On Sunday afternoon, the World Cup claimed another high-profile victim as 2010 champions Spain were sent on their way to join Germany, Argentina and Portugal at the departure gate of Sheremetyevo International Airport. If such a narrative wasn’t enough, it was the hosts Russia that sent La Roja on their way, offering yet another thorny rose to the football romantics. Whilst the likes of Artem Dzyuba, Aleksandr Golovin and Igor Akinfeev become icons of their nation’s footballing history, their counterparts’ failings exhibit the limitations of what many consider to be ‘perfect football’.
Written by Jack Colman (@JColman95)
Spain started the game with four centrally-inclined midfielders, Sergio Busquets, David Silva, Isco and Koke, and one winger-cum-attacking midfielder, Marco Asensio, in a formation which lacked any distinct stylistic diversity. Sure, Asensio plays differently to Silva and Isco has a different role to Koke, but in a tactical system that focuses almost exclusively on passing the ball across a line and maintaining possession, the distinctions are minute. When Fernando Hierro made a substitution, the great Andres Iniesta, another playmaker, entered the field. Bar from taking one of few Spanish shots on goal, the legend was unable to influence procedures.
The only noticeable change in the Spaniards’ play came with the arrival of Rodrigo in the 104th minute. The Valencia attacker finally provided Hierro’s side with a new dimension as his pace exploited gaps in an exhausted Russian system, but it came too late. Finishing the game with 1006 successful passes at a 90% success rate, Spain bowed out of the 2018 World Cup in the only way they know, with the ball. Unfortunately, we no longer live in a world that marvels at ‘tika-taka’ football. In fact, the aesthetic art which dominated the turn of the decade is now just as vulnerable to mockery as it is to acclaim.
Before going further, it’s worth clarifying that this article is not proclaiming the end of tika-taka football, far from it. In the right situation, moving the ball around on a string in a manner that only certain mastery puppeteers of football can will destroy an inferior opposition. Throughout qualifying for this tournament, Julen Lopetegui’s Spain looked like a fine vintage, winning nine and drawing one of their ten matches, including a sensational 3-0 disposition of Italy in September.
After a prickly post-2012 period, people were coming around to the idea that Spain were ready to dominate the international game once more. That was before the managerial merry-go-round took its first spins of summer and Florentino Perez decided that Real Madrid’s needs transcended the needs of the national team. Lopetegui was outlawed and the, figuratively, fresh-faced Hierro was suddenly leading his country into battle.
On paper, Spain’s side should have waltzed to the latter stages of this World Cup. Unfortunately for them, and more fortunately for others, the world is quickly learning that football is so much more than a game of Top Trumps. This is particularly true of international football. Whilst club football is systematically seeded so that teams generally face-off against other teams of a high, professional quality, the international game is a wild west shoot-out. With such a variety in the depth of footballing ability, it often feels like the game takes a step back to basics. We see the emergence of direct, wide, attacking players such as Croatia’s Ante Rebić (Eintracht Frankfurt), Peru’s Andre Carrillo (Watford) and Mexico’s Hirving Lozano (PSV).
It is this profile of player that was so badly lacked by Spain in their defeat to the Russians. As the side’s playmakers shifted the ball left and right in front of the Russian wall, there was no penetration. Only 30 of Spain’s 1006 passes in the match went forward (2.98%) and Diego Costa was visibly frustrated by his isolation before he was replaced by Iago Aspas, after 80 minutes of effectively pointless running between the Russian centre-backs. With a centre-back playing as a right-back, Jordi Alba was the only player showing any significant mobility up the flanks, but the Barcelona player’s efforts were as fruitless as Costa’s. It was only Rodrigo’s introduction that brought any progress, but by that point it was too late.
Spain are not the only side to suffer from a lack of directness in this year’s tournament. World champions Germany infamously crashed out at the group stages after a humiliating 2-0 loss to South Korea. The combination of Toni Kroos, Sami Khedira, Mesut Özil, Leon Goretzka and Marco Reus made for a strong passing network but there was no progression into the Korean backline. The introduction of Thomas Müller and Julian Brandt only seemed to make it worse. German football fans will tell you that Leroy Sané has never found his club form for the national team, but you can’t help but think that his style of play would have suited this World Cup. Fast, direct, different.
The teams that have, are, and will find success in this tournament are those with balance. It’s fantastic to have one or two world class playmakers: Croatia have Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, Brazil have Phillipe Coutinho, France have Paul Pogba. However, you have to have the system and tools around these players for the complete package: Croatia have Ivan Perisic and Rebic, Brazil have Neymar and Willian/Douglas Costa, and France have Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé. Whilst it’s easy to say in hindsight, Spain’s side lacked this balance and their early exit, as with Germany, shouldn’t be a surprise. The Russians and South Koreans may not have the CVs of the Spanish and Germans, but they can defend against a flat midfield passing it between themselves.
So where do Spain go from here? Andres Iniesta has retired and so the country need to pick a new conductor. Judging by this tournament, Isco is the new leader of this Spanish midfield and, if he makes a return to Barcelona, I can see Thiago Alcantara acting as second in command. There’s no doubt that Asensio is the rising star of Spanish football, but it’s important that he finds an identity in his game; at the moment nobody knows if he’s a winger or a central attacking midfielder. Risks need to be taken, especially on the wings, and I think players such as Iñaki Williams (Athletic Bilbao) and, if he takes a step up at club-level, Adama Traore (Middlesbrough) should be tested in the relatively pressure-free Nations League.
The ‘end of a cycle’ excuse has run its cause for La Roja and it’s about time that Spanish football stopped passing and started giving some answers.