“Attack wins you matches, defence wins you championships.” The current EHF EURO in Croatia is headlined by exceptional defensive sides. And, according to the numbers, the strongest of them is Spain – their 65 conceded goals in the preliminary round speak clearly in their favour.
ehf-euro.com attempted to unveil the secret of why Spain is so strong in defence: if it is in the DNA of Spanish handball players to be great defenders, or if it is only a matter of their current training concept. The recipe for creating a rock-solid wall appears to be quite simple.
The key to everything is found in room 314 of the team hotel in Sveti Martin. Viran Morros de Argila (FC Barcelona) and Gedeon Guardiola (Rhein-Neckar Löwen) share this room. They belong to the three or four core players that form Spain’s middle block – and, thanks to technology, they provide the most important support for coach Jordi Ribera in terms of defensive tactics.
“Again and again, we watch videos of our upcoming opponents. We try to identify all tactics and all variations of the attackers. How they shoot, in which situations they do what, when they pass, when they throw. Everything,” says 33-year-old Guardiola.
“The whole team and the coaching staff create a defensive strategy”
When those experienced defence experts have finalised their analysis of the next opponent, they present it to coach Jordi Ribera: “He has his ideas of defending, we give our input, and finally the whole team and the coaching staff create a defensive strategy for the next match,” Guardiola explains. “Viran and I give advice, Jordi and the rest of the team appreciate our opinion.”
In general, the Spaniards have two options in defence: the classic 6-0 defence and the more ball-orientated 5-1. After many years where Victor Tomas was ‘the sweeper’ in front of the 5-1 defence, Alex Dujshebaev and Aitor Arino now share this role.
“With this formation, we can put enormous pressure on the attackers and force them to cause mistakes. Many teams are not used to this way of defending, so we have the X-factor on our side,” Guardiola says.
The same approach from youth teams to senior
From the youth and junior teams (current U21 world champions and U19 runners-up), all players in Spain’s national squads are coached in the same way – and taught that defence is the key for everything. When it comes to senior national teams, defence is the most important part of the preparation. “One day is always, and only, reserved for defence training,” says Guardiola, explaining the way it works:
“First, we play three-against-three, always including two players of the usual middle block. Then we go to four-on-four, five-on-five and finally six-on-six, when all players are involved. So, every moment of defending is in the heads of the players.”
Finally, the middle block stars such as Morros (34), Joan Canellas (31) and Guardiola decide how to block the shots in collaboration with the goalkeepers: “Normally, the far end is reserved for us, the short end for the goalkeepers,” says Guardiola.
Communication with keepers is key
Knowing that Gonzalo Perez de Vargas and Rodrigo Corrales are one of the best goalkeeping duos in the world, the Spaniards have another agreement: “If the line player of our opponents gets the ball, we let him shoot. It is crucial for us not to interfere or to receive penalty shots and two-minute suspensions – though, as we have one of the strongest defensive sides, the number of punishments is quite low,” says Guardiola.
But how do the goalkeepers fit into this quite stringent system? “It is all a matter of communication,” says Barcelona goalkeeper Perez de Vargas: “We talk a lot with our middle block players, before and during the match.”
And again, room occupancy is part of the project, as Perez de Vargas and Paris Saint-Germain star Rodrigo Corrales share. “Like Gedeon and Viran, we have our video analysis strategy to prepare for the upcoming opponents,” says Perez de Vargas.
For him, the general Spanish handball school builds on defence training: “We do not have the physically strongest players compared to other teams, so we need other ways to build up a wall of concrete. We need to adapt to the opponents, we need to move very quickly, and we need to cause mistakes and turnovers to score by easy counter-attack goals.”
On a club level, he plays with Morros, but for Perez de Vargas it does not matter which players form Spain’s middle block: “They are all in the same condition, they all know what to do.”
Reacting to seven-on-six: “We still do not have the solution”
But there is still one open point, which causes the most discussions in room 314 in Sveti Martin: How to react to the seven-on-six attacking system, which became more prominent when the new rules were implemented in 2016. “We still do not have the solution,” says Guardiola: “We are working on it.”
They need to be quick, as on Sunday (20:30 in Arena Varazdin), the Spaniards face FYR Macedonia in their first main round match. And the Macedonians’ Spanish coach Raul Gonzalez has shown he knows how to use the seven-on-six attacking tactic in a successful way, as they did in their draw against defending champions Germany.
Against the Macedonians, Guardiola and Perez de Vargas expect an extremely low-scoring match – and on Sunday night at about 22:00 local time, we will know if the occupants of room 314 were successful in their preparation.