It is safe to say that in the World Cup in 2018, the last major international tournament, Spain massively underperformed having been one of the favourites to win the entire competition prior to it starting. The Spaniards got out of Group consisting of themselves, Portugal, Iran, and Morocco, and were then knocked out of the round of 16 by the tournament’s hosts Russia on penalties.
People brushed this off as poor decision-making by the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) since they had sacked Julien Lopetegui as the first-team manager prior to the commencement of the competition since he had accepted the Real Madrid job behind their back with no communication whatsoever. He was subsequently replaced with Spanish legend Fernando Hierro, but the latter was seemingly thrown in at the deep end on such short notice.
However, by coming to the conclusion that this was the main reason behind Spain’s failure in 2018 would be to ignore their two tournaments prior to that. In 2014, they were the defending champions heading to Brazil, and after they failed to even get out of the group stages, losing two out of three games, the Spanish team returned home as disgraced champions. Subsequently, at the European Championships in 2016, they were also sent packing early, losing 2-0 in the round of 16.
The reason for this failure can be speculated although a lot of players playing in the last three tournaments were from their previous successes from 2008-2012 and so they were quite old as a squad and one which was clearly past its prime and was struggling to integrate the younger generation of players.
This time around though, with former Roma and Barcelona manager Luis Enrique at the helm, the Spanish national team has undergone severe changes to its personnel since their failure in 2018 with quite a lot of less experienced players being integrated into the side, including Ferran Torres, Daniel Olmo, Pau Torres, and the newly ratified Aymeric Laporte.
They will certainly be a greater threat this time around, having lost just once in their previous eleven matches since international football restarted back in September 2020. Enrique has implemented a very similar style of play and tactical structure as he did with all of his previous clubs.
However, regardless of their aesthetically pleasing style of football, Spain still have areas they need to improve tactically including their struggles to break down deep defensive blocks when the single pivot is being man-marked, but their strengths and weaknesses will be analysed in greater depth later.
This article will be a tactical analysis of the Spanish national team in the form of a team scout report ahead of Euro 2020. It will be an analysis of the tactics that Enrique will look to deploy as well as an analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.
Spain have excellent squad depth across the board and Enrique will have a number of players to choose from in each position giving him a selection headache when he will have to narrow down his squad and finalise it ahead of the tournament.
Enrique has deployed a 4-3-3 as the base formation in almost all of his games in charge of the Spanish national team, a system he is very familiar with throughout his managerial career, particularly with Barcelona, and so it is extremely likely that this will be Spain’s choice starting formation at the European Championships in the summer.
Looking at the squad from the previous visual, the goalkeeping position is quite stacked with quality with Unai Simon, David de Gea and Robert Sanchez all available for selection ahead of the summer. Going on who the manager has trusted more though in recent games, Unai Simon is the likeliest to start. The Athletic Club keeper is far better with the ball at his feet than his two competitors and so it suits Enrique’s philosophy where the goalkeeper is very important in the team’s build-up play.
Enrique also has some fantastic options in defence including Laporte, Torres, Jordi Alba, Jose Gaya, César Azpilicueta, Diego Llorente, Eric García, and even Marcos Llorente at right back. He has used many combinations involving these players so it is difficult to pinpoint who will start but the back four is likely to consist of Alba, Laporte, Garcia, and Llorente.
In midfield, Rodri will battle it out with Sergio Busquets to start in the midfield single pivot role, but Enrique has preferred the Manchester City man as of late. The manager has also opted to trust Thiago and Koke as the two advanced midfielders, although Fabián Ruiz or the in-form Pedri may be given the nod too.
Up front is slightly less ambiguous as Álvaro Morata has the number 9 position nailed on, likely to be flanked by Olmo on the left and Torres on the right. However, Mikel Oyarzabal and Gerardo Moreno are decent options too on the flanks with the latter capable of playing as a back-up centre-forward also.
