Top of the group, thank VAR

Spain struggle to draw with Morocco. Fresh ideas & legs are badly needed

The fact that Spain managed to qualify to the knockout stages of this World Cup in the first spot of their group defies all logic. Yes, they’re undefeated. Yes, they’ve scored six goals in three matches. Yes, they dominated proceedings for most of the games against their three rivals. But all those facts fail to tell the story of an embarrassing defence – both in open play and in set pieces –, and of an endless succession of touches without much intent to score, easily dealt with by their opponents. The way Spain have played, especially in the last two matches, does not look promising for the outcome of this World Cup.

At least it was fun. I watched the match in an unassuming bar in Saint Petersburg, surrounded mostly by Mexicans as well as a couple of Moroccans, and only knew what was going on in the Portugal vs Iran match though the bar’s terrible wi-fi connection. As the Spain match finished and I refreshed my Forza feed, dying to see “FT” next to the Portugal match, the screen displayed “?”, which almost gave me a heart attack.

Amrabat believes VAR’s other name starts with “bull” and finishes with…

In the end, two VAR decisions in one minute miraculously left Spain as group leaders, but the Spaniards can feel neither happy nor confident after these three matches. Their performance against Morocco improved on the one vs Iran in terms of the speed of their ball movement, but the offence still lacked menace, bite, threat.

Spain need almost perfect plays for them to finish, and football isn’t a perfect sport by any stretch of the imagination. You can score quite often through plays that look far from perfect. The current national team, with Isco, Silva, Iniesta and Thiago, can pass the ball as well as any other national side, but those four players only score when they find themselves a few yards away from goal with no opposition. In any other instances, they struggle mightily to find the net. The best example is Silva, but even though Iniesta has scored in a handful of huge matches and  Isco is a bit more familiar with the scoresheet, you can’t trust these offensive midfielders to carry the entire scoring load on their shoulders.

Was the match vs Portugal a mirage?

And given that Costa – although he’s improved – still can’t figure out fully how to leverage these players’ skills for his own benefit, the result is that Spain enjoyed 70% of possession, gave 500 passes more than Morocco, and could only score after a perfect play between Isco, Iniesta and Costa, and as a result of a smart corner kick which caught the Morocco defence off guard.

Still, that wasn’t enough for Spain to win. One bizarre lapsus between Iniesta and Ramos, and a very weakly defended corner kick in their own box meant that Morocco also scored twice. The Moroccans also had another two glorious chances to have added a couple goals more. In fact, only a header from Isco got Spain as close to score as those two other chances by Morocco.

But what on earth is wrong with Spain? For starters, the team needs someone to help Costa up front, or at least to take advantage of his work with the centrebacks to find space and openings. Isco can’t do that if he’s building every single play from the back, and we don’t want the almost harmless Iniesta or Silva to do that job. Costa needs a Griezmann behind him, and the closest thing to him Spain have is Iago Aspas.

iniesta silva
Yes, they were this young

But before we get to the replacements, let’s speak a bit more about this starting team. Iniesta and Silva started for the Euro2008 Spanish team that won the tournament. They played as inverted wingers with Marcos Senna and Xavi in midfield and the duo Torres / Villa upfront. Boy, that was fun. But of course, that happened 10 years ago. Expect Iniesta and Silva to offer similar physical performances with a decade of top-level football on their respective shoulders is a ridiculous. In Spain, Iniesta’s been scrutinised to an absurd level, pointing at the rationing of minutes that most of his coaches have applied to his matches in the last two or three seasons. However, after a long season, Silva does not look sharp at all, and if this model can work it will do so with a tireless movement of all offensive midfielders. With both Iniesta and Silva at the same time on the pitch, it feels quite difficult for Hierro and Spain to pull this one off.

Tonight, Isco played a monster of a match, but again it wasn’t enough. Due to the lack of rhythm on the ball and the uneven Iniesta / Silva performance moving forward, Isco had to go back to get the ball too far away from the opposition’s goal. Isco is dangerous facing a full back 25 metres away from the goal, and there he did hurt Morocco every time he received the ball. Giving him the ball in the midfield line is a complete waste of his efforts. His performance was fantastic, but Isco can’t be Spain’s only threat. The team becomes predictable, and one missed a bit more initiative from Thiago to progress further and put pressure on Morocco’s defence.

Isco, simply fantastic / AFP PHOTO / Patrik STOLLARZ

On the bench, Hierro did not have a particularly bright day either. I’ll give him that Spain’s ball movement fooled most of us for a long part of the match. Most of us felt they could score, and that probably kept him from making any substitutions earlier on. But well before the 70th minute it was obvious that Costa was already disconnected from the rest of the team, that Silva did not have a sharp day and that Thiago was yet again wasting a chance to shine with Spain. With Iniesta looking tired, Hierro would have needed four subs, or even five if we gave some importance to De Gea’s pathetic body language. Carvajal still looks well below his best form, Busquets plays a bit slower than he should…

In summary, this team needs fresh blood and legs, and far more bite up front. Iran presented Spain with the chance to make it first of the group, thus giving this scribe the stamp he needed for his travel plans. Thank God VAR, it’s Sunday in Moscow vs Russia. But if Hierro does not move his bench – and he’s got plenty of talent and physical strength waiting to make the line-up – Spain will fly back to Madrid on Sunday night, together with Mr Alvarez.

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