It was Kevin De Bruyne who first coined the phrase ‘free-eight’.
Thanks to the tutelage of Pep Guardiola, he is now the most Spanish of Belgian midfielders and revealed more about his role when speaking to Belgian newspaper Het Laatste shortly after the Catalan manager’s arrival in Manchester.
“It’s a different role, it’s all right. It’s a little change but it’s alright. The coach has his own tactics. I play not as a number ten but as a free eight with a lot of movement everywhere.”
Spain are a team of free-eights and attacking playmakers and, looking at their team on paper, it’s the most enjoyable tactical challenge for a football manager to try to get them all in the same eleven.
4-3-3 Quirks From Lopetegui to Hierro
Fernando Hierro has wisely continued where Julen Lopetegui left off and they play in much the same way they did during qualifying. It’s a 4-3-3 with a couple of hallmarks defined by the wide players in the front three.
The sacking of the soon-to-be Real Madrid boss shortly before the first ball was kicked at this World Cup was supposed to send Spain spiralling out of control and possibly out of the tournament in the group stage as they did in 2014. But with midfielders like these, control is something they will never lack.
So how does Hierro fit the likes of David Silva, Isco, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Thiago Alcantara, and Koke into the same side?
Watch this video from Tifo which explores Spain's tactics going into the World Cup
The answer for the latter pair is that one will remain on the bench but, for the others, a quirk has emerged in the 4-3-3 shape which can be very effective.
Silva and Isco have been chosen as the wide 'forwards' in the front three but, in reality, they are attacking midfielders or playmakers.
They play on the opposite side to their stronger foot — left-footed Silva on the right, and right-footed Isco on the left — which sees them naturally drift into the half-space between the wings and the centre of the park.
It's here they will meet Iniesta and Thiago/Koke who will be occupying the same space but slightly closer to the half-way line.
The average positions from Spain games often show Isco and Iniesta, and Silva and Koke, almost on top of each other. This graphic from 11tegen11 shows their work in the half-spaces.
Rather than being a 4-3-3, the shape is more 4-1-2-2-1. In addition to this, the full-backs push on into the space on the wings left when Silva and Isco drift inside, and Jordi Alba and Dani Carvajal are perfect for this role.
This can then place a lot of pressure on the defensive triumvirate of Sergio Busquets, Gerard Pique and Sergio Ramos, which appeared to be their weakness against Portugal, and could be again further down the line.
A diverse Spain
This Spain squad contains five players born in or close to Madrid and nine players who play their football in the Spanish capital but there is still a Catalan influence on the way the team play: Busquets, Iniesta, Alba, and Pique represent the current league champions Barcelona and have each started all three games so far in this World Cup.
This cultural melting pot also contains three Brazilians, one of whom, Thiago Alcantara, was born in Italy to Brazilian parents — his father being the former Brazilian midfielder and 1994 World Cup winner, Mazinho.
The leftovers from Guardiola era Barcelona, the win at all costs element of Real Madrid, the toughness and tactical discipline of the Atletico contingent, and holiday resort players Isco and Silva, makes for a good mix.
The inclusion of winger Lucas Vazquez, all-rounder Marco Asensio, and the wildest of wildcards Iago Aspas, could also make Spain as diverse tactically as they are culturally, but importantly they can apply all of this without upsetting the overall style and philosophy.
The Sunshine Player - Isco
Isco is the only non-defensive player to play every minute for Spain so far in Russia and this, among a few other things, indicates his importance to the side.
The Real Madrid man averages just under 100 passes per 90 minutes, which is more than Iniesta and Busquets. In the same role on the other side, Silva averages 60 passes per 90, which shows Spain are definitely looking for Isco to make things happen.
Of his 297 passes, he’s only misplaced 21, giving him a pass accuracy of 93%. This would be a good return for players under little pressure when making their passes such as a defensive midfielder or a centre-back but, for an attacking playmaker, it’s an extraordinary statistic.
He’s made seven key passes in total which is more than any other player in the team, while on the other side of the game only Ramos has won more tackles with six to Isco’s five.
While not always starting games at Real Madrid, he has been key to much of their European success during the past few seasons. He appeared in all three of their triumphant Champions League finals, starting the two most recent ones, and is now looking to transfer this cup-winning expertise to the international scene.
Like manager Fernando Hierro, Isco is neither from Madrid nor Barcelona, but from the Costa del Sol. He is the sunshine footballer from the sunshine coast, injecting a dose of lively creativity and an unmatched cleverness on the ball to any team in which he plays.
Spain will hope for more of this in the knockout stages where they begin with a game against the unpredictable hosts.
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