Spain Beat Itself Again
1:48 PM EST on December 6, 2022
In the round of 16 at the 2018 World Cup, Spain attempted to break down Russia with a million passes; La Furia Roja broke the regular-time World Cup record for most passes completed in 90 minutes, with 779. The team ended that match with 1,004 successful passes, dominating 79 percent of the possession. Spain also went home in that round, failing to put the ball into the net: a 1-1 scoreline after 120 minutes hides that Spain's goal was a Russian own goal, and the Spaniards lost 4-3 on penalties.
In the round of 16 at the 2022 World Cup, Spain attempted to break down Morocco with a million passes. This time around, the side completed a mere 917 passes in 120 minutes, though neither side scored in that time. Morocco was content to let Spain do its tiki-taka thing for the entirety of the match, content in the knowledge that Spain's attack has been mostly a wet noodle since a 7-0 barrage of Costa Rica in the World Cup opener. Instead, the Atlas Lions actually provided more of an attacking threat in the first half before hunkering down, as all underdogs playing against a team with possession fixation but little oomph behind it should. As the game ticked into penalties, Spain probably felt like one of its 13 shots should have gone in; if only more than one of those had even been on target.
The penalty shootout itself was a picture perfect distillation of Spanish futility: up stepped Pablo Sarabia, Carlos Soler, and Sergio Busquets to the spot, and all three failed to convert. Sarabia hit the post in what was the best penalty of the three, while Soler and Busquets both hit weak shots that Moroccan goalie and now-burgeoning legend Yassine "Bono" Bounou saved with his 6-foot-5 frame. On the other end, Morocco converted three of its four to send them to the quarterfinals, with Achraf Hakimi's Panenka-lite finale the exclamation point on Morocco's biggest World Cup moment since, well, ever.
How did this happen to Spain, again? It's simple, really, but that won't make it hurt less for a team that maybe wasn't a favorite to win the World Cup, but one that at least had enough talent to make it interesting. "Interesting" is not a word that one should use to describe the Spanish side of the last four years, though. A country that produces pass-friendly midfielders like candy has to still have enough firepower to do something with all that possession. Spain, for years now, has not had that. Sure, it can score seven on a Costa Rica side that turned out to be surprisingly spunky in its other two matches, but at the Euros last summer and at this World Cup, the country has been let down by its attack.
Take a look at who Luis Enrique put out there on Tuesday: The starting front three of Dani Olmo (more of a midfielder by trade), Marco Asensio (well past his time as a prodigy at Real Madrid), and Ferran Torres (the best player in the world until he has to try to score a goal) was toothless, providing a lot of movement and outlets for the midfield but little threat on goal. To Luis Enrique's credit, he tried to rectify this by throwing on Álvaro Morata in the 63rd, a pure striker but one with well-documented flop performances in big tournaments. It didn't really work. The substitution of Nico Williams in the 75th was better, as Williams constantly put pressure on Morocco's backline, and his introduction heralded Spain's best period of attack until the dying minutes of extra time.
Still, though, Williams is 20 years old and not fully grown into the player he can become. If he was Spain's best option for scoring, things were doomed before they started. Sure, Spain can trot out two babies in Pedri and Gavi from Barcelona, and they were generally excellent throughout the tournament, but they are rarities at that age, and neither provides the kind of goal-scoring threat that would threaten a well-drilled and compact defense like Morocco's.
If there's a moment that can perfectly encapsulate Spain's nightmare of a time against Morocco, it is one that came very early on. In the 25th minute, the Spaniards had not one but two chances at the Morocco goal that a team who can make noise in a World Cup has to make. The first, from Gavi, was deflected onto the post. The second, a rebound from Torres, was also deflected, this time out of bounds. Sure, there was an offside anyway, though that is less of an excuse for the misses and more just a compounding of the comedy of errors:
Morocco is through, and it's well-deserved, particularly with such a good penalty shootout: The only player to miss was Badr Benoun, and at least he put the ball in a decent enough spot. Spain, though, will have to feel like something has to change ahead of the 2024 Euros, or it will have to hope that Williams continues to develop to the point where he can be the premier attacker on this side. A team made up of so many players who are delightful to watch on the ball between the boxes still needs someone to do something with that symphony of possession. Otherwise, it is at risk of coming up against a defense that gives them all that space in hopes of choking the life out of any attack. Spain makes that last part easy for most opponents, and it is going home thanks to its inability to construct a coherent attack from its current pool of omega-talented passers.