As Graham Taylor might have said (had his sympathies been directed towards Spain) ‘Did I not enjoy that!’ The Russians stride on, unconcerned about the nature of their victory, since victory it is. Perhaps Spain hadn’t quite seen it coming – in the sense that Russia, playing in front of the home crowd with a tail wind – might have been expected to have played a slightly more open game. Fair cop to them, of course, but half-way through the first half their supporters showed a certain lack of irony when booing the Spanish team for retaining possession of the ball. As the Spanish saying goes ‘¿Qué remedio?’ (what else could we do?), and in the second half it only got worse, with Russia completely renouncing any thoughts of more than two consecutive passes.
The problem for Spain, save the game against Portugal, has been that every side they have encountered has parked the bus. It’s not difficult to see, therefore, why Russia also decided on the policy, although had they lost one wonders what sort of reception the press would have given them. It made for tedious viewing, made all the worse by the extra half hour of torture. In the end, Spain at least kept up their record of never having defeated a host nation in the history of the World Cup participation.
I’ll keep it brief, for now. A longer piece may follow when the dust settles. Eduardo, on his way home now, may have more to say – but the post-mortem in the Spanish press tomorrow (Monday) will be predictable in its targets. Fernando Hierro was given a difficult brief, which he could not really have turned down, but nevertheless erred too far on the side of caution. Every game has seen a similar pattern of possession over-wrought, and the freshness of movement and thought that both Aspas and Rodrigo brought to this final game were surely changes made too late. Diego Costa is a battler, a decent striker, but in populated areas he’s of little use because he turns like the Titanic, and he’s lost some pace in the past two years. Bringing on Carvajal for Nacho also seemed a pointless substitution, when Spain were already effectively playing with a defence of three. Surely, Odriozola might have been thrown on to get behind the defence on the right (he’s very good at it) or even Lucas Vazquez. But it’s easy to criticise when the bus won’t break up. Isco was great, but he got tired. You could even argue that Hierro’s main approach has been ‘give it to Isco and see what happens’. David Silva was not really at the races, and Iniesta was showing his age. When Asensio was finally trusted to start, it wasn’t clear what his role was supposed to be, because I’m not sure that you need both him and Silva starting.
The Russians played roulette (sorry) and it worked. Ugly but effective, when they have players who can do more. The full-back Mario Fernandes was excellent, and Golovin was always dangerous when he got a sniff of space. Spain were pedestrian, a little too unsure of themselves at the back, and over-elaborate in their build-up, although the tactics of their opponents leave them blameless in that sense. Would Lopetegui have done things better? Good question. Rubiales will now become a target for the press, and they will insist that he should have steadied the boat, instead of rocking it. The fact that most of them praised the decision at the time will of course be forgotten.
It’s disappointing, but you could see it coming. Another giant bites the dust. Since I long ago failed the ‘Tebbit Test’, I’ll leave England alone and support Belgium now, mainly because they’ve got a Real Sociedad player in the squad.
To be continued……