Sports

First it was very much Spain, then it wasn’t, then it was, then it wasn’t, and now we don’t know what to think

Luis Enrique celebrates with other members of Spain’s coaching staff after a rollercoaster of a match.
Photo: Getty Images

I’ve been using the term “Spain’ing” a lot during Euro 2020, harkening back to the era before Spain was drenched in medals, where they would always squander any tournament despite fielding one of the most talented squads. They could find any way to lose back then, whether through simple malaise, or leaky defense, or iffy refereeing decisions (specifically, the 2002 World Cup).

Of late, since their last triumph in 2012, “Spain’ing” had referred to aimless and dawdling passing to nowhere, while faster and more direct teams simply blitzed them on the counter as their golden generation aged. Exits in the last two tournaments, to Italy and Russia, reflected this.

As they drew their opening two games against Sweden and Poland in this competition, the urge was simply to once again point to that infuriating tendency, even though this is basically a new Spain team. It was the natural reflex.

But it isn’t really the case. While they only managed one goal against both Poland and Sweden, it wasn’t as if they were just meandering around midfield waiting for an off-peak bus. Luis Enrique’s charge when taking over the national team was to speed them up, point them toward goal more often, and basically say, “Get the fuck up there.” It’s what he did with Barcelona, moving them away from their tiki-taka DNA and just getting the ball to Neymar, Suárez, and Messi as quickly and as often as possible. Which seems pretty obvious, if you give it mere seconds of thought.

And Spain had done that. They piled 28 shots combined in their first two matches, and while they couldn’t get enough on target, or nearly enough to twine, the easy place to point the finger was striker Álvaro Morata. But that wasn’t totally fair either, as Spain had won tournaments before with barely any recognized striker. This is where the false-nine was invented, basically.

Still, when Unai Simón removed the velvet rope for the ball to enter his own net for the opening goal against Croatia, it felt like classic Spain. If there’s a way to fuck up, they’ll find it, and this was deep in the cupboard.

Except this isn’t that Spain, because where the old Spain would have used it as an excuse to head for the beach, this one just proceeded to batter Croatia. Over the match, Spain launched 24 shots at Croatia’s goal, 19 of which came from inside the box. They scored three goals and, according to fotmob.com, created 24 chances. Ferran Torres, on his own, created five chances on his own and scored a goal, and was generally a firestarter on the right of the attack (and this is a guy Man City barely use). Enrique’s plan was executed.

But it’s still Spain, and brain-lock is always in their quiver. Up 3-1 and merely needing to take the air out of everything, Enrique only brought on more attackers, leaving a tiring Busquets and Pedri on the pitch when he had a stopper in Rodri and a human hand-brake in Thiago on the bench. Croatia started rifling through midfield and found two goals in eight minutes to send it to extra time, while Enrique and the whole team tried to regain feeling in their extremities.

Again, this used to be a time that Spain would just fold up. This Spain only needed 13 minutes in extra time to put Croatia to the sword for good, with goals from Morata and Olazábal. And then they saw it out cleanly. Morata’s goal, especially, was the kind of touch and finish that makes all his other balloon-footedness so frustrating.

So Spain is through to the quarters, and it’s still hard to know what they are. Are they the team of players who can turn into totem poles instantly in front of goal and in defense? Or are they the ones who can turn it on just as quickly and pump 10 goals in 2 ⅓ games, as they’ve just done? The simplest answer is that they’re both, so enjoy the show.


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