After 120 minutes of football at the Luzhniki Stadium, it came down to one kick. Iago Aspas versus Igor Akinfeev. If Aspas scored, Spain would be through to the quarter-finals. If he missed, it would be disaster for the 2010 World Cup champions. The forward bent his run-up and shot with his left foot. Akinfeev stuck out a boot and sent the host nation into delirium.
Russia had pulled off one of the biggest results of the World Cup so far. But the fact Spain even needed a penalty shoot-out to progress against the lowest-ranked team in the tournament demonstrates there were deeper problems at play for La Roja.
So how did it come to this for a side who were among the pre-tournament favourites?
The Lopetegui situation changed everything
Spain were in turmoil from the moment they touched down in Russia. Two days before the start of the World Cup, Real Madrid announced Julen Lopetegui was joining the club after the tournament, just three weeks after the manager had renewed his Spain contract until 2020. Which might not have been an issue, except the president of the Spanish Football Federation Luis Rubiales was only informed five minutes beforehand.
Lopetegui was the manager who picked Spain up from the ashes of Brazil and France, with his mantra of evolution rather than revolution. The former Under-19, Under-20 and Under-21 manager had built on the passing foundations of the all-conquering 2008-2012 team while injecting this side with more attacking bite. He had also done what Vicente del Bosque had failed to do in 2014 and 2016 by blending in new talent from his time in charge of Spain’s youth teams.
The high point came in a 6-1 rout of Argentina in a March friendly. Everything seemed to click for Lopetegui’s outfit, with Isco scoring a hat-trick – Spain’s first since 2013 – to cement his status as the most important player in the side. It looked as if the Madrid magician and his teammates would take some stopping in Russia after that performance.
They were left managerless, however, when Rubiales took the decision to sack Lopetegui following Real’s announcement. The president spoke about values, and it was clear the news had embarrassed Rubiales. He emphasised the need to change as little as possible, but he had already made the biggest change possible with two days to go before Spain’s opening match against Portugal.
While director of football and former Spain captain Fernando Hierro was probably the most sensible replacement in the circumstances, this was a huge role for someone whose only previous managerial experience was with second division Real Oviedo. Hierro said as much when he told a radio station he was not even thinking of the position a few days before, but his inexperience showed in his tactics and in-game decisions over Spain’s four games.
Regardless of how good this squad was, the atmosphere had an effect. Basic errors crept into Spain’s game; De Gea spilled Ronaldo’s shot in the group opener against Portugal, Morocco punished Ramos’ complacency and Pique gave away a penalty after a bizarre handball in the Round of 16 clash with Russia. Spain topped their group despite these mistakes but it was inevitable they would come back to haunt them at some point.
And all this without mentioning the catalyst for the crisis: Florentino Perez. While Lopetegui, Rubiales and Hierro could have handled the situation better, it could all have been so easily avoided had Real Madrid waited until after the tournament to approach the Spain manager. It was telling that Perez was omitted from Marca’s poll asking who was most to blame – the only options were Rubiales, Hierro, and the players – but the Madrid president must take some responsibility for Spain’s doomed campaign.
But their football was poor
Whenever Spain lose at international tournaments, there is always a rush to declare the death of possession football. In 2014 it was their group stage exit in Brazil and in 2016 their round of 16 defeat to Italy in France which seemed to signal the end of an era for Spain and international football in general.
While Spain were impressive in their opening group match against Portugal, with some labelling them the team of the round, they were average at best against Iran, Morocco and Russia. Against the hosts they were pedestrian, playing as if they were 3-0 up rather than defending a 1-0 lead.
The worst criticism that can be made of Spain is that this was possession for possession’s sake. They set a new record with 1,029 successful passes in Moscow, but they could not break the Russians down. That Russia have completed 1,029 passes exactly in this World Cup so far just goes to show how Spain’s possession counted for little.
There was none of the forward thrust which saw them beat Italy 3-0 in qualification and demolish Argentina in March. When faced with the chance to attack, Spain chose to stay on the ball rather than risk losing it. Vladimir Cherchesov’s side sat deep and defended resolutely with Diego Costa cutting an isolated figure up front.
Meanwhile, Isco, Lopetegui’s protégé, was entirely ineffectual. At one point he found himself in the kind of position in the opposition half from which he would usually kick-start an attacking move, only to pass the ball backwards. This was far from the Isco we have got used to seeing carve out chances on a regular basis at Madrid.
Nor was this the Spain we had seen flourish under Lopetegui. The Basque manager knew the ‘tiki-taka’ style that had made Spain so successful from 2008-2012 had been eclipsed and adjusted it accordingly. One of the most refreshing things about his tenure was how Spain pressed and countered as well as holding onto the ball, something we did not see in Russia.
But, faced with crisis, Hierro and Spain took the easy option and reverted to what they do so well: passing. Even then, they played it safe far too often. That is not their fault per se, but the Lopetegui saga prior to the tournament necessarily made them a more cautious team.
True, Spain may well have experienced the same problems had Lopetegui still been in charge. There is no knowing what this side could have achieved, however, and that is the question which will haunt Spain fans long after this World Cup is finished.
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