Pinpointing exactly what went wrong for Spain

Spain have long been one of the greatest footballing nations in the world at both club and international level. They boast the most successful club in European tournament history in Real Madrid with Los Blancos winning an incredible 14 Champions League/European Cup trophies. They also play host to maybe the greatest academy project in the history of the sport with Barcelona’s La Masia, welcoming the likes of Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta, Xavi and more through their ranks.

At international level, they dominated the late noughties and early 2010s winning back-to-back-to-back trophies from 2008-2012. As if all of that wasn’t enough, they also groomed some of the greatest managers in the world and arguably the current best coach in world football, Pep Guardiola.

The sports betting odds had Spain as one of the favourites heading into the 2022 Qatar World Cup and they started off incredibly promisingly when they thrashed Costa Rica 7-0 in their opening group game. Young talent such as Pedri and Gavi seemed to have breathed new life into a squad that had waned slightly in previous years and it looked as if Spain were back. Although some heart in mouth moments would follow for at least a couple of minutes, they qualified for the knockout rounds and looked to have been handed a fanciable draw against Morocco in the Round of 16.

And then came the shock. Despite dominating most of the match, finishing the game with 77% possession, Spain could not find the net and managed just one shot on target. Morocco weathered the storm for 120 minutes before knocking La Roja out on penalties in spectacular fashion. Fingers have been pointed all over the place, but what exactly did go wrong for Spain?

Before the tournament had even started, there were already some raised eyebrows upon coach Luis Enrique’s announcement of the 26-man squad. Admittedly, he was not spoilt for choice in the striking department, but opting for just one striker in Alvaro Morata was already a risky decision. Whilst he has a very respectable goalscoring record for Spain, the Juventus striker has been known to go missing when it mattered and when looking at the likes of Dani Olmo, Marcos Asensio and Ferran Torres, there was an alarming lack of goals in the team.

Enrique also caught some flak for leaving out Liverpool midfielder Thiago Alcantara. Yet another La Masia product, Thiago’s playmaking ability is up there with the best in the world and a player of his capabilities being left out of the squad was a very shocking move.

It seemed that 7-0 drubbing of Costa Rica perhaps flattered Spain slightly and the rest of the tournament was a different story. Despite dominating most all of their games, their misfiring forwards struggled to find a way to score post-opening game. But this was down to a lot more than just their finishing ability.

Spain have always been known and lauded even for their ‘pass first’ approach. The nation is known for developing the ‘Tiki-Taka’ style of play where they pass their opposition to death whilst patiently waiting for openings. This was a lot easier to do when they had the striking talent of Fernando Torres and David Villa being backed up by technical wizards that were Xavi, Iniesta and David Silva. When this tactic works it works but when it doesn’t, you need a plan B and Luis Enrique did not have a plan B.

This lack of urgency when needing a goal cost them dearly in their losses to Japan and Morocco who were happy to keep 10 men behind the ball, closing any space in the box for oncoming attackers and nullifying the passing ability of Pedri. At a time when the best course of action would be to get balls into the box, maybe even pushing a centre-back up top, Spain’s impotence was frustrating to watch.

What was also disappointing was the lack of action for some of the younger players, despite the squad being youthful. Ansu Fati was only afforded opportunities off the bench in cameo appearances, despite the forward being one of the most promising young talents in the world. Winger Nico Williams also impressed off the bench but could not find a way into the starting 11 ahead of Ferran Torres, despite the latter performing disappointingly throughout the tournament. 

Enrique has since taken the blame for their early exit, though mainly focused his self-critique on his choice of penalty takers as opposed to their goalscoring shortcomings.

Going forward, there are some major changes needed to this Spain squad should they become the superpower of old. This could come from a change of coach, a change of tactics or a bigger focus on developing attacking talent. Whilst they certainly have a group of players who can stay playing together for at least two more tournaments, it will mean nothing should they repeat their performances in Qatar.

Written by Alejandro Fernandez

La Liga - Club News