuence (Almería, on loan from Villareal), Hugo Guillamón (Valencia), and Pipa (Huddersfield Town).
Tactically, Spain’s approach did not surprise many. On the ball, they looked to dominate the game, dictate the tempo, and pin Slovenia back deep into their own half. The Spaniards registered 70% possession during this match, with 21 attempts on goal – 11 on target.
This is one example of Spain looking to play through the thirds via possession play. Throughout the 90 minutes, while using this tactic, they would use clever player movements and positions to stretch and work the Slovenia backline and midfield. This was put into place as Slovenia looked to defend on their terms – not sitting back too deep whenever they could allow themselves such a luxury. In this example, we see Spain’s left-back Juan Miranda in a high and wide position, essentially playing as a midfielder in possession. This allowed for the left-winger Cucurella to take up a narrow position, giving Spain a higher central presence. In other instances, we’d see the wingers out wide on the touchline with the full-back nearby to support as they looked to build possession forward.
Dictating the tempo was a huge part of Spain’s game plan – they wouldn’t always play slow and patient possession; we would sometimes see them surge forward with pace and urgency after winning the ball back in their own half.
Here we see an example of Spain temporarily abandoning their patient approach following a turnover in possession. Gonzalo Villar was able to collect the loose ball, and instantly his attention turned to quickly launching an attack via the opposite flank. With Juan Miranda quickly bursting up-field in support, and Cucurella continuing his run into a more attacking position, Spain were clearly under instruction to launch counterattacks in situations like this. Often, once the full-back had received the ball, he would drive forward until he reaches a suitable crossing position before delivering a ball into the box, looking to hit Slovenia’s defence while it was still trying to adjust and reorganise itself.
Brahim Diaz – attacking dynamite
21-year-old Brahim Diaz is looking to make a name for himself on loan at AC Milan this season after struggling to make an impact at Real Madrid after signing from Manchester City. The attack-minded midfielder, who has been capped at various youth levels, currently has 6 U21 caps to his name, contributing with 2 goals in that time. His play style and skill set allow him to contribute to attacks in a dangerous way – he has the ability to be explosive on the ball to change attacks in a second; his clever dribbling and talent when it comes to passing make him a very valuable asset going forward.
This first analysis of Diaz shows his tactical and positional awareness. As touched upon briefly before, Spain’s system allows for the wide midfielders to operate in a more central role on occasion, which is the case above. As Slovenia looked to gain a few yards up the pitch and apply minimal pressure to Spain, Diaz took up a position around 25 yards out, completely unmarked, ready to receive the ball. As the ball arrived at his feet, he reacted nicely to turn and drive forward a few more yards, before playing a well-timed pass through to Abel Ruiz who made a clever run in-behind the Slovenia backline. If Diaz can master the little moments like this and produce on a consistent basis, he will become an extremely dangerous player.
In this segment, the initial input by Diaz is similar to the previous: drift into an open space about 25 yards from goal, making himself available for a pass. Following this, however, his action differs. His midfield teammate, Javi Puado, makes a decoy run across Diaz, occupying nearby defenders and opening the space up for Diaz to dribble into, which he does in quick fashion. His clear attacking intent, paired with his creativity, allows him to work the ball into dangerous situations. Below is the second part of this segment’s analysis.
After dribbling free of Slovenia defenders, Diaz found himself at the edge of the box, almost completely surrounded by defenders. However, he did not end up in this position by accident – one tactic used by Spain in attack is to work the ball into wide areas and deliver a variety of crosses into the box: it appears that Diaz was trying to achieve exactly this in this move. Spain’s presence in the box allowed Cucurella to be free in a wide position; Diaz was able to time his pass well, with good weight to it, allowing Cucurella to drive on an and attempt a cross. This seems like a simple task for Diaz but being able to set up potential goal-scoring chances from nothing is a rare ability.
While Diaz’s role in this Spain U21 side doesn’t require much of a defensive input, there will obviously be moments in which he is defensively present, and moments where he will find himself in possession in dangerous areas like the one above. After Spain dealt with a Slovenia corner, the ball fell to Diaz, who displayed immense composure and good ball control to kill the ball, allowing him to tee up the next pass perfectly. Instead of hitting a hopeful long ball into the channel, he instead played a delicate short pass a few yards ahead of him into the path of a teammate, setting up a Spain counterattack. His composure allowed for a good first touch, which was important when you consider the two Slovenia players ready to pounce and regain possession.
