For all his bullishness in public, Luis Enrique was hugely frustrated in private. This was precisely the situation that he has been most obsessed with preventing. After Spain again failed to put the ball into the net, the manager at least put it best.
“The lack of a goal? It’s the eternal discussion.”
That’s because it makes games feel like eternities, and makes Spain’s modern tournament history feel like it has been constant toiling to get that breakthrough goal. It is as if we have seen that exact 0-0 against Sweden so many times before. The truth is we have. It is a problem that paradoxically – but predictably – got much worse after Spain became good.
Since the country’s 2008 breakthrough, they have spent 1,644 minutes of tournament matches struggling for that first goal. That’s one full day, three hours and 24 minutes – or, four hours and 25 minutes more than it is estimated to take to read Don Quixote, a book of 345,390 words.
It translates into an average wait for a goal of 55 minutes per game. That shoots up to an hour if you take out the 4-0 over a hapless Ireland in Euro 2012 and – crucially – the free-flowing first two games of Euro 2008 against Russia and Sweden. They are key because they sparked such a specific tactical response to Spain, which in turn fostered something of a complex for successive Spanish squads.
These figures don’t even include the 79 minutes after Russia’s equaliser in the 2018 World Cup last-16 match, a game that seemed a nadir for all of this and almost a football breakdown.
Portugal, France and Italy are the only countries with worse recent records in this regard, but there are important differences.
Average major tournament minutes per game at nil since Euro 2008
While Italy have spent most of that period in a historical trough, both the Portuguese and French have primarily played a patient and pragmatic game. Spain don’t see themselves like that. They actually see such approaches as the antithesis to their whole philosophy. The Spanish idea is to get on the ball and dominate, to take possession and take the game to opponents.
Therein lies the root of the problem, as well as so many responses that have created subsequent issues – but not many goals.
At their 2008-12 peak, players like Xavi and Andres Iniesta made Spain so good in possession that opposition teams had little choice but to just crowd out the space where they could do damage. The lessons if you stepped out were there for all to see. In Spain’s first game of Euro 2008, they put four past a Russian team that would get to the semi-finals. In one of the last build-up games before the 2010 World Cup, Spain put six past Poland. It created natural excitement but also an entirely false expectation about what was about to happen.
The issue was that so many opposition managers realised that, since it was almost impossible to get the ball off Spain, you should just make it almost impossible for them to use it where it mattered. Hence Spanish players so often passing from side to side as they attempted to move 10-man backlines out of shape to create that key opening. As Xavi complained in one interview during the 2010 World Cup, “people don’t understand – there’s just no space”.
The blueprint for this was completed by Jose Mourinho’s Internazionale against Barcelona in the 2009-10 Champions League semi-final, and then Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Switzerland in that opening 1-0 win over Spain at the World Cup. Such approaches didn’t just create a problem for Vicente Del Bosque in the group, but also a debate for the manager among the group of players. Long games when Spain were pushing up on the opposition in single-minded pursuit of a goal left them susceptible to sudden counter-attacks, and the propensity for real panic in the defence. One of many consequences was that Del Bosque put in a double pivot in Sergio Busquets and Xabi Alonso that at once made Spain more secure but also more methodical.
The pattern was set for a series of games. There was the 64-minute wait against Portugal in 2010, the 83 minutes against Paraguay, the 73 minutes against Germany and – to cap it all – the 116 minutes against the Netherlands in the final. It is fitting that it remains the latest World Cup-winning goal ever scored. The problem has only persisted through repeated rebirths. Even Euro 2016, when there was similar discussion about a new generation, started with an 87-minute wait for a goal against Czech Republic. We then had Iran, Russia, Morocco and most recently Sweden.
It is why there was an air of frustrated resignation in Luis Enrique’s voice after that last 0-0.
“We were the better side against an opposition who decided to defend and defend and base an attack on the long ball,” the Spanish manager complained.
We’ve heard it before and seen it before – not least from Spain themselves.
There are a few contradictions and strings of consequences here, too. In the more disparate world of international football, it should be to Spain’s benefit that they are now one of only a few teams to have a defined national style. It just becomes a negative as it makes them among the easiest teams to prepare a plan for. They are broadly predictable.
It is also a problem that has got worse, well, as the players have got worse. That isn’t just about the loss of legends like Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Spain does still produce passing midfielders as standard. They obviously aren’t to the levels of those two icons, but they ensure a continuation of approach. It is in fact something that may have become more pronounced as the difference between club football and international football has become more pronounced. Without the kind of highly co-ordinated coaching you see at club level, it feels natural that players will fall back on what they know best. In this case, it’s passing. That seemed clearest in that match against Russia, as a mere figurehead in Fernando Hierro had to step in for an actual coach in Julen Lopetegui. Without deeper guidance, the Spanish players just returned to type.
It is something Luis Enrique has been so obsessed with.
It is why David Villa is the most important loss from that golden era.
He offered the incision to finish so many moves. He was the penetration amid so much possession, the cutting edge to so many smooth surfaces. In that 2010 World Cup alone, Villa scored four consecutive match-winners.
The absence of a player like that can be seen in the squad, and debate about current options like Alvaro Morata, and even Gerard Moreno. Had either taken one of their chances, the discussion around Spain is likely very different. As it is, it’s the “eternal discussion”, to quote the manager.
But this is also why Luis Enrique is so frustrated. It is not that the game went as it always does, but precisely because he feels Spain did do something different. He felt they created enough, and it was just bad luck, and two brilliant saves. The belief is that it was just one of those days in football, rather than another of those games for Spain.
If the exasperated question from the outside is why Spain don’t change, Luis Enrique has already attempted solutions. He has introduced more intensity to specific plays, more direct runs. He feels it is different. It is why the outcome being the same was even more frustrating than the first game being a draw. The players have the same mindset.
“We’re relaxed,” Koke said. “A lot of people don’t have faith in us but that only makes us stronger. The goal will certainly come, so what people say doesn’t worry us. We have to continue along the same line.”
It is just remarkable to hear a footballer come out with a line like that, that the goal – the most fundamental part of the game – will come. That’s how much of a complex Spain have about it. That’s been the story of so many tournaments. A different ending can come through a finish.
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