These are to my mind the key lessons from the recent edition of the Confederations Cup won in thrilling style by Brazil. Their 3-0 victory over Spain was thoroughly deserved and based in large measure on their ability to collectively outmuscle and outpace the opposition. This is not in any way to suggest that this is all they had to offer. The team is full of very talented and technically good players and in Neymar they have one of the most gifted players around at the moment. Still it was their overwhelming physical strength which prevented Spain from displaying their talents. While the final was the most spectacular example of this, earlier rounds saw something similar. Nigeria and Italy both managed to put Spain under enormous pressure, again mainly due to strength and pace.
Looking ahead to the World Cup finals next year, it is clear that Brazil will rightly start as clear favourites. They are developing a fine balanced team which combines the three virtues listed above with a fair amount of artistry and magic. They are also virtually unbeatable at home. What the Confederations Cup has shown it seems to me is that to succeed next year other countries will need to try and find a similar balance. At the moment Argentina, Italy and the Netherlands look the most likely challengers, while Germany are always strong. They all have physically strong players and that extra ingredient of at least one player who can turn a game on his own – Messi, Balotelli, Robben etc. It is worth noting though that Italy did run out of steam in their match against Spain. Overcoming the heat and humidity in Brazil may be the biggest problem for most countries.
What about Spain? It is too early to write them off yet. After all four years ago in South Africa they lost in the semi-final of the Confederations Cup yet went on the win the World Cup a year later. Brazil though will be a harder nut to crack. However the team is still very strong. By next year Del Bosque may have reverted back to using two physically strong holding midfielders – Sergi Busquets and Xabi Alonso with Javi Martínez in reserve. This was the formation they used in South Africa. Up front they could really do with either David Villa or Fernando Torres to recover their wonderful form of earlier years or else some relatively unknown striker breaks through in the coming year. The main challenge for Spain is how to ensure that their key players, and in particular Xavi, arrive in Brazil fully fit, fresh and mentally strong. No easy task given the length of each season.
Lessons for Barça? The defeat of Spain at the hands of Brazil will have re-inforced the lessons from Barcelona’s heavy loss to Bayern München in the Champions League. Strength, stamina and pace in addition to technical ability are becoming more and more necessities for a winning team. Barcelona have technical ability of the highest order just about everywhere and the addition of Neymar only adds to their strength in this department. However they did run out of steam and stamina towards the end of last season. Something badly exposed by Bayern. The solution may have more to do with managing the existing squad, which now includes Neymar, than much in the way of further additions. Up to now Barcelona teams have been based around a very small core group of players who play more or less every week, barring injuries. This has proved pretty successful in the past, but with the greater physical strength of opposition teams may no longer work so well. Barcelona do have a big enough squad, so part of the answer may simply lie in using all of the squad players on a more regular basis, thus assuring that the key players remain fit and fresh for the final third of the season. Barcelona play plenty of games, especially at home where giving a rest to the likes of Messi and Xavi should make no difference at all. The end of last season funnily enough proved this. With Messi injured, the team still convincingly won all their remaining matches. This would though be a major change for Barcelona and we await with interest to see if anything like this comes to pass. The close season has still a long way to go and a few more new players may yet arrive to strengthen the team, perhaps physically more than any other way.