Patience is a virtue, except when it’s not

By and large, playing any game patiently is a good thing. You have a chance to take in everything that’s affecting the pitch – or the board or the court or the ice – and plan your response accordingly. Tactically, it makes sense because the times to throw caution to the wind are few and far between. Which brings me to Spain.

The Spanish style, under Vicente del Bosque, is to patiently build up the play. It’s to pass around, to control the pace (and the tempo – yes, they’re two different things), and to strike when the opportunity presents itself. Or when the opposition has fallen asleep. I kid. Spain actually plays a version of Barcelona’s system, in which a premium is placed on possession. To control the game, and to impose your will, surely leads to victory. Except when it doesn’t.

In Spain’s first World Cup game, a 1-0 loss to Switzerland (!), the patience worked against it. In the end, Switzerland’s Gelson Fernandes scored the only goal that mattered and when Spain actually played with some urgency, it was too late. Spain controlled the match in every way, except the scoreboard. And when that’s happening, you have to loosen the reigns. Spain’s squad is full of thoroughbreds, players who can start on any team in the world. To keep them shackled was criminal. Of course, the loss was a bad one, in the sense that it shouldn’t have happened. The second game was more typical of Spain’s game: it totally dominated Honduras and, but for some bad luck, would have won a lot more than 2-0. Indeed, it should have been 4-0 or 5-0, but it wasn’t. In the second game, despite the dominance, Spain looked lethargic, as if it was unsure of itself. As if they were intimidated by the world’s biggest stage. Who knows? Maybe the players were, to a degree.

David Villa scores for Spain against Chile (Márcio José Sánchez/AP)

Which brings me to today’s game, a 2-1 victory over Chile which put both teams through to the knockout stage and gave Spain the top spot (thus avoiding Brazil). For the first 20 minutes, Spain looked slow and, once again, lethargic. After David Villa’s amazing goal at 24 minutes, the team relaxed and played with the breezy confidence we’ve come to know and love. But for the first 15 minutes of the second half, Spain tightened up again, as if they were surprised that Chile would attack them (as if that’s surprising: Chile’s been attacking the entire tournament). It was only after the 60th minute that the team relaxed and played well again (at least until the 85th minute, when both teams stopped playing for the win, their places in the next round assured).

So patience was one of the keys to Spain’s epic undefeated streak (broken in last year’s Confederations Cup by the United States). And patience also led to that defeat, the defeat by Switzerland, and the panic (there is no better word) for about 35 minutes today. When is patience good? It’s good when the team is composed and relaxed. Passing the ball around and retaining possession is excellent, but if the players are tense the chances of colossal mistake rise exponentially (no, I can’t prove that scientifically, but anecdotal evidence supports me). And that was the problem. Spain was tense, perhaps because of the burden of past failures. And it’s only going to get more tense now that the knockout phase is officially starting.

Spain play Portugal and the former have to be careful not to get too frustrated with the latter’s stultifying defensive tactics. Spain needs to be in control and relaxed. Good things will come from both and will help Spain avoid another shock result.

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