Spain's opponents are adapting but the Spanish reign victorious after their young players return from Israel with the Under-21 Championship

PictureJordi Alba Celebrates Spain's Semi-Final Shootout VIctory
The beauty of this Spain team is that it keeps evolving. After technical skill and the ability to retain possession finally overcame the neurosis of past failure at Euro 2008, there came the years of control in 2010 and 2012, as
World  Cup and another European Championship were collected playing safety-first keep-ball. For all the criticism of its supposed negativity in Poland and  Ukraine there were signs of another Spain emerging, one that had begun to come to terms with the problem posed by an opponent that sits deep against it. 

It is an issue any possession-based side will have. If you dominate the ball 
to the extent that an opponent despairs of ever winning it back, that opponent 
will eventually simply stick men behind the ball, allowing you possession but 
trying to deny you space in the final third to create any goal scoring 
opportunities. Spain's response for a long time when faced with such an opponent
  has been simply to keep passing. The process is attritional but Spain 
essentially knows that as long as it has the ball it isn't going to concede and 
that, eventually, an opponent is likely to be worn down. A mistake -- and a goal
  -- will come. 
At the Euros, Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, spoke again and again 
about "control." But he also spoke about "profundidad" -- depth of 
field. If an opponent packs men behind the ball, what is lost is depth of field:
  Spanish attacks essentially start higher up the pitch and that means that 
"verticalidad" -- verticality, playing the ball towards goal -- is far 
harder. The risk is that the team with the ball ends up playing too 
horizontally, going back and forth across the pitch without making any progress,
  without generating the burst of speed necessary to puncture a well-drilled 

That is why Jordi Alba is such an important addition. Although ostensibly a 
left-back, he is a converted winger and has many of the technical attributes 
you'd expect of an attacking player. But vitally, he has great pace and stamina,
  working up and down that left flank, and seems to have the gift of timing his 
runs to arrive in space. He did it against Italy in the final of the Euros last 
year and he added another two in the 3-0 win over Nigeria on Sunday. 
Both those games were a little unusual in that Italy and Nigeria actually 
tried to engage Spain high up the pitch and did leave space behind them. For 
Spain that is a rare experience and against Nigeria it was one with which it 
wasn't entirely comfortable, yielding numerous chances, particularly in the 
first half, that better finishing might have punished. It may be that Spain, as 
Barcelona did against Bayern Munich last season, is not very good at defending 
-- or at least not at defending in the sense of thwarting an opponent coming at 
it. It seems to happen often with gifted possession sides that they get so used 
to defending with the ball, reducing the risk by denying the opponent the ball, 
that they effectively forget the mechanics of what to do when they don't have it
  and an opponent does attack them -- and of course Alba and Gerard Pique are
both  Barca players. 

But what Alba offers is a player who can arrive at pace onto a sideways pass,
  and so turn horizontal movement into vertical movement. There are, essentially,
  two ways to beat a massed defense: go round it or go through it: Alba has the 
pace to create overlaps -- and conveniently does so on the left, where Spain, 
with Cesc Fabregas and Andres Iniesta sharing the midfield and forward duties, 
are naturally narrow -- and he can also go through by dint of coming from deep 

Just as importantly, Alba can actually defend. Dani Alves performs a similar 
role on the right for Barcelona (and it may be that against better opponents 
Barca decides next season it must temper the attacking urges of one or the 
other) but his defensive inadequacies have regularly been exposed at 
international level -- most notably against Paraguay in the 2011 Copa America 
when his haplessness made the winger Marcelo Estigarribia look so potent he 
earned a move from the French second division side Le Mans (who had loaned him 
out to Newell's Old Boys in Argentina) to Juventus. 

Alves hasn't yet been exposed in the Confederations Cup, although with he and
  Marcelo (who may be even worse defensively) both pushing up, Brazil looks 
horribly vulnerable to counterattacks that hit it wide. Del Bosque, 
instinctively cautious, counters that threat by balancing Alba with Alvaro 
Arbeloa on the right. Arbeloa seems almost archaic now, a fullback who actually 
defends, but he is key to how Spain play, often shuffling across to function 
almost as a third center-back (a role Sergio Busquets can also fill, dropping 
back from deep midfield) when Alba advances. 

Much has been made of the success of Spain at youth level, which seems to 
suggest its success will endure. Perhaps the most alarming aspect for the rest 
of the world, though, is that the team those players will break in to has been 
together so long, has evolved so smoothly, that it has the rhythm and internal 
balance of a club side.


The Spanish have once again proved that they are a force to be reckoned with after beating Italy 4-2 in the UEFA Under-21 Championship Final.

Thiago Alcántara struck the first ever hat-trick in a one-off Under-21 final as Spain beat Italy 4-2 to retain their UEFA European U21 Championship title.

Julen Lopetegui's masterly Spain side came into the decider unbeaten in 25 competitive encounters, and though Thiago's early opener looked to have set them on course to increase that tally, Ciro Immobile soon struck back for Italy. It proved a false dawn for Devis Mangia's team, who fell behind again just after the half-hour.

The two previous finals between these nations – in 1986 and 1996 – had been won on penalties, so it was fitting that spot kicks from Thiago and Isco ultimately settled matters in Jerusalem. Fabio Borini's 80th-minute riposte was too little, too late.

Considering these two sides had conceded a solitary goal between them in Israel, few could have foreseen such a helter-skelter encounter. Álvaro Morata, the adidas Golden Boot winner with four goals, had been Spain's go-to man in their opening four fixtures and, six minutes into the showpiece, again came up trumps. This time he played the role of provider, shimmying his way to the byline before standing the ball up for Thiago to head in from close range.

If that was typical tiki-taka from Spain, the Azzurrini's equaliser came in more direct fashion. Immobile brought down Matteo Bianchetti's long pass with one exquisite touch before dinking the ball over David de Gea – bang went Spain's tournament clean sheet.

Francesco Bardi soon got down swiftly to deny Morata and Koke, thus keeping his team level. De Gea, making his 27th appearance to equal Santi Denia as Spain's most-capped U21 international, was in action himself before the half-hour. Alessandro Florenzi raced on to Borini's pass, bamboozled Marc Bartra and volleyed goalwards – De Gea was well placed.

It proved a turning point for Spain, who restored their advantage when Thiago wriggled free, took Koke's ball down on his chest and squeezed a shot through Bardi's legs. The Italian did not get quite so close to preventing La Rojita's third, Thiago slotting past him from the spot after Giulio Donati felled Tello.

The FC Barcelona midfielder so nearly made it four after the interval but his low effort was thwarted by Bardi. De Gea should also have been required not long after, Lorenzo Insigne and Florenzi both snatching at half-chances. Isco soon followed suit at the other end, putting his first-time finish narrowly wide following a lightning-fast counterattack from Cristian Tello.

Though Tello's pace was now proving a frequent thorn in Italy's side, it was the man behind him who teed up Spain's fourth, Martín Montoya pulled down by Vasco Regini after racing forward from right-back; Isco made no mistake.

Despite the early scare it seemed that, finally, Lopetegui's assertion that "the final is in our hands" had come to fruition. Though Borini prompted brief cause for alarm with a fine finish, Lopetegui, mastermind of Spain's U19 triumph last summer, could join a record crowd at Teddy Stadium in watching his team lift Spain's fourth U21 title in consummate fashion.