Football Features

“Soft at both ends” – Spain need Simon’s shootout saves to squeeze past Switzerland into Euro 2020 semi-final

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 20:21, 2 July 2021

In a truly epic evening of football, Spain beat 10-man Switzerland 3-1 on penalties to advance to the Euro 2020 semi-finals.

The game was 1-1 after 90 minutes (with Remo Freuler getting sent off in the 77th minute) and after a goalless extra-time period, the game went to the most wonderful of things: a penalty shootout.

Spain missed two of their first three spot-kicks but after Mario Gavranovic gave them a 1-0 lead, Switzerland were denied by the brilliance of Unai Simon who saved two penalties before poor Ruben Vargas blazed over. Mikel Oyarzabal then coolly converted to send Spain into the semi-finals for the first time since 2012 when they won the competition.


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The game itself was like a great cinematic comedy in that it got gradually more and more farcical as proceedings wore on. Spain were comfortably the better side for the entire 120 minutes, with their midfield being absolutely dominant throughout both in terms of winning the ball back but also in their ability to recycle possession.

But when it came to their finishing, goodness gracious. In a way this surely has to be what you expect when the top scorer in the squad pre-tournament was Alvaro Morata with 19 goals and the next highest was Jordi Alba… with 8.

All of the supposed heirs to David Villa and Fernando Torres never emerged and although the electric goalscoring presence of Ansu Fati missed the tournament with injury, the fact that Spain could be so lamenting the absence of an 18-year-old forward speaks volumes.

The forwards that did go all failed against Switzerland. Without question. Yes someone of them played good football, particularly Dani Olmo for the last 40 minutes of the match, but the finishing was abysmal throughout from every single one of them.

Gerard Moreno scored 30 goals for Villarreal this season, but you’d never have guessed it as he contrived to miss a hat-trick of great chances (and a handful more decent ones besides). One miss from 5 yards out after two excellent passes from Pedri and Jordi Alba was particularly bad; it seemed harder for a left-footer to score than miss.

Alvaro Morata, who Moreno replaced just short of the hour mark, was not really a factor. Neither was Pablo Sarabia (who was subbed at half-time). Ferran Torres was more lively but still ineffective. Mikel Oyarzabal made the biggest difference to Spain’s overall play when he came on at the start of extra time, but even he couldn’t generate any goals (until the shootout).

This is a major problem for Spain going forward. They have missed 17 big chances so far at the Euros, more than any other side. Today they forced some truly incredible defensive displays out of Switzerland, with Yan Sommer, Nico Elvedi and Ricardo Rodriguez all posting single-game tournament-highs for saves, clearances and tackles respectively.

But even though the Swiss were incredible, and let’s not forget Manuel Akanji as well, Spain were so much better yet oh so profligate. It’s a weird mix, to have a team look so competent, so dangerous yet also so completely toothless.

After 10 goals in two games, they were back to their old tricks and their only goal was a hugely deflected Jordi Alba snapshot. They could have played for another hour and probably still never scored. Yet their midfield dominance was so total that they rarely if ever lost control of the game or looked at risk of actually losing.

Of course, until Aymeric Laporte sort of controlled the ball against Pau Torres, leading to an amusing bounce that broke Switzerland’s way and Freuler squared for Xherdan Shaqiri to tap-in an unlikely equaliser.

It was a truly absurd goal to concede, but points to Spain’s soft defence that is a huge risk given their shot-shy strikers often mean the team has to play the game with very fine goal margins. When Spain were last dominant a decade ago they had Gerard Piqué and Sergio Ramos at the peak of their athletic powers just dominating in the middle.

Now they have to either play two left-footers ho have no chemistry together, or risk young Eric Garcia who is an excellent defender who nevertheless isn’t close to being match-fit (but now must surely start the semi-final, given how poor Pau Torres was off the bench against Croatia and again tonight against the Swiss).

Spain have a midfield worth of winning Euro 2020. It’s one of the, if not the sole, finest units at the tournament. Only the Italians can really compare in terms of quality and production (France’s midfield at the Euros was just The Paul Pogba Show) and that would be a wonderful semi-final battle, for sure, but it would not be a fair fight. Italy have a good defence and competent, reliable strikers. Spain do not.

Spain are soft at both ends of the pitch. They have a wonderful midfield, Unai Simon is in great form, and Luis Enrique is a spectacular manager. But with a soft, gaffe-prone defence and the world’s most unreliable attack, it will take a miracle for them to make the final of Euro 2020, let alone win the whole tournament.