Iniesta lightly carries creative responsibility and Spain's deadly cutting edge
FIRST IT was Andres Iniesta versus Italy, then it was Andres Iniesta versus Croatia.
One man taking on two entire teams: two virtually identical photographs that seemed to define him, revealing the respect and the fear he provokes in opponents like Luka Modric, who referred to him as “the best in the world in his position”. The man from La Mancha surrounded by defenders, no way out. Except that for Iniesta there is almost always a way out.
The pictures, reminiscent of that famous photograph of Diego Maradona faced by the Belgian defence at the 1982 World Cup, did the rounds, reaching everyone. Including Iniesta. “When I saw them I felt a bit like a character in the cartoons I grew up with,” he said. “It reminded me of Oliver and Benji.”
The character is Tsubasa Ozora from the Japanese animation Captain Tsubasa – better known in Spain, where it is wildly popular, as Oliver and Benji. In the Spanish version, Tsubasa Ozora is Oliver Atom, the schoolboy who can do amazing things, flying past crudely-drawn, stationary opponents; the boy who takes his football everywhere and survived being hit by a bus because the ball took the impact. No wonder he says: “The ball is my friend.”
The ball is Iniesta’s friend, too. That, like the photo, is almost the perfect definition of him. Iniesta said the pictures were anecdotal, a moment caught on camera, but they are not entirely coincidental.
Most players at Barcelona and for Spain move the ball on rapidly. Iniesta is the opposite; he often moves it on fast but he also holds it, carries it, waits with it. Until the right moment. As one of Pep Guardiola’s former collaborators explains: “He knows exactly when to release it. And he holds it so long, inviting pressure on himself and taking responsibility because, somewhere deep down, he knows that he is better than them.”
Opponents are drawn in, shown the ball, offered it. And then, when the moment is right, a sudden acceleration and he has gone. Or the ball is.
“Iniesta,” the former Barcelona manager Frank Rijkaard was fond of saying, “hands out sweeties”.
The first time Guardiola, who until the end of last season was Iniesta’s coach at Barcelona, saw him play, while he was still a player at the Camp Nou, he reported on a kid that “reads the game better than I do”.
After Spain defeated Croatia, the midfielder Ivan Rakitic was asked what it was that made Iniesta different. He replied: “The authority with which he plays.”
“Iniesta,” he added, “is the best. We saw that we can play against all of them, but against Iniesta it is different. They are such a good team anyway but he is another level again.”
“When he has the ball, it’s like everything else stops,” says Fernando Torres. “Like the camera is going in slow motion. He’s decisive.”
A glimpse of the speed of movement, the cartoon-like way he leaves others in suspended animation, is offered by a Nike skills video filmed in Barcelona. The drill sees him shifting the ball from one foot to the other with a youth teamer acting as an opponent. He is supposed to be walking it, breaking it down. Doing it slow. Iniesta approaches his man, talking viewers through it and then, suddenly, it happens: right-left-right. It is so fast there is a gasp from those watching.
Against Croatia, Iniesta won the official man of the match award. He has two this tournament. Over the last three tournaments, he has been named man of the match against Russia, Chile, Paraguay, the Netherlands in the World Cup final, Italy and Croatia. No Spain player has played more than him over the last three tournaments.
He has played 17 times. Which means he has been man of the match in over a third of the games he has played. In this historic four-year cycle for Spain, he is the only player to win the award at least once at each of the three tournaments.
The performance in the World Cup final, even beyond the 116th-minute winning goal, was especially stunning. In extra-time, he took control and responsibility.
It is a responsibility that grows. Spain’s possession is increasing and it is taking them longer to shoot. Control has become the obsession; defences have become more populous, space harder to find. Iniesta offers control but more than anyone else he offers that cutting edge, that flash of creativity. Sergio Ramos describes him as the “enlightened one,touched with a magic wand”.
At Euro 2008, Spain had 56.6 per cent of the ball and shot every 27.4 passes; in South Africa, that was 65.2 per cent, a shot every 34.2 passes. This time round it is 67.4 per cent, with Spain taking a shot every 42.9 passes.
In that environment Iniesta has become even more important. He opened up the Italians and the Croats, while a swivel and swift pass released Jordi Alba for the first against France. Against Portugal, he had the game’s best chance. “He imposes so much respect on the pitch,” Ramos adds. “As a football lover, I am proud to have played with him. He makes the difference and does things that no one else can do.”
Opponents look for him, surrounding him. Team-mates look to him, too. Vicente del Bosque has an almost allergic aversion to singling out players. So it means something when he says, as he did before Spain’s second game: “Hopefully Andres can be decisive – as he always is.”
“He gets better with every game,” says Cesc Fabregas. “He is a reference point for us. He is creative, different, and he assumes responsibility. The team looks for him during matches.”
There is a simple reason: he is reliable. “I’ve been playing with him since we were 15,” says Torres, “and I have never, ever seen him play badly.”