FIFA World Cup 2018: Spain pay the price for unidimensional kneading of the ball against stoic Russia
Moscow: It took 100 minutes to arrive but the enduring image of Spain’s crumbling World Cup dream was accompanied by pure comedy. Isco made another run into space, but he was actually running into Iago Aspas on the edge of Russia’s box. Aspas had stumbled without any reason and the two teammates crashed into each other. Their collapse met a roar of approving laughter which spread across the Luzhniki Stadium.
Once again, Spain’s players had hit a wall. They captured the ball all afternoon but it captured them too. They were obsessed with imprisoning it, as if the ball would escape on its own if it had the chance. Spain finished with four-fifths of the possession, but that may have been their only achievement. Their football, after all, was stifled by internal debate, a Prufrockian confusion converging on the minds.
Ten years ago, the two sides had met in Vienna for a semi-final at the Euros and the contrast could not be sharper. Back then, Spain were yet to conquer the world but their possession-heavy football had a pacey edge to it. Russia were well beaten 3-0 then, with La Roja going on to win the tournament.
The laboured football on Sunday, though, allowed a much inferior Russian side to live with Spain. Stanislav Cherchesov’s players could afford to sit deep without worrying that an opposition player would run past them in no time. David Silva had slithered through Russia a decade ago, but his now older self merely looked sideways in possession.
Isco and Marco Asensio were supposed to bring different dimensions to the passing roulette, but only one of them succeeded. Isco stood out for his intent to push forward, even when the ball would not reach him; his sprightly presence an energetic counterpoint to the ponderous machinations of his teammates. The Real Madrid midfielder made 25 key passes, nobody else got to even double figures. Asensio was selected to provide a target for Isco’s direct passing, so as the runner could break past the Russian defence. But with Russia allowing little space behind, Asensio looked lost as he wandered on the margins of play.
Spain mirrored his cluelessness. Fernando Hierro’s players completed 1006 passes on the afternoon but, by the end, it was just a number. In fact, despite not gathering even comparable numbers, Russia threatened to dislodge Spain’s balance with increasing frequency as the match wore on. The Spanish players radiated an uneasy calm; their hogging of the ball did not exactly win anyone over. The Russians grew jeery, annoyed at the long phases of play when the hosts could merely run as the ball circulated around them. Spanish fans were annoyed too as their team refused to shut the issue, especially when an early goal had shifted the argument heavily in their favour.
The Sergei Ignashevich-own goal was the advantage which allowed Spain the opportunity to dominate and yet there was a reluctance to do so. Hierro and his players seemed certain that if they controlled the ball, Russia would not find a way back into the match. That assumption may have been true at the 2010 World Cup but the current Spanish side possesses a streak of self-destruction.
That proved to be the case when Gerard Pique, continuing his latest predilection for problem-making, blocked Artem Dzyuba’s header with his arm in the penalty area. Until then, Russia had painted themselves as the mirror opposite of Spain. Passes were long, quick, and imprecise. The directness in approach was as much a function of exploiting Dzyuba’s height as it was a prayer for an error from Spain.
As it turned out, mistakes from the former world champions were to decide the contest. However, before the missed spot kicks, Spain did show what was missing from their game for the majority of the match. The introduction of the mobile Rodrigo in extra time energised the team as there was finally someone who was willing to run directly at the host’s defence.
Unfortunately for Spain, there was little time left by then to exploit the inherent deficiencies of Russia. Just like four years ago in Brazil, La Roja paid the price for their unidimensional kneading of the ball. Just like two years ago in France, Spain were found short tactically.
But what was unprecedented about the latest Spanish failure was the sacking of their manager two days before the World Cup. It remains difficult to accurately estimate the extent to which the squad was affected by Julen Lopetegui’s removal but Spain’s uncertain displays suggest that it never recovered from the shock of losing their leader.
Hierro sought stability for the team, but his influence was limited. Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique reportedly exert plenty of power within the squad but their diminishing form only gave rise to doubts. The lack of conviction spread to Spain’s football and the diffidence was in plain sight during the group stage. However, never did it chafe more than on Sunday.
Even when Spain were ahead, they looked lost. Despite their advantage, Hierro’s players looked for safety when a little bit of adventure would have done the job. Like always, Spain were happy with ball. But their obsession with possession took the team towards the path of oblivion.