It’s fair to say that Spain’s start to Euro 2020 has been a disappointing one.
After 0-0 and 1-1 draws against Sweden and Poland respectively, La Roja sit third in Group E with two points heading into the final round of group matches. In both games Spain dominated possession but failed to muster many clear-cut chances.
Luis Enrique knows that his side must beat Slovakia on Wednesday, or face the prospect of a humiliating group stage exit. The former Barcelona coach has come under fire for some of his selection and tactical decisions, but all is not lost; a few adjustments could kickstart Spain’s campaign and send them to the knockouts.
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Take more risks
The data suggests that Spain aren’t struggling when it comes to chance creation. They forged 12 opportunities against Sweden and seven against Poland, with five shots on target in each game. But stats don’t tell the whole story. Many of these have been half-chances, snapshots at goals and goal-mouth scrambles that aren’t resulting in high quality chances. Yes, Álvaro Morata has missed the mark on a handful of occasions, and Gerard Moreno missed a penalty against Poland, but the midfield just isn’t creating enough.
The root of the issue is two-fold: personnel and system. With Sergio Busquets missing the opening two matches, Rodri has deputised in the centre of a three-man midfield. The Manchester City man has looked defensively solid and reliable on the ball, but he just isn’t a creator like Busquets. He has mostly passed sideways and backwards, and while this isn’t inherently a bad thing, it’s meant that Spain have looked slow and ponderous in possession.
Busquets has been creating chances from deep for well over a decade now, and is just the man to get things ticking in the centre of the pitch. His riskier passing may result in more turnovers, but sometimes risk-taking is the only way to unlock tightly-packed defences.
Thiago Alcantara is another ambitious passer. The Liverpool midfielder has made two substitute appearances this tournament, finding himself behind Pedri and Koke in the pecking order. Against Sweden, the Barcelona and Atlético Madrid stars impressed, pushing high up the pitch and registering a few attempts on goal, but like Rodri, neither are master creators. Pedri is only 18 and has a lot to learn, while Koke simply isn’t required to be a playmaker at Atleti. Thiago is one of the best in the business, and could prove a more incisive option going forward.
Move Marco Llorente forward
The issue with the system ties into Marcos Llorente. The Atlético midfielder has played well at right-back, but he can offer so much more on the right-hand side of a three-man midfield. What makes him so dangerous, aside from his technical brilliance, is his power and pace.
Spain’s midfield has been sorely missing not just someone who can pick that killer pass, but someone who can drive at defenders, take the initiative and make something happen. At the Wanda Metropolitano, Llorente has forged a superb understanding with right-back Kieran Trippier that sees him unleashed down the right channel by the Englishman. He provided 11 assists in LaLiga last season, second only to Iago Aspas (13), but in defence he isn’t able to make such an impact. At right-back he can still get forward, but only really on the wing, meaning he is restricted to whipping in crosses rather than surging into the box and causing havoc.
If Luis Enrique pushes Llorente forward and starts Chelsea’s César Azpilicueta at full-back, his potential could be fully harnessed and the midfield given a new dynamic.
Doing so could also make Gerard Moreno more effective in his right-wing role. The Villarreal forward replaced Ferran Torres in the starting XI for the Poland fixture, but often found himself isolated out wide. For the Europa League champions he notched 23 goals and seven assists last season in LaLiga, mainly by drifting inside and playing more as an inside forward. Yet with no one to overlap him on the wing on Saturday, he was forced to stay outside, a role he’s not overly accustomed to. Llorente’s migration into midfield would suit both him and Gerard, two of the best performers in LaLiga last season.
Up the tempo
Luis Enrique has earned praise for instilling an aggressive edge to this Spain side, a nastiness and energy that is needed to compensate for a (relative) lack of superstar quality. The 6-0 demolition of Germany back in November illustrated this perfectly. Even in the Sweden game, we saw the likes of Dani Olmo, Morata and Ferran Torres lead a decent press in the opening 20 minutes. But in the 160 minutes since, there’s been a distinct lack of tempo and urgency in the way the Spain players move the ball (and themselves) around the pitch.
Everything has been passive, very “let’s pass the ball around and eventually we’ll find a breakthrough”. Sometimes switching up the tempo for 10, even just five minutes can confuse defences and force errors, or create that one moment that proves the difference. Of course, this can be tricky when coming up against a defence that sits deep and concedes the majority of possession, but slow ponderous build-up just makes it easy for them. Even when Spain needed a goal to reclaim the lead against Poland, there was no sense of urgency or drive to grab the game by the scruff of the neck and assert their agenda.
Spain’s future at Euro 2020 is anything but certain. A win against Slovakia will secure a place in the last-16, but if Sweden beat Poland, then the team led by Alexander Isak will win the group regardless. A third consecutive draw for La Roja could send them home. Wednesday could be the beginning of the end or the start of something special. How Luis Enrique decides to tinker with his side will go a long way to deciding that.