Spain out of World Cup as sterile passing not enough to beat Russia

Spain are out of the World Cup after losing 4-3 in a penalty shootout to hosts Russia in Moscow. The two teams drew 1-1 after extra time and while Spain were the dominant side throughout, they paid the price for settling for sterile dominance, writes Adam Bate.

“We forgot to score the second goal.” That was the famous verdict of Johnny Rep after the great Netherlands team “passed the ball around and around” before West Germany came from behind to beat them in the 1974 World Cup final in Munich. Spain became the latest team to make that same mistake against the hosts as they were eliminated in Russia.

It had all looked so easy when Spain took an early lead thanks to Sergei Ignashevich’s own goal. But they settled for sterile domination and paid the price when Gerard Pique’s handball gave Artem Dyzuba the chance to equalise from the spot five minutes before half-time. Perhaps that should have been the clue that penalties would be Spain’s downfall.

Around two hours later and with no further goals from their team, they were out of the competition. Koke and Iago Aspas saw their penalties saved by Igor Akinfeev and Russia progressed. With Spain having been utterly dominant for long periods, that might be regarded as an injustice. But Fernando Hierro and his players were accomplices in the crime.

For all their apparent superiority, and they made more than 1000 passes in the match, Spain did not so much as have a shot until the 45th minute of the match. Even after the interval when it became increasingly apparent that one more mistake would end their tournament, there was a 40-minute period in which they did not register a shot on target.

Russia were defensive and dogged, of course, but their more gifted opponents did not do enough to find the breakthrough. The two holding midfielders, Sergio Busquets and Koke, remained on the pitch until the end. Spain seemed seduced by their own illusion of control. Tiki-taka at its worst. As Pep Guardiola once said: “I loathe all that passing for the sake of it.”

When asked about Spain’s talented younger generation, Xavi recently recalled the words of his old international coach, the late Luis Aragones. “What do you like?”, Aragones had once asked him. “Nice football or good football?” There was a lot of nice football by this Spain side but not enough of the good football that could and should have separated the sides.

Isco had threatened to control the game in the opening stages but before the first half was out he was nonchalantly overhitting no-look passes out of play. Koke seemed happy enough to stroke the ball sideways rather than play with the sort of penetration that he offers for Atletico Madrid. At times, this was possession football at its most defensive.

Hierro’s substitutions did make a difference. Andres Iniesta, surprisingly omitted from the starting line-up for a key game at a major tournament for the first time in his Spain career, provided more ideas. Iago Aspas brought greater movement. Rodrigo did not arrive until the 104th minute but was soon driving at the defence and causing problems. Too little too late.

Spain still might have been awarded a penalty of their own in the dying moments. Certainly, Ignashevich appeared to be tugging at Pique’s shirt, although Sergio Ramos was as much sinner as sinned against in his own tussle. That the decision did not go Spain’s way evoked memories of 2002 and the controversial shootout exit to then co-hosts South Korea.

But to focus on misfortune would be to overlook the massive flaws that were exposed in the four games that Spain did get to play in Russia. The death-by-passing strategy that propelled Vicente Del Bosque’s team to victory in 2010, with four consecutive 1-0 wins, was built on the capacity to keep clean sheets as much as hurt the opposition. This team could not do it.

“The most important quality in winning a World Cup is transmitting defensive solidity,” Pique himself had pointed out prior to the game. So what was he doing flinging his hand into the air – and there was a second motion towards the ball beyond his initial leap – when defending that first-half corner? It was just the latest in a series of sloppy errors.

David de Gea had allowed Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot to slip from his grasp in the opening game and flunked his opportunity for redemption in the shootout. Ramos and Iniesta, the team’s two most experienced players, combined to allow Morocco to score in their final group game. Nobody could argue that Spain had not been warned.

Isco had even made the concern explicit when speaking to reporters after that unconvincing draw with Morocco. “Nobody is going to give you anything,” he had said, before adding with uncomfortable prescience: “We have to play simpler, not to make mistakes that we are committing with the ball, the set-pieces that can cause goals.” Hierro said much the same.

“Football is a game of errors,” he had explained in his pre-match press conference, “and the team who make the least errors win. So we have to minimise the number we make of them.” Though Spain were able to conjure no fewer than four equalising goals in this World Cup, there is just no coming back from making mistakes in a penalty shootout.

Given that Spain were in what looked like the weaker half of the World Cup draw, this will naturally feel like a huge missed opportunity. But history would suggest that Pique was right about defensive solidity. Spain conceded six goals in Russia. That is more than the last eight World Cup winning teams conceded in total on their way to picking up the trophy.

They will leave this World Cup wondering what might have been had Julen Lopetegui been allowed to see his vision through instead of being sacked on its first day. They will curse the call that went Russia’s way. They will go home having had more of the ball than any other side and knowing that if they had eliminated the errors they could have eliminated anyone.

But Spain will go home nevertheless. They were the better team against Russia. In some ways, perhaps they were the best team in Russia. But Hierro and his players were forced to learn that oldest of World Cup lessons in the most painful of ways as the noise of the home crowd engulfed them in Moscow. Never forget to score the second goal.

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