DOHA: “Pass, pass, pass, pass… Go home.” History repeats for Spain, who left the World Cup on Tuesday night following a penalty shootout against Morocco after 120 minutes of football failed to produce a goal.
Spain had over 75 percent of the ball and yet managed just two shots on target all game, with both of those efforts coming from Dani Olmo following set pieces.
There used to be an advertisement for a mark of car which said that “power without control is nothing”, Spain’s problem is that when it comes to the crunch, “control without power” is also a path to failure.
Spain coach Luis Enrique insisted before and during the tournament that he would remain true to Spain’s passing style and he continued to defend it after the final whistle.
“We dominated the game, but lacked a goal: the midfield controlled the ball, you can criticize us for not creating chances, but Morocco defended really well,” he insisted.
Defenders of the faith of Spain’s passing game will point to a 7-0 win against Costa Rica in the opening group match and a good performance against Germany, who by the way caught the first plane home, in the second.
Footballing heretics, who think that now and then, something a bit more direct can be thrown into the mix, will say how Morocco kept Spain out through hard-work and discipline and how Japan did the same.
A look at Spain’s recent World Cup record supports the heretical vision that some change is needed: after winning the 2010 in brilliant fashion in South Africa, Spain has won just three games from 11 in World Cup finals, with those wins against the footballing powerhouses of Australia, Iran and Costa Rica.
Spain went home after the group stage in Brazil, while falling in the last-16 in Russia, also going out on penalties.
Their last five matches in major knockout tournaments have all gone to extra time, with four of those, against Morocco on Tuesday, vs Switzerland and Italy in the European Championship and against Russia in 2018, also going to penalties, with Spain losing three of those four shoot outs.
All of this implies that Spain’s style of play is generally enough to see them past weaker sides as they always qualify for big tournaments with relative ease, but when they come up against bigger and better rivals in the knockout stages, they are simply unable to beat them.
Saying rivals “defended well,” can serve as an excuse for a while, but defend well is what good teams do, otherwise they would not be in the last-16. If you get to that stage, you have to present your arguments to beat them. Sometimes you need a ‘plan-B’ as well as ‘death by a thousand passes’.
Spain’s best chances against Morocco came when Athletic Club Bilbao winger, Nico Williams came on in the 75th minute. Williams immediately looked to take on his full back, rather than give a horizontal pass and Spain’s best chances, came when he got to the goal line and put the ball into the penalty area.
Incredibly, Williams was substituted for the penalties in the 118th minute, with his replacement, Pablo Sarabia then missing his spot kick.
Apart from Williams, Spain has only one other player who is able to produce something from nothing: Ansu Fati, but perhaps through fitness reasons, Enrique was unwilling to use him except in a very peripheral role. The rest of Spain’s attack was a variety on a theme: agile players who are able to pass the ball: Marcos Asensio, Sarabia, Olmo, Ferran Torres. Alvaro Morata is slightly more direct, but isn’t really a forward to attack crosses, or hold up play with his back to goal.
In fairness, Gerard Moreno, who can do that, missed out through injury, but Betis striker Borja Iglesias was left out and hardly given a chance in the run up to Qatar. It seems obvious that Enrique never really intended to change the style.
The coach’s future is in doubt as all coaches are following an early exit from the World Cup, but he has indicated, he would like to carry on and it’s clear an honest, direct and decent man will have the support and loyalty of his players.
But unless Enrique is willing to adapt his style of play to include a ‘plan B’ when it’s 0-0 in the 70th minute, the script will probably remain the same: big wins over weak rivals, followed by ‘pass, pass, pass… go home.” ■