Luis Enrique always believed Spain would be among the frontrunners, the “group of favourites” as he called it, at Euro 2020. This assertion, however, didn’t hold much water after back-to-back draws to start the tournament which demonstrated the 2008 and 2012 European champions at their insipid worst. Same old Spain, always passing.
Something, however, changed between the 1-1 draw against Poland and the final group stage fixture against Slovakia. Enrique’s decision to swap Dani Olmo for Pablo Sarabia reflected the need for more cutting edge over control. Five goals against Slovakia was the desired consequence.
Very little of what unfolded in Spain’s last 16 win over Croatia will have been dreamt up by Enrique the night before the match. Indeed, there will be an inquest into how a comfortable 3-1 lead with just five minutes remaining led to 3-3 and extra time. But in a strange way the chaos in Copenhagen showed this Spain team at their best.
Enrique reveals 'brilliant' Morata insisted on taking penalty despite injury
- Spain beat Croatia in breathless extra time thriller to claim quarter final place
- Euro 2020 opinion: Alvaro Morata delivers for Spain - what more do people really want from him?
To keep going at Euro 2020, Spain must continue to embrace their chaos factor. At a tournament largely defined by conservative defensive play, Enrique’s side are something of an anomaly. The win over Croatia saw Spain become the first team in Euros history to score five or more goals in successive games. Their Expected Goals (xg) is the highest of any side in the tournament.
Whether or not this was Enrique’s plan all along, Spain have shown they can outgun anyone with their last two performances. The former Barcelona manager’s team selections against Sweden and Poland were picked apart by the notoriously harsh Spanish press, but he now appears to have the right parts in the right places.
By dropping Rodri for Sergio Busquets, Enrique has struck the right balance in midfield. While the veteran Barcelona anchor offers a protective barrier for the back four and passing rhythm from deep, Koke provides mobility. This allows Pedri to focus on his attacking output further forward, with the 18-year-old already Spain’s creator-in-chief.
Sarabia’s inclusion in Enrique’s 24-man squad for Euro 2020 caught many by surprise. Having started just 13 Ligue 1 games for Paris Saint-Germain last season, Sarabia wasn’t on the radar of many fans or pundits. Enrique, however, saw something in the 29-year-old. He spotted the contribution Sarabia could make to Spain’s tournament and has been vindicated in his decision with two goals and an assist from the former Sevilla attacker.
Even Alvaro Morata, who has spurned more opportunities than most teams have created at Euro 2020, has contributed in a way that extends beyond his goal tally. The 28-year-old bagged the goal that put Spain 4-3 ahead against Croatia, but his movement and occupation of the opposition defence had already proved important before then.
Morata en el Croacia-España
Image credit: Getty Images
No one player has nailed down the spot on the left side of Enrique’s front three, but Ferran Torres might just have proved himself as a better, certainly more clinical, option over Dani Olmo and Gerard Moreno who have also played there. The Manchester City forward’s versatility aids his link up play with Morata and Sarabia.
Some might argue Spain have been willing to embrace their chaos since the start of the tournament. They created scoring chances against Sweden and Poland, just didn’t have the conviction to convert them. The xG numbers suggested the goals would eventually flow at some point.
There is, however, a stark difference between the Spain team that started Euro 2020 and the one that secured their place in the quarter finals. It might be an intangible difference, something only noted in their mentality, but while most teams at this tournament are seeking to avoid chaos, Spain depend on it.
Key players, battles? Predictions? - Inside Europe on Italy v Spain
Luis Enrique praises 'amazing' Morata after Spain beat Croatia