Later in the game, it was clear that Spain’s 2-0 lead boosted the confidence of Diaz, as he found himself in more attacking moments such as the one above. After already breezing past one opponent with some clever footwork, his intent remained on building the attack. He continued to drive forward before playing a perfect pass through for his teammate to collect, putting Spain in a position to cause great panic amongst the Slovenia defence. Earlier in the game, when his confidence wasn’t as high, we may have seen Diaz slow down slightly after beating the first player and playing a sideways pass. But in this attack, he played with fluidity and intent.
Gonzalo Villar – the complete midfielder?
At the age of 23, versatile midfielder Gonzalo Villar is enjoying his first taste of regular first-team football at Roma, after featuring nine times in the 2019/20 Serie A campaign. Villar now has 6 U21 caps to his name, and a wide skill set will likely see him involved in the senior Spain set up for years to come. In this fixture, he displayed strength on the ball, not being dispossessed easily, while oozing composure with the ball at his feet. His impressive passing range will take him far in the game, and his defensive skills will only grow over time.
This analysis shows a number of things about Villar, but mostly his understanding of the system his side are playing in. As we know, Spain often like to dominate possession, with a lot of players forward, allowing opponents very little room to breathe. This type of system requires fluidity and gives players in Villar’s position a licence to move into more attacking positions. Above, we see an example of Villar controlling the ball well, before instantly looking to play the ball into a wide position – again playing into the Spanish philosophy of stretching the opponent by spreading possession. However, after playing his pass, instead of offering nearby but deeper support, he makes a surging run into a wide position on the flank. Furthermore, as he makes his pass, the Slovenia right-back charges out to Juan Miranda, the recipient, leaving space to be exploited by Villar. This caused a Slovenia midfielder to attempt to rectify this by following Villar – in turn, this opened up space centrally, while Villar was still a good passing option to continue the attack.
Sometimes, however, he must offer that nearby deeper support – he cannot always leave his post and move forwards. When Spain looked to control possession and move Slovenia about, they would deploy their full-backs high and wide, with various attackers and midfielders making good movements to be available. Gonzalo Villar would often offer himself as a close option for a backwards pass, which usually gave Spain a chance to explore a different avenue to attack, either switching the ball to the opposite flank, playing a direct pass through the middle into Abel Ruiz, or simply recycling possession by passing to the centre-backs. The system Spain plays can get predictable without that ability to switch things up from time-to-time – having a midfield option take up positions like this may seem simple and obvious, but it opens a lot of doors to change the attacking route.
For all of his talents on the ball, of course, Gonzalo Villar must be able to deliver defensively, given he is a holding midfield more often than not. Obviously, in a team like Spain, there isn’t a high amount of direct defensive action required as most teams try to get through them by playing balls over the top or into the channels, completely bypassing the midfield. However, there are still vital jobs that Villar had to undertake to help Spain continue to be dominant. In this fixture, Villar operated on the left of the two deep midfielders, so when Slovenia looked to play via the right flank from their own half, Villar will be ready and waiting out wide to cut off that passing lane – Juan Miranda (or a covering defender) will also be in position ready and waiting in case of a lofted through ball down the flank, but Villar’s presence there will put the full-back off from playing that pass down the line – which is exactly what happened here. This wasn’t the only instance (or position) we’d see a good level of anticipation from Gonzalo Villar – he showed a real talent for reading the game and breaking the play up.
From a Spain perspective, they will be very confident of their chances at this year’s tournament. They have a very talented side with a clear identity to the team which players seem to deeply understand and thrive within. Their hard work, both on and off the ball, make them a joy to watch and imaginably a nightmare to play against. While several players displayed qualities for Spain in this fixture, Brahim Diaz and Gonzalo Villar were highlighted in this report as they showed a potential to have that something special in their arsenal. Diaz showed that when he is firing on all cylinders, he is a trickly and explosive player capable of creating something out of nothing. Meanwhile, Villar’s versatility and composure on and off the ball make him almost a blueprint player for the Spain set up, as he demonstrated abilities in almost every corner of the game.