When Iago Aspas’s penalty was saved by Russian goalkeeper Igor Akinfeev to send Spain crashing out of the 2018 World Cup, it sparked a barrage of criticism about the Spanish style of play.
There was little criticism of Russia, who made little or no attempt to win the game, seemingly content to try and hold out for 120 minutes and take the game to penalties. Instead, the fact that the Russians’ negative approach eventually paid off saw them widely praised in the sporting media.
All the negativity was aimed at Spain, who despite enjoying 75% of the possession and making 800 more passes than their opponents, were unable to find a way through the defensive blockade.
So, was the criticism deserved? Could the team that were second favourites in the football betting markets to win the entire tournament prior to kick-off have done anything different to try and get the breakthrough?
Victims of their own success
The first problem for Spain is the fact their system has been so successful in the past. They have always coveted possession and been willing to pass and recycle the ball until the opportunity to strike arises.
However, since that period between 2008 and 2012 when Spain were so successful, opposition teams have gradually changed their approach. Especially teams that are technically inferior and stand no chance of going toe-to-toe with them in an open game of football.
The result is what we saw on Sunday, when hosts Russia set out to draw the match almost from the first whistle. The only time that tactic changed was when they conceded early on and were forced to find a way back into the game. As soon as they did, they reverted to their extreme defensive shape.
Previous Spanish sides have always found a way to break down such tactics, but the more extreme the defensive approach, the harder it has become for Spain to find a way through. That, combined with a change in personnel, perhaps less adept at making the correct runs and finding the space between the lines, has left them at a point where they stagnate in such games.
For the viewer, this becomes frustrating. There is no contest, just one team with the ball and the other happy to let them have it. The game heads inevitably towards a stalemate and nobody seems able to prevent it.
Should they change their approach?
The problem here is that Spain’s approach has proved it can be successful if implemented in the correct way. And even against Russia where they had 25 attempts on goal to their opponent’s 6, it could be argued that they were unlucky.
And if they had not disposed of their coach of two years the day before the tournament began, who is to say they wouldn’t have found a way through?
The enquiry will drag on and there will be lots of finger pointing but at the end of the day, it is hard to imagine Spain playing any other way. Rather than a change of approach, they might just need to tweak the system, and the players and staff hired to implement it. Based on the latest evidence, the current setup lacks the productivity and efficiency to deliver the tiki-taka vision they crave.