It took me a while to digest Sunday’s defeat. Not only because I felt optimistic about the match and the squad, but especially because I liked the line-up and thought it sent the right message to the team and the rival.
However, it didn’t work. In fact, the match became the continuation of the downward spiral Spain’s game got into after the tournament started. Each match was a bit worse than the previous one in terms of energy, risks taken, errors committed. Making a simple extrapolation, the tournament was bound to end badly.
But let’s examine the Russia match first. My main frustration with the outcome is that this was a match that this same team would have won 1-0 in 2010 or 2012. Right after kick-off, Ramos misplaced a pass and I said to my lovely companion: “If we end up eliminated, it will be the centrebacks’ fault”. Both the skipper and Pique had made so many uncharacteristic mistakes during the group phase that I honestly thought it made sense to leave one of the two on the bench in the last-16 round.
Of course, that would be unthinkable. In different degrees, this team belongs to – or has belonged to — Ramos and Pique, controversies aside. But they weren’t playing well and that was one of the reasons for the uneasy feeling regarding the solidity of the back four. What I could not believe is that, when the most difficult challenge of the match had already been left behind – scoring first! – such an experienced centreback as Pique would jump in the box with his arm extended.
I’m surprised that almost nothing has been made of this. It’s not a mere error, it’s almost unforgiveable. I know that Pique has had issues with his arms in the box before, but he’s 31. The Russians only shot once on target in the whole match. They weren’t going to draw level, ever, unless Spain presented them with the chance. And Pique did.
Indeed, this Spanish team should defeat this Russian team with ease, even giving one goal away, but Spain’s problems creating chances in knockout stages against a decent defensive team are not new. Again, for most of the match we saw a repetition of what many think tiki-taka is, but which in reality is a very poor imitation in which the fear of losing the ball dominates every pass and every move. No one takes risks, no one dribbles in dangerous zones, positional switches are rare, the game is predictable by the opposition, the fans, the ref and every soul involved in it.
The degradation of tiki-taka is the story of the maturity and decline of its main representatives in the team. At his apex, Xavi knew how to mix short and midrange passing, how to pick up the pace or slow down. Iniesta could break a few lines of defence with his dribbles while also being able to team up with Xavi in the game-management side of things. Silva exchanged positions with Iniesta, played between lines, found the designated striker. With Senna or Busy behind them, the ball moved fast or slow, forward or sideways, whenever it was required.
Spain tried to play that brand of football during the qualifying stage, in a more energetic version than the lethargic one which failed them in the 2014 WC. Lopetegui’s interpretation looked reasonably competitive. We saw some of that in the first match against Portugal, together with a high press that gave the whole team a different dynamic.
However, from the second match on, there was no high press and no speed in the team. Spain looked boring as hell against Iran and Morocco, and absolutely awful for most of the match against Russia. When you watch other teams play in the last-16 round, it seems like they play a different sport.
That may have to do with the players or the coach, but the fact is that the team has not been the same as it was during the qualifying stage or that half an hour of the Portugal match. And the matter is that there was an overdose of positional players with only one option to move forward, Costa, an option that they ignored at least five times in the first half of the Russia match. He’s not the type of player they understand, or perhaps they needed another forward to mix it up a bit. But until Rodrigo and Aspas joined the team, Russia seemed comfortable enough defending and no-one could see how Spain could break the defence.
Is this the coach’s responsibility? At certain points, the lack of time that Hierro had with his players became obvious. Who should take corners? Isco, Asensio and Koke kept arguing among themselves while a desperate Hierro tried to give instructions from the bench. Did Hierro need to keep a back four when Russia had one striker and one offensive midfielder, and they barely crossed the midfield line?
Yes, Hierro could have done some things differently, but this line-up with these same substitutions should have defeated Russia anyway. The biggest disappointment of this match is the players, the group that seemed a sensible mixture of experience and youth, but who played in such a self-contained, harmless, frustrating manner.
This match should have ended well before the penalties, so I can’t blame Koke or Aspas for missing from the spot, or De Gea for not having saved a single shot. One does wonder about Koke getting the nod from Hierro when Costa was telling the coach not to use his team mate in the shootout, but perhaps Lopetegui might have had this better prepared than Hierro.
In fact, it’s obvious that Lopetegui could have done some things much better than Hierro. He’d studied the rivals, had coached different in-match situations, had some levers to change the situation of a specific match, so yes, changing the manager wasn’t a productive decision by president Rubiales. But again, this group of players should have defeated Russia with Phil or myself on the bench. What was missed wasn’t skill or will, but dare, boldness, some audacity. That is why elimination is so disappointing.
What is next? Well, it now seems like Rubiales was discussing Hierro’s replacement on the plane back home with a few journalists. Luis Enrique, Michel… The names do not matter. The challenge is to recover the attitude of the squad, something that needs a very special character, along the lines of the old Luis Aragones.
In the meantime, my bitter forecast is that Lopetegui will be out of a job by Christmas, wondering what could have been had he not taken that call from Florentino.