Finesse was no match for the World Cup hosts tenacity in their Moscow last16 showdown
Tiki-taxi for Spain. On a slow-burn, increasingly wild afternoon at the Luzhniki Stadium the outstanding team of the age produced a quietly extraordinary performance, exiting the World Cup with surely the most statistically dominant losing game ever mustered up.
At the end Spain’s players sat drained in the centre circle, ranged like red pegs in the same static formation that had seen them pass and move and pass and pass their way through the previous 120 minutes.
Never mind, for now, that one of Russia, Colombia, Croatia, Sweden, Switzerland and England will be in the World Cup final in two weeks’ time. Look past, for a moment, the rearguard heroism of Russia here, a team that just kept on retreating across the endless steppes, allowing their opponents to advance ever deeper into the spaces that would eventually suffocate them.
At times towards the end you half expected to look up and notice the Spanish players had come to Moscow in their tattered summer uniforms and were boiling their boots for soup.
For now it is worth dwelling on Spain, the moment, and an anatomy of a team, and a style in the process of finally eating itself. As the red shapes moved through their patterns, as the ball perambulated between them, this felt a journey deep into the dark heart of late-stage possession football.
What to compare the experience to? This was football that brought to mind the sensation of being slowly lulled into a seasick sleep by the whirling of the bedroom walls late at night after one too many limoncellos.
Russia are a moderate team with great spirit and discipline. They showed heart and willing. It was enough to drag Spain’s team of feather-footed technicians into a strange kind of darkness.
Isco touched the ball 194 times in all. Spain completed 1,029 passes. Over 120 minutes of 74% possession, Spain managed nine shots on target. This was an agony of repetition, with Spain lost in their own style, yoked together in a single endless, draining circuit of the Luzhniki Stadium.
Before this game Artem Dzyuba had called for a “minor miracle”. Dzyuba was probably a bit off beam. In reality Russia needed a major miracle. And yet, somehow, they got one.
It was cruel for Iago Aspas, who had run gamely, that he should miss the decisive penalty, well saved by Igor Akinfeev. But it also felt inevitable that someone in red would suffer. Towards the end of extra time, with the score 1-1 thanks to Dzyuba’s penalty, the home crowd had reached a state of pre-triumph delirium. Would Spain be able to cope with penalties at all after all that cosseting of the ball, that feeling of folding in on themselves? Would they remember to shoot? Would they forget and try to pass it to Isco?
Fernando Hierro had shuffled his pack here, bringing in the more powerful Koke and the speedier Marco Asensio for Andrés Iniesta and Thiago Alcántara. Things started well enough. Nacho Fernández was hacked down. The free-kick from the right was whipped in by Asensio and deflected into the goal off Sergei Ignashevich. The final score will not reflect that Ignashevich was being grappled on the floor by Sergio Ramos in full-on bastardy mode. But that was probably a given anyway.
After which, the slow retreat. There is a simple pleasure in watching Isco move the ball, position his body, dink away from a challenge or two, nudge or spank or loft a pass.
But there is an illusory element to all this at times. The spectacle can beguile and charm and then, slowly, become a little wearing, a dripping tap that keeps on picking out its own ceaseless ear-worm rhythm. This is dinner jazz football. Nifty, neat, but also apparently without end.
Do Spain ever get bored of their own style? At one point around 70 minutes the entire team camped in the Russian half and simply pushed the ball backward and forward across the pitch, taking time out but taking nothing out of Russia, with no attempt to run into space beyond the space they already held.
A great game of counterattack versus possession can be like a well-matched boxing bout. This was like a bad boxing bout, a clash of two styles inexpertly mastered. But then it is always intriguing to see a sporting virtue become a vice.
For Spain, possession football of the Cruyffian-Catalan school has given the national team its greatest era and redefined the sport itself in many ways. But there is no Xavi in this team, the genius who made the system irresistible.
And opponents are wise to it now, less psychologically disturbed by sitting deep, spectators at somebody else’s football match. At times such as these possession of the ball can feel like a burden in itself, something stifling and onerous, denying your own attack space.
There is too much talent in this team for Spain to be traumatised for too long by a last‑16 exit. But a style and a culture that has been beautiful at times, irresistible at others, felt as if it had reached an end point here.
Read more: www.theguardian.com