Spain stuck in the past

More than a thousand passes, 79 percent possession and 90% passing accuracy – the stats on first glance are those of a typically-dominant Spain performance. Yet their football against Russia had the appearance of a cheap imitation like many sides unsuccessfully attempted when ‘tiki-taka’ was en vogue.

They passed and passed but never penetrated. They moved the ball from side to side as if running down the clock on a well-earned 3-0 win, lacking all the urgency that a 1-1 scoreline deserved.

With every minute, Russia’s chances of progression improved as extra-time and the lottery of penalties loomed. But they did nothing, creating little from open play and their goal coming from a set-piece.

When it came to the knockout stages of competitions, Spain weren’t always their free-flowing best. During their 2010 World Cup win. They beat Portugal, Paraguay and Germany 1-0 in their run to the Final, before an extra-time victory over Netherlands.

This time, even clear-cut chances were a rarity. Isco looked like the only player willing to take the ball past a player, as did Rodrigo Moreno, who was brought on 45 minutes too late. Marco Asensio was static, Diego Costa underutilised and Spain in general underwhelming.

‘Tiki-taka’ done correctly is never possession for possession’s sake, even if that appeared the case to the casual viewer.  To some, the system is about moving the opposition defence, whether it is through slowly drawing them to one side and quickly attacking from the other, or drawing defenders in to create pockets of space to exploit.

Pep Guardiola rather famously distanced his celebrated brand of football from ‘tiki-taka’, stating that he ‘loathes all that passing for the sake of it, all that tiki-taka’. Whatever your definition of ‘tiki-taka’ is, what we saw from Spain was more like he described.

Those now mourning its death missed the funeral after the debacle of the 2014 World Cup, and its left Spain caught between two styles. They still want to play the passing football that has borne much success but now lack many of the players to do it well, like Xavi Hernandez and David Villa.

On the other hand, they have the more direct Diego Costa but are reticent to use his talents to the fullest. 

The result is a tepid two hours of football, with little direction or penetration. As far as entertainment goes, Spain were far from the worst offenders. Russia were more than happy to sit deep, stifle space and attack sporadically. It was just as difficult to watch, but given they emerged as the victors, it is hard to criticise them.

Once it became abundantly clear Russia were not willing to press or leave their established defensive structure, Spain needed a second approach.

Much will be made of the sacking of Julen Lopetegui a day before the tournament. However, he was a huge advocate of Diego Costa brought to the team and made steps to ensure his involvement in the team tactically. We saw little to none of that throughout the game as only five of the 757 passes Spain made in the first 90 minutes went into the box. 

How different Lopetegui’s vision for La Roja was from what we saw against Russia, we’ll never truly know. They sailed through qualifying and little can be read into the 6-1 drubbing of Argentina in a friendly, given their own shortcomings.

With Fernando Hierro parachuted in, he could do little to truly affect the system, though his in-game management was poor. Maybe this brand of football only works to a point? Maybe it was an off day? Either way, in a World Cup without Germany, Portugal or Argentina, Spain with the individual talent in their squad had the potential to go far.

It was a wasted opportunity, especially considering how many of La Roja’s players were in their prime. Andres Iniesta announced his retirement at the end of the match, while Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique will be 36 and 35 respectively at Qatar 2022 and therefore unlikely to feature.

Spain’s new generation need to come to the fore and with them, a new way of winning.