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Where did Spain go wrong at the 2018 World Cup?

2 July 2018 by

Spain were eliminated by Russia in the last-16 of the World Cup on Sunday, July 1, losing on penalties after being held to a 1-1 draw in normal time and extra time. Since winning the 2010 tournament, Spain have won just two of their last seven World Cup games and were doomed from the start this summer.

La Roja lost their manager Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament, with Fernando Hierro taking over the national team, so the squad had little time to prepare for their opener. Spain shipped three goals in their first group game and didn’t look convincing after that. Their last-16 exit to Russia is a shock but few had them pegged to win the tournament.

Spain manager Fernando Hierro.

Spain’s biggest issue was with their playing style. They keep the ball effortlessly and control the tempo against the majority of their opponents, but there’s no penetration. Players weren’t looking to get in behind the backline and it led to them being easy to defend against.

The 2010-champions have a midfield choc full of playmakers who retain high levels of possession and can cut through a defence with just one pass, but they struggled to create chances despite having so many talented players on the pitch.

Marco Asensio and Lucas Vazquez were criminally underused and would have provided the most dynamism for Spain in the final third, but Hierro instead preferred a midfield containing Koke, Sergio Busquets, Isco, David Silva and Andres Iniesta all in one line-up.

It led to Spain having a lack of pace in their build-up play and being unable to stretch teams. Asensio is a player who makes runs in behind the defence but racked up just 130 minutes of playing time in the World Cup. Vazquez was given only 84 minutes by Hierro and would have given Spain width and pace down the right flank had he featured more heavily.

Real Madrid and Spain winger Lucas Vazquez.

Spain were guilty of underusing Diego Costa. The Atletico Madrid striker scored three goals in his first two appearances in the tournament but fired blanks in the last two games and his teammates were largely to blame. Despite showing against Portugal that he can score from half a chance, Spain’s playmakers continued to overlook Costa when building attacks.

Against Russia, the 29-year-old’s off-the-ball runs were so often ignored in favour of retaining possession and it made Russia’s job of defending much easier. Many are saying tiki-taka is dead, but the issue was that Spain were keeping the ball for the sake of keeping the ball. There was no purpose to their play, only to retain possession as that’s what’s been hard-wired into their system all these years.

La Roja may have to overhaul parts of the squad and start again if they are to challenge at Euro 2020 and at the 2022 World Cup.

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