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Lamine Yamal And Nico Williams Are Here To Save The Euros

Lamine Yamal (17) and Nico Williams (19) of Spain celebrate during the UEFA EURO 2024 round of 16 match between Spain and Georgia at Cologne Stadium on June 30, 2024 in Cologne, Germany.
Photo by Gokhan Balci/Anadolu via Getty Images

It would be wrong to say that Euro 2024 has been bad. In fact, it has often been amazing. The group stage was lots of fun, thanks mostly to the supposedly "bad" teams who brought fire and fearlessness to what is always the best part of tournament play. The knockout rounds have already provided their fair share of thrills and iconic moments, from Jude Bellingham's miraculous bicycle kick, Mikel Merino's extra-time winner against Germany, the drama of all the penalty shootouts, Diogo Costa's stonewall act in Portugal's shootout win over Slovenia, Jan Oblak saving Cristiano Ronaldo's extra-time penalty in that same game, Ronaldo looking like he was going to cry over said failed penalty, Ronaldo actually sobbing inconsolably over it during halftime of extra time. The nature of the game and the size of the stakes mean tournaments are always going to be captivating, and Euro 2024 has been no exception.

That said, have the Euros been all that good? Eventful, sure. Exciting, certainly (at least at times). But good? Usually at tournaments the good—the games that are both entertaining and skillfully played, the memorably great team and individual performances—comes from the good teams, especially as the group stage gives way to the less frequent but hopefully more competitive and higher quality knockout matches. But the majority of the teams expected to be good this summer have been anything but. Maybe even more unforgivably from the neutral's perspective, they've almost all been dreadfully boring.

The poster children for the wave of boring but just-effective-enough soccer are, of course, France and England. As expected, the two big favorites for the European crown coming into the tournament have both made it to the semifinals. Unfortunately, both of their journeys to this point have made for grueling viewing.

Didier Deschamps and Gareth Southgate, the managers of the two respective teams, have long been linked to one another for their conservative tactics which, while hardly wowing anyone with beautiful soccer, have proven their worth in the form of several deep tournament runs. The comparison is usually valid, but I think their teams' shortcomings at the Euros aren't actually all that similar. Both may be playing conservative soccer, but France does seem to have its best players in a setup that could maximize their abilities. It's just that Antoine Griezmann is in a lousy spell of form and Kylian Mbappé, contrary to what comic books have taught us to expect, is only a superhero when he's not wearing a mask. With England, on the other hand, nothing is working, nobody looks comfortable, and it's not even clear what Southgate is going for. The conditions for a good France team are all there, but the context isn't working to their benefit. Meanwhile, a good England team would presumably need to look completely different than what we've seen so far in Germany.

But France and England aren't the only culprits for the lack of excellence on display. Portugal has oodles of talent, great players on every line, and one of the deepest rosters in the world, but saw fit to make all of that vivacity subservient to the arthritic, self-serving movements and interventions of its collapsed superstar, and therefore never lived up to its potential. The Italians didn't bring any pulse-quickening players to the tournament, but they still underwhelmed both as competitors and entertainers. Trying to stop the Belgian trio of Kevin De Bruyne, Jérémy Doku, and Romelu Lukaku on the counter attack should've been like holding your hands up in front of a stampede of tanks, but instead the team's stodgy possessions posed more of a threat to viewers' eyes than the opponent's goal. Switzerland and Austria played extremely well, but in a way that was easier to appreciate intellectually than fall in love with. The Netherlands I guess should count on the good side, but they do nothing for me. Really, the only teams that have consistently provided attacking thrust, technical brilliance, team-wide fluidity, and individual star turns are Germany, Turkey, and Spain, and the first two are already out of the competition.

Spain, then, is our last hope to see a team willing and able to provide some excitement to the the final stages of the Euros. This is an unexpected turn of events! In our tournament preview, I included Spain as one of the teams in the field that sucks. My reasoning was that Spain has spent the past decade lost in a state of misguided nostalgia, pining for a return to the glory days of 2008-12, believing the essence of that team was found in how it played rather than who did the playing, and therefore trying to recover the style of that team's play with a dogmatic understanding of the game that exalted control as the one true virtue and the pass as that virtue's source. This produced a caricature of the Spanish champions of yore, resembling that team in height (short), outline (a 4-3-3 positively drowning with attacking midfielder types), and intention (a monomaniacal obsession with possession for its own sake), but lacking the differential skills of Andrés Iniesta and David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas and the rest, which was the true cause of the prior success. The present Spain squad came into the tournament with lots of very good players, some who could in theory lay the foundation of a new, fresh, and fun Spain, but until I saw them actually do so in a tournament that matters, I was not going to remove the sucky label they'd earned for being boring for so long.

Well, we've now seen the new Spain, and it is indeed fun as hell. Nobody has played better, more effective soccer in the Euros than Spain; what's even more, nobody has been more entertaining to watch. Where most of the traditional powerhouses have played a cautious style focused more on trying not to lose than on proactively pushing for the win, La Roja has attacked all comers with flowing passing moves, aggressive movements, risky dribbles and through balls, and lots and lots of shots (an average of 20 per match, more than anyone else). The interminable, toothless U-shaped possessions of the past decade are gone, and in their place are lightning-speed attacks more likely to induce vertigo than sleep. (Spain's 57 percent possession average puts them fourth in the competition.) Spain is still disciplined positionally, still wants to have and keep hold of the ball, still tries to stretch opponents across the full width and depth of the pitch to open spaces inside, and still tries to advance and retreat up and down the pitch as a bloc. But if during the past 10 years Spain confused possession, and the version of control possession bestows, for ends in themselves rather than as means, this Spain has rediscovered that the goal is a goal, and that of far more importance than any tactic or playing philosophy are the players and their talents.

And it's the talents that make this Spain both so different and so good. Really, it all boils down to two names: Nico Williams and Lamine Yamal. It's because of those two young (21 and 16 [!!!!], respectively) wingers and their overlapping but different skill sets that Spain looks like a whole new team. Both are assassins with the ball at their feet. Williams kills with speed, bludgeoning force, and an undisguised single-minded intent to destroy. Lamine is a little different. His is a game of guile and trickery, of mischief and magic. He brings with him an entire arsenal of weapons (An explosive run? A tip-toed jink? A curling belter into the top corner? An outside-of-the-foot through ball? A give and go?) into any given scenario and selects the best, least expected, most damaging one; it's a creative freedom reserved for only the most unbounded of talents. Put them together and you can't help but get fireworks.

If Spain has so long played first and foremost for its midfielders, and even packed its lineups with as many midfielders as humanly possible, it now plays expressly and unquestionably for the wingers. The advantages of kicking the ball to Williams and Lamine Yamal and letting them do their thing are so massive, so destabilizing, so electric that even the tiki-taka-obsessed Spaniards have handed the reins over to the runners. By doing so, Spain is back amongst the favorites of a major competition and, unlike the surprise run to the semis at Euro 2021, back to playing the kind of soccer that amazes and inspires.

Uruguay manager Marcelo Bielsa was right the other day when he spoke about the ways soccer is diluting its power by moving away from that which fosters special players, the ones who provide the spectacle. The dreariness of much of the play of the Euros testifies to this. Spain over the past decade testified to this too, in the way that it sought to replicate its best team not by trying to find, cultivate, and empower special talents, whatever they may look like, but instead by squeezing a generation of players into an already spent mold, under the belief that looking the same is the first step to achieving the same. In that light, this Spain is the first one that truly honors the legacy of the old Spain. Today, just like always, Spain is winning because it has found some truly remarkable talents, and is letting them lead the way.

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