What price The Whirl?

There is no magic formula for success. The great, seemingly innovative teams are only as good as the exceptional players they possess. Hard to think of any team today, even at international level, playing as Spain did in the European Championship final. And even they didn’t remotely play at that sublime level in early matches, writes Brian Glanville.

Long ago, back in 1955, the late Willy Meisl published a book called Soccer Revolution in which he introduced us to something which he called The Whirl. Willy, a Viennese refugee, an ex-Austria goalkeeper and a famous critic, was the brother of Hugo Meisl, the dynamic man responsible for Austria’s so called Wunderteam in the 1930s.

The Whirl, in Willy’s concept, meant a perpetual interchanging and fluidity between all 10 outfield members of a team, in which there would be no such thing as a purely defensive or a purely attacking player. No one in England or, for that matter, elsewhere took the idea on board at the time but had Willy been alive to see Spain’s dazzling exhibition in the European Championship Final against Italy, he would surely have felt vindicated.

For deploying what was in effect a six-man attacking midfield, Spain made light of the fact that they used no centre-forward; till late in the game with the Azzurri reduced to 10 men, Fernando Torres came on to do what you might call a spot of rabbit killing. Making up for the several inviting chances which he missed when the two countries met earlier in the competition.

The odd man out, if you so wish to call him such, in the Spanish formation was that supremely gifted central midfielder Cesc Fabregas, and he it was, almost casually going round Italy’s left-back, Giorgio Chiellini, on the right with a skill any orthodox outside-right would have envied, who set up that first early, devastatingly headed goal by David Silva which rocked the Italians back on their heels.

From that moment on, though the Azzurri had their moments and even statistically, in that first half, had more of the ball than Spain — but we have been told long ago that there are three kinds of lie, lies, damned lies and statistics — the Spaniards led Italy on a merry dance. Even Andrea Pirlo, whose inspired passing had been the fulcrum of Italy’s attack, was largely marginalised. Significantly, it was he who came to the defensive rescue when Spain seemed likely to score again.

So the Spanish experiment worked; their manager Vicente Del Bosque, you might say, was gloriously vindicated in his adventurous strategy. But was he merely making a virtue out of necessity? Had he, for instance, been able to call on that incisive attacker David Villa — obliged to watch from the stand, having had his leg broken by a Santos player in that apology for a tournament, the so called Club World Cup late last year — would Del Bosque have experimented?

Besides, and crucially, the fact is that in previous games Spain had looked anything but fluent and majestic. Indeed, they had been criticised in some quarters for being boring, for failing to crown their famed swift inter passing with any real end product. Against Portugal, they prevailed only on penalties, and that largely because Portuguese manager Bento inexplicably and, as it proved, suicidally, failed to depute Cristiano Ronaldo to take any of the opening four penalties. Which meant that the big centre-back Bruno Alves blazed the fourth penalty against the bar. True, Ronaldo had so untypically been firing blanks during the preceding 120 minutes, but his accuracy from the spot is a byword. Nor could Spain get the better of Italy on their initial meeting in the group stage, being held to a 1-1 draw, in which Italy, in fact, had taken the lead.

Quite why the Spanish formation came so triumphantly and eventually to life in the Final, who can say? To what extent it can be expected to work again, who knows?

Previously, the nearest football has come to The Whirl has been in the shape of the so called total football played by the West Germans and the Dutch in the early 1970s. Inspired by Franz Beckenbauer, who as a youngster invented the so called attacking libero, coming out from behind his defence to join in attacks, first Bayern Munich then Ajax of Amsterdam then, somewhat belatedly, West Germany themselves adopted the strategy which postulated complete versatility on the part of the players involved in it.

In fact, an almost impossible target. Even the Dutch, inspired by their ubiquitous centre-forward Johan Cruyff, heavily relied in the 1974 World Cup on the supreme passing of big, heavy far from fast, inside-left, Wim Hanagem. Total Football may have been, as one French critic declared, the new reality, but it didn’t last for many years.

In November 1953, Hungary came to Wembley and smashed England’s unbeaten home record against foreign teams with a 6-3 victory. Nandor Hidegkuti, the deep lying centre-forward, scored three times. Soon after that a book came out called Learn to Play the Hungarian Way. But by the 1958 World Cup, with Puskas, Kocsis and Czibor, the three major Hungarian stars, having departed for Spain, Hungary in Sweden looked ponderous and vulnerable, all too inclined to maltreat opponent like the Welsh, who were dominating them.

The Whirl, Total Football, the Hungarian Way. The fact seems to be that there is no magic formula to be found; that great, seemingly innovative teams are only as good as the exceptional players they possess.

Hard to think of any team today, even at international level, playing as Spain did in the European Championship final. And even they didn’t remotely play at that sublime level in early matches.

The Whirl is a glorious idea, but may be chimerical.