Spain’s national team is supremely talented, comprising young heads who will compete for the best prizes in years to come. Spain is also steadfast and stubborn. And it won’t win the World Cup soon after being toppled by magnificent Morocco on penalties at the last-16 hurdle in Qatar.
Throughout most of the 120-plus minutes, Spanish players controlled the ball but not their destiny. As for Morocco, it was much the opposite on both counts. Roared on by a mammoth crowd, its players stood firm without possession and believed they would find a way to prosper. At the Education City stadium, Spain was taught a soccer lesson by its own doing.
The problem concerns exerting control. La Roja is superb at moving the ball from one player to another, protecting it from the opposition. It has been part of the national side’s psyche for many years—first glimpsed in its most exciting form when the country won three consecutive major trophies between 2008 and 2012. Against Morocco, it completed over 600 passes after 70 minutes but couldn’t find a goal. During nerve-shredding spot-kicks, it couldn’t pass the confident Sevilla goalkeeper Yassine Bounou, or Bono, from 12 yards either.
Luis Enrique—a charismatic, slightly zany coach turned Twitch personality—asked each squad player to practice a thousand penalties before the tournament. To no avail. No matter how diligently a setup tries to master everything, it is rarely that simple. Elite soccer is more than a process of control and attractive statistics—it’s producing the match-winning moments that count. Spain doesn’t always have that moment of brilliant spontaneity needed when the pressure is on. Instead, it sticks to an obsessive passing game with little to show for it on occasion.
“The responsibility is mine,” said Enrique in the wake of the painful conclusion. “I chose the first three penalty takers, those I thought were the best specialists on the pitch.”
“Soccer is a marvelous, passionate sport, but a team can win without attacking,” he continued. “Morocco attacked once or twice and was dangerous, but we dominated completely and tried to create.”
While humble in defeat, you sense the conclusions miss the point. Yes, the penalties were poor, but a potent Spain should never be in such a compromised position. The more worrying trend is failing to break down spirited teams and not getting over the line in 90 minutes. In the last two World Cups campaigns, it has bowed out on penalties in the first knockout round—first to Russia four years ago and now to its southern North African neighbor.
There is some reason for optimism, although that will be hard to come by immediately. In Gavi and Pedri, Spain has two precocious midfielders gaining more and more top-level experience at a young age, each with a high ceiling in terms of their potential. At the back, the team is solid enough. There are also names coming through the ranks, such as Nico Williams, whose pace and directness offer something lacking in the starting lineup. He deserves more opportunities.
It could do with a reliable star forward, however. The figurehead in attack, Álvaro Morata, does not always prove decisive in the final third when it matters most. A prolific striker is a must for any serious team.
Enrique, hailing from Asturias in northwestern Spain, can be the man to bring success. Before taking on the national job, he guided Barcelona to its most recent Champions League trophy, harmonizing the attacking forces of Lionel Messi, Neymar, and Luis Suárez at the time. Elsewhere on his CV are stints with La Liga’s Celta Vigo and U.S.-run Roma in Italy’s Serie A.
He wants to stay, but the team continually hitting stumbling blocks has become a dilemma. The challenge for him presently is to evaluate Spain as a competitor and consider what needs to change. That starts with becoming much more unpredictable as an offensive force.
That’s if the Spanish soccer federation (RFEF) sticks with him. Reports suggest coaches Marcelino, Ernesto Valverde, and Luis de la Fuente are the frontrunners for the position should he leave. Whatever transpires, the staff and squad will have time to reset before March 2023, when Spain kicks off its qualification for the next major competition, the European Championships in Germany, 18 months from now. Assuming it qualifies, fans will be hoping for a new-look Spain.