Zippy & more dangerous, Spain 2.0 to the fore

2010 World Cup winners have reinvented their style of play to make a promising start at the ongoing Euros
Spain's Alvaro Morata (7), Lamine Yamal (19) Pedri (20) celebrate after an own goal by Italy's Riccardo Calafiori during a Group B match between Spain and Italy at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament on June 20, 2024.
Spain's Alvaro Morata (7), Lamine Yamal (19) Pedri (20) celebrate after an own goal by Italy's Riccardo Calafiori during a Group B match between Spain and Italy at the Euro 2024 soccer tournament on June 20, 2024. (Photo | AP)

CHENNAI: In the MasterChef universe, there is one specific test designed to test the creativity of the contestants. The reinvention test. In this challenge, the participants have to come up with a creative way to shape-shift an original dish (fish and chips, for example) into something else while retaining some of the properties of the prototype. This challenge has, for obvious reasons, developed some notoriety over the years as it has tripped many contestants.

On Thursday night, Spain monstered this challenge. Possession and patient build-up were eschewed for verticality — a concept whereby the ball is moved from back to front as soon as possible — and pace. Rapid wingers were at the forefront of everything they did and the midfielders were given a degree of freedom to do different things; a) move the ball forward, move into pockets of space and bring in wingers into the game.

For people who grew up watching the Iberians from 2008-2012, this was all a bit too quick. And rather dynamic. Sure, that team has a place in history; any side that won a World Cup and two Euros in four years ought to. But their modus operandi was hogging the ball, recycling possession and waiting for openings. Sometimes, they also played technical midfielders in a false nine role and wingers were generally No. 10s by trade... you get the drift. Death by a 1000 passes. Strangulation.

This version of Spain is something else. In Rodri and Pedri they still have players who can hog the ball, receive it in tight spaces and keep it for long periods. But most of the attackers in this side are geared towards progressive passing and doing everything at pace. If the Class of 2008 was playing the sport at 0.8x, this team does it at 1.25x. Death by a 1000 waves.

What's most remarkable about this revolution is the identity of some of the key players in this system — 16-year-old Lamine Yamal and 21-year-old Nico Williams. Both of them have showed maturity beyond their years. Against the wily Italians, who are the defending champions, on Thursday night, both Yamal and Williams constantly showed for the ball before driving at the defence like seasoned wingers.

From the left wing, Williams created four chances in the 78 minutes he was on, the most by any player in the game. By the time his work was done for the night, Giovanni Di Lorenzo, nine years Williams' senior, was already tired of chasing the Spaniard's shadow.

He started tormenting the Napoli defender as early as the third minute when he drove down the left-hand side before clipping the ball into a no man's land in the Italy box. An onrushing Pedri could have opened the scoring but his header was within Gianluigi Donnarumma's reach.

In past Euros, this particular match (Spain and Italy have faced each other at least once in every edition from 2008) has tended to follow a familiar heartbeat of choreographed passes, patient play and, generally, creative midfielders assuming wide positions to provide notional width.

Not this time. If Williams was tormenting Di Lorenzo on the left, Yamal was going through his box of tricks on the right. Adept at cutting on his favoured left foot or beating his man on the outside, both wingers created multiple chances. Defenders hate the sight of somebody running towards them at pace and, right now, there's nobody better at it than these two. Immediately after the game, OptaJoe, the statistics company, had posted: "The only player who's made more successful dribbles than Nico Williams (6) at so far is teammate Lamine Yamal (7)."      

In the end, the only thing that flattered Italy was the final result: a 0-1 loss (on xG, it was 2.02 v. 0.16). On the evidence of this Spain performance, that potential quarterfinal meeting with Germany could decide the winners.
At some level, there couldn't be better opponents to ring in this style of play for Germany. Against the same opponents in the 2008 Euro final, Spain won 1-0 with as many as six playmakers used in the final (they had no out and out winger).

Sixteen years later, they can repeat their triumph. This time, they can do it with a different set of ethos.  

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