Weekly English Premier League Opinion - World Cup Edition Day 18
Spain vs. Russia
The romantic Russian story continues. I think the predictable end should have been today but that didn’t happen. Russia have played well for the vast majority of the tournament and that home town interest carried this outstanding World Cup a little further again with the buoyancy of the local crowd supporting their country. But when up against a giant of world football, surely the class of Spain will shine through.
Tactically Spain were excellently understandable, and technically Spain were often bewildering to watch. But when it came to playing against them the Russians had a task and played to their task wonderfully.
First the Spain tactics. The personnel changes were very well calculated. Koke comes in for Alcântara to fortify the midfield. The pattern of this game was known well ahead of time, dominant Spain possession Russia working hard on the transitions to counter attack directly and quickly through the big man up top, nothing new there. Germany showed us in the defeat against Mexico, that if you disrespect your opponent and fail to protect against an effective counter attacking team then football has a morbid way of teaching some respect. Spain understood their defensive responsibility versus the Russian counter attack and prepared for it through their more pragmatic deep lying midfield team selection. Good tournament coaching.
The next decision was to alleviate Andrés Iniesta of his starting berth. I kind of think that Iniesta should be allowed to play forever, maybe earn 2000 international caps, but the decision to drop him also made sense. The attacking midfield line in Spain’s 4-2-3-1 is loaded with world class players, diminutive schemers all of which are game winners in their own right. Iniesta fits right in there with them. But what Asensio could bring is a variation. What Silva and Isco are able to offer is a plenty good enough threat to pull Russia apart with cute through balls, disguised and deceitful tricks and flicks, but the variation of Asensio’s raw pace and speed brought a new dimension to the Spain attacking potential. Their positional interchange was equally as threatening if not quite as productive. I have great affection for Andrés Iniesta, and it’s was sad to see him benched, but the decision was totally calculated and perfectly justified.
The known narrative was played out accurately for a while. Spain got their goal and were good value for that lead. But then Spain did what they tend to do but also did what becomes very frustrating, they just sat back and tried to suffocate the game through relentless but equally passive possession. Spain didn’t attempt to cement the lead with a bigger lead, but rather see out the 79minute game passively.
But Russia awoke from their slumber, probably paralyzed from too much host-nation pressure early on, they grew into the game that Spain allowed them to. Spain dominated possession, but they didn’t dominate the game and they didn’t dominate the scoreboard, 2-0 was game over. 1-1 was game still totally in the balance. The pregame coaching from Spain was excellent, the in-game coaching not so much.
The Russian reestablishing themselves in the game came from a greater urgency to press, not just to wait for inevitable Spanish domination of ball, but a greater desire to force mistakes.
Russia were also able to build out with a little more confidence as Spain allowed their confidence to grow. With more percentage of the ball possession Russia were occasionally able to play through the Spanish lines, the intensity of pressure not good from that creative attacking group, creative but not so aggressive on the press when out of possession.
With the original tactics either pacified or intensified depending on which team you are talking about, the game changed. Russia were back in it.
And I liked that Iniesta came into the game, but what was more interesting was that he came in like for like, Silva took leave as Iniesta came in, the threat of pace remained with Asensio, the schemer remained, the creativity stayed, so did the pace. Interesting.
The attrition of possession won out for the majority of the game, the first half one sided. By the end of 90 minutes it was clear that Russia were spent, they were gone. Spain were well prepared for this but couldn’t find the solution. Spain had more possession, more attrition. Russia had worked too much, Spain just simply wore them down. But Russia continued to stay in the fight.
The new addition of the 4th extra time sub was exciting. Rodrigo provided that injection of intensity that was missing. But by replacing Asensio rather than replacing a deep lying central midfield general like Busquets or Koke, the penetration was never offered. Rodrigo turned in behind effectively, and his teammates were not in goal scoring positions, but waiting on the half way line. Possession with a purpose was not the strength of Spain today.
Spain didn’t do enough. Russia did just enough. This is a massive upset outside of those who watched the game. Congratulations to Russia as that home town euphoria builds even greater momentum. Surprising. Unexpected. Merited
The moral for Spain is possession with a purpose.
By Jonny Carter - Chicago Fire