How far would you go? To battle for your principles, your way of doing things, standing still stubbornly while the world around you evolves and leaves the world you once knew behind? Would you still stand by your principle and tactics? The formation and methodology that once worked so well?
Possibly the greatest compliment football could have ever paid Spain and their entire golden generation was the way it reacted to their dynasty. While pressing and gengenpressing was alive and kicking well before everything, it only really came to the foray once the world realised it was possibly the perfect way to stop the tiki from takaing. Sure, Barcelona and Pep Guardiola have had some kind of success since then but still, they’ve both been forced to adapt and change over the years in order to make it work.
Because if you roll back to the start of Euro 2008, nobody expected Spain to win. France or Germany maybe even Portugal, Italy or the Netherlands? Sure, but nobody expected Spain to win Euro 2008 and yet when they swept through with wins over Italy, Russia and Germany in the final, the world stood up to watch. Then they did it again, with an impressively lacklustre group-stage performance, before doing just about enough in the knockouts to ensure a win.
Andres Iniesta’s moment of pure magic in extra-time will always be remembered as fondly as Mario Gotze’s added time winner because nobody expected it. Spain had suddenly sneaked under everyone’s radar, waltzed through and were now champions of the world. Not Germany, or Netherlands, or Argentina or Brazil or Italy or even England but Spain. For the first time since France won it in 1998, the Jules Rimet was handed to a new country and it defined a generation.
Then they did it once again, won Euro 2012, and suddenly the world was taking notice of this furious Spanish side, filled with glorious technicians, who were changing the way the world saw football. No longer was it energy and work-ethic with them making the ball do all the work, racking up passes and passes but also killing teams by dulling their senses and then striking when the time was right.
Never overworking the ball, never overworking their players but always doing what was best, at the very moment it was required and it enthralled a generation. And that there in is the problem. Because becoming the first side to ever win three international competitions in a row, or rather becoming the first side to do a clean sweep of them is nuts. Winning one or two in a row is acceptable but going all the way and adding the third one?
That’s a career making move for anyone but more importantly, it’s a defining moment for a country. Especially when your last trophy, international, before that was a Euro almost 45 years ago. It’s when a nation realises this is it. The way forward and starts doing everything in their power to stubbornly stay on their same path even if it was changing and adapting that brought them there.
And that brings everything to where the world is right now. Euro 2020, Matchday 3 and as it stands, Spanish football are on the verge of being humiliated once again, this time with another group stage exit. How? Because the generation that watched Spain win the treble were the same generation that fell in love and decided to become the next great thing for Spanish football. The problem with that is no Spanish club or youth academy has come close to producing players as great as they once had.
Players have been produced and trained on the same tactics, the same methodology, the same way of playing and the same tiki-taka in what has nearly been a decade and a half since. But while Spain are now jam-packed full of technically astute midfielders capable of running games, everything else has gone down the drain. They’re struggling to produce proper defenders, full-backs and as their last two tournaments have shown; a lack of cutting edge.
That’s the problem that the golden generation hid from everyone and somehow, it has bamboozled Spain into thinking they can do it without them too. But what many don’t realize is when you’ve got players as marvellous as Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro, Sergio Busquets, Iker Casillas, David Villa, Cesc Fabregas, Xabi Alonso, David Silva and a plethora of others, it’s enough to overcome one issue. But remove them and the issues float right back up, which is exactly when you realise the magnitude of what they did.
Combine the fact that a large majority of them played together at club level and it becomes even clearer. These were players who knew what their teammates were going to do. Xavi knew exactly where and how Iniesta liked a pass to be played into him, how Fabregas liked it, how Busquets liked it. The same goes for Xabi Alonso and David Silva and Iker Casillas and Pedro and basically everyone else which plays into everything.
The chemistry was off the charts, the talent was the greatest the world had ever seen and they were all, more or less, playing the same tactics at a club level. Put all those together and it’s why they thrived. Take nothing away from that Spanish era, though, because they deserved all the credit they got and then some. But the Golden gen did give Spain hope that even without a bonafide goal-scoring genius leading the line, they could still thrive. That was most definitely the case with the players they once had but now?
Despite an obviously talented team, La Furia Roja lack that fury and edge that they need to be tournament winners. When Alvaro Morata is your center-forward in a team that otherwise lacks a cutting edge, questions need to be asked. Because this is not a hit piece against Morata, a player who has always threatened to be good but has never quite managed it, far from it instead. But Morata, for all the good he does do, is about as wasteful as one gets in front of goal with him missing guilt-edge chances more than others.
It happens to every center-forward and yet when you play for a Spanish side that creates few opportunities, affording to miss them is not on the cards. Especially where the midfield lacks any sort of imagination and incision beyond a sideways pass and this is a team that implies width yet never seems to actually harness it. Adama Traore was brought in to add dynamism and a little more zest to this team but he hasn’t played a single minute while Mikel Oyarzabal has barely featured.
I think I heard Emma Hayes call them the Spain of the Balkans. https://t.co/1BJnLhyZiE
— Grace Robertson 🏳️⚧️ (@GraceOnFootball) June 22, 2021
Two players who could potentially change things even off the bench but featuring sparingly. And yet, that’s down to Luis Enrique’s selection issues especially with him playing a 12 goal scorer, in La Liga, as a right-back. And even that’s beside the point.
Because the last great striker, David Villa and Fernando Torres aside, Spain produced was Raul and he retired in 2006. Since then, there has been a drought although no inquisition as to why despite a consistent production of more world-class midfielders than any other nation, they’ve consistently failed to produce forwards in similar vein. It’s shocking and maybe a definition of the way football is right now, that Alvaro Morata’s pressing, energy and off the ball work has more to do with why he’s picked than his prolific nature.
It does ask the question, has the time of the taka come to an end? Not really especially with variants of it thriving across the world but has it come to an end for Spain? That looks to be the case and as harsh as it may sound, the best possible thing for Spain, right now, would be to miss out on a tournament or two because that’s when it will really settle in. That they need to find a new way forward, one not dependent on the tiki-taka but instead something more suited to what they’ve got.
Or if not that, then somebody needs to figure out why they’re struggling to produce players who can score five chances, miss one and have it not affect him. Something neither Morata or Moreno or anyone else at Spain seems to be able to do. Because this way of playing can’t last forever unless they find what makes them tick again. It took two tournament misses for the Netherlands to figure out their issues and sort them out, Italy did it in one and France needed a group stage exit in the most dramatic way to help them.
But Spain may need longer. Because the problem is that the team they have, is just about good enough to blaze through qualifying for the World Cup and the Euros going forward and like the golden generation, this draws the curtains over the problems that arrive later, smack in the middle of a tournament. It means for any real change, Spain might just need a footballing inquisition.