Euro 2020: Pass masters Spain not a finished product yet
Jordi Alba, standing in as Spain captain for another stand-in captain in Sergio Busquets, found himself dribbling up the left flank near the end of the first half in Seville. The upcoming passage of play triggered by Alba’s ticking mind could well be a stand in for numbers and statistics and neatly sum up the entirety of Spain’s opening game of this Euro versus Sweden; every aspect of it – from the terrific dominance of the home side’s midfield to the reluctance of the Swedes to touch the ball to just how toothless Spain’s finishing really was.
There Alba was in the 38th minute, having just crossed the half-line on the left wing and his eyes peeled for reinforcements further up the field. Immediately ahead of Alba and supposedly marking him were Sweden’s right back Mikael Lustig and winger Sebastian Larsson. But because both Lustig and Larsson were positioned so far away, Alba had the space and audacity the come to a full halt and stand a metre or so behind the stationary ball, scanning the grass in front of him for assets in red.
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Directly up his flank was Spain’s Dani Olmo, but he was man-marked by the experienced Victor Lindelof, Manchester United’s centre-back. So, Alba looked to his right and into Sweden’s box, where his striker Alvaro Morata stood, loosely marked by Marcus Danielson, Sweden’s other centre-back. Alba chose Morata and from a state of inertia, hooked in a long and swerving cross towards the pair of Danielson and Morata. Danielson made a right mess of the clearance, promptly releasing the ball and the lurking Spaniard behind him.
Morata was now one-on-one with goalie Robin Olsen – the last line of Sweden’s defence even slipping this way and that – but somehow sprayed his attempt wide. As he held his head in his hands, the 22,000 spectators at the Estadio de La Cartuja sighed. But by the time Juventus’s Morata was substituted for Paris Saint-Germain’s Pablo Sarabia in the 66th minute, he was whistled off the field in his own country.
But the change brought little luck, for Sarabia too missed a golden chance in injury-time. The boos rained down on him too, just as it had on the other substitute that coach Luis Enrique had introduced to break a most frustrating deadlock, Gerard Moreno. It didn’t matter who was doing the feeding – Alba on the left, Koke down the middle or the fluid Ferran Torres on the right – as the Spanish forwards had it all delivered on a plate and somehow found ways to still spill it.
That is one way to tell the story of what unfolded in Seville. Another way is with some truly incredible numbers. Spain completed 918 passes – a European Championships record. They also boasted 86% of possession in the match. Compare that to the fact that Sweden passed the ball a total of 64 times in the first 45 minutes and yet in the first half it was them who nearly found the back of the net via Alexander Isak, who, incidentally, plays in La Liga for Real Sociedad.
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On the counter, Isak snuck the ball past Spain’s goalkeeper Unai Simon, only for Marcos Llorente to nearly fumble the goalline clearance. The ball ricocheted off the Atletico Madrid defender’s shin and on to the goal post – the rebound thankfully popping back into Simon’s hands. That was about as close to a goal as anyone got during this barren stalemate, but the Spaniards weren’t lacking for the sheer frequency of their attempts.
While Janne Andersson, Sweden’s coach, will be a mightily relieved man, what will be of true concern to him is the fact that of Spain’s 900-plus passes, a majority weren’t passed to the nearest neighbour like the 2010 World Cup champions famously used to. Gone are the days of the tiki-taka, where the Spanish nudged the ball slowly forward in tight, mesmeric triangles – a system conducive to large pass-counts. Enrique’s boys were instead flinging the ball ahead with easy mid-to-long range passes, penetrating swiftly through a largely static Swedish 4-4-2.
But once the uninterrupted incisions into the heart of Sweden’s defense were made, there was no Spanish finisher of worth. While this would have alarmed Enrique, he did well to scoff at the criticism that came his way at the press conference. Hence, a third and final way to capture the essence of Spain’s night is perhaps through the coach’s stubborn words, when he said: “We were by far the better team and had the chances to win the game. What went wrong was that we did not take these chances.”