That’s it, Spain has dropped its ball! – Euro 2024 – Gr. B – Spain-Italy

That’s it, Spain has dropped its ball! – Euro 2024 – Gr. B – Spain-Italy
That’s it, Spain has dropped its ball! – Euro 2024 – Gr. B – Spain-Italy

Before tackling the match against Italy this Thursday, Unai Simón went to the press conference where it was notably a question of a debrief of the first day controlled against Croatia (3-0). The goalkeeper was questioned about a statistic which fuels debates in Spain: for the first time since the Euro 2008 final, i.e. 137 matches in official competition, the Roja left possession to his opponent (46% against 54%). « We won’t always have possession, we won’t always have more control of the ball than the opponent, but it’s about winning matches, with 5% possession or with 95 »analyzed the Athletic Club goalkeeper, thus marking a real break in the recent history of Iberian football marked by endless sequences of passes, for better and for worse.

A mandatory adaptation

In June 2008, when his country surprised Germany by giving them the ball, Pep Guardiola had not officiated a single match at the head of the FC Barcelona first team and had therefore not yet dictated the procedure for the whole of Europe. We never even calculated these relatively vague percentages with this precision. Under the mandate of Luis Aragonés, which began four years earlier, the art of confiscation had already been somewhat developed, but it was greatly intensified by his successors Vicente del Bosque, Julen Lopetegui or, above all, Luis Enrique. The latter started Euro 2021 with a sad 0-0 against Sweden, keeping the lead for 86% of the game! Over the course of the competition, the current PSG coach had refined his style to reach the last four, before caricaturing himself again at the 2022 World Cup by exiting in the round of 16 against Morocco despite more than 1,000 passes.

Before, having more control over the ball guaranteed you better results. Now we are the ones who can surprise the opponents.

Luis de la Fuente

But how was the Spanish selection able to make such a change in such a short time? According to Carles Martínez Novell, Iberian coach of Toulouse, it is not the successive failures at the 2018 and 2022 World Cups that explain it: « Football is taking a direction that requires dominating all phases of the game, the possession phase, the defensive phase and the offensive and defensive transitions. The Spanish are also affected by this development and must adapt. » Thus, Pedri, praised for his quality of passing, was noticed more for his pressing during the opening of Euro 2024 than for his 25 balls touched. During the last edition, he had an average of 91 and, if this total is increased by three extensions, it is above all revealing of the evolution of the role of the Barcelona midfielder in the selection. For his part, José Luis Mendilibar, Spanish coach of Olympiakos and winner of the C4, did not miss a beat of the match against Croatia and is satisfied with the end « risk-free back passes to keep the ball at all costs » in order to see it happen « direct forward passes that can surprise the opponent ». That of Fabián Ruiz for Álvaro Morata’s opener would indeed never have been imagined during the Luis Enrique years.

« Maybe before, having more control over the ball guaranteed you better results. Now we are the ones who can surprise the opponents like we did today », welcomed Luis de la Fuente on Saturday, whose style clearly contrasts with his predecessor, both on and off the field. The era of the headmaster-style coach, however, began with the same deficiencies against Scotland in a defeat (2-0) despite 75% possession. Since then, he has shown himself to be more flexible than the PSG coach and « doesn’t value his game just because he had the ball or not »according to Carles Martínez Novell, which notably made it possible to win the League of Nations, six months after the early elimination in Qatar.

The merit of Luis de la Fuente

The former Athletic Club full-back only lives for winning according to Marc Fachan, his player during eleven short matches at Alavés in 2011. Fired three months after his arrival, Luis de la Fuente nevertheless left an unforgettable memory to the current coach of Tarbes, who is completing his higher state diploma and who has remained in contact with the Spain coach to discuss tactics. « He is a pragmatic coach, who sees the game vertically. He always wants to move forward with a lot of speed », confirms the right-back. The latter admits to having « whined » upon his departure and assures that the second division team could have developed the same style as the Roja against Croatia.

Ultimately, Deportivo Alavés did not give the coach enough time to implement his project, despite clear progress over the weeks: « OThere was a lack of quality to put it into practice during matches, but the main points were already there. If we keep him, we go to the play-off and we play for promotion to La Liga. » After this short experience, which he had difficulty digesting according to Marc Fachan, Luis de la Fuente joined the federation in 2013 to coach the different selections, climbing the ladder little by little. After European titles at the head of the U19s and the Espoirs – in addition to an Olympic final – his new objective is clear: the Euro with the big boys.

Towards a definitive change?

It remains to be seen whether he will manage to make his ideas last beyond the summer in this country where football is viewed from a blackboard. Even if Luciano Spalletti’s Italy manages to steal the ball again at Rojathis Thursday, it is not said that the whole of Spanish football is affected and definitively abandons control of possession. « Spain is a place where coaches are always trying to look for new options. I think there is always a debate between Guardiola’s Barça style, the more defensive one of this year with Xavi, Emery’s game, but having the ball remains very important », explains Carles Martínez Novell. According to him, it seems unlikely to see a love of transition play, or even worse, counter-attacking, arrive overnight in the categories of young Spanish players. José Luis Mendilibar also believes in a tradition continued in future years, because « it is fundamental to have either the players to achieve this result, or the mentality to practice transition football ». Before 2008 and the advent of guardiolismSpain certainly did not think they would succeed in keeping the ball for sixteen long years either.

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