As we can see from this data representation of the players’ minutes played compared to their age, Spain are a team very much in transition. The majority of their players are coming to the end of their peak or are reaching their peak whilst they still have a few stragglers from the previous generations such as Thiago and Busquets. However, they have quite a lot of up and coming stars in the side being embedded into the starting lineup like Torres, Simon, Olmo and Pedri who will almost certainly be major players for La Furia Roja in the future.
Of course, Spain are a possession-based side as has been their footballing philosophy for an extensive period of history now. Under Enrique it is not different, of course. They build their attacks from the goalkeeper and try to craft their way through the thirds of the pitch using their positional play methods to ultimately create goalscoring opportunities for themselves.
As we can see from the data visualisation, Spain average a really high amount of possession per game, one of the highest out of all the countries competing in the European Championship in the summer. We can also see that they tend not to play direct and so the overwhelming majority of their passes are short which their in-possession structure allows them to achieve.
When building out from the back in the first third of the pitch, La Furia Roja split their two centre-backs wide to accommodate the goalkeeper who sits in between them and helps move the ball around and provide a passing option. Spain then shifts from a single pivot to a double-pivot with one of the advanced midfielders dropping alongside the lone ‘6’ whilst the other pushes up between the lines.
The fullbacks push up slightly higher and keep in line with the double-pivot and so Spain have plenty of passing options to play out from the back with. However, as we can see from the visual, they still do tend to struggle with progressing from the build-up phase, shown by their incredibly low number of forward passes per 100 passes per 90.
Further up the field, when they pin the opposition back into their own half of the pitch, Spain set up in a very similar way although the shape slightly changes. The four defenders stay back to help circulate the ball when their opponents are sitting in a deep defensive block, whilst they maintain a double-pivot behind the defensive team’s first line of pressure.
The other advanced midfielder pushes between the lines into the halfspace while the two wingers maintain the width of the pitch to stretch the opposition, and so the shape then resembles a 4-2-1-3.
We can also see from the original data visual for this section that Spain average a high number of touches in the penalty area as well as a high volume of shots on goal. Their expected goals per 90 (xG) is subsequently very high compared to other nations because of their excessive amount of touches in the opposition’s penalty area.
At times though, stats can be massively misleading, and one of the main issues for the Spanish national team is that it takes them quite a lot of chances to score.
Looking at all of their chances since the resumption of international football back in September of last year, only two of Spain’s shots on goal have had an xG of 0.6 or greater with almost all of their chances hitting the range between 0.0 and 0.2 xG.
The reason for this is unknown. It may be down to poor positioning of the centre-forwards or that the creators are not creating good enough chances, but it is certainly something that needs improvement ahead of the Euros.
Looking at the data viz, it is very obvious how Enrique wants his side to play out of possession. Spain are extremely active and engaging when they do not have the ball, with incredibly low Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA). This means that they press their opponents high and aggressively when they do not have possession in the hopes of winning it back as quickly as possible.
When out of possession, Spain deploy a man-oriented pressing system, principled around getting tight to your marker and blocking passing lanes to eventually turnover possession quickly. They also press in tandem and push most of their side high, even deeper players, so that they have plenty of bodies forward when they do win back the ball and look to transition to attack.
They have one of the highest averages for ball recoveries in the final third per 90 which can be seen from the data viz at the top of the section, meaning that their high-risk pressing system does pay dividends for them although it can still be exploited.
One of the ways it can be exploited is when the opposition play in a direct manner in front of Spain’s backline and behind their midfield line. In the previous image, the three central midfield players are highlighted specifically in the high press. They are inside the final third, whilst the backline cannot position themselves higher than the halfway line due to the risk of playing their opponent’s forwards onside. This means that there is a massive gap between these two lines.
Teams can often bypass Spain’s high press by playing direct into this space and by winning the second ball and using good combination play, they can exploit the spaces left at the back and in behind.
Although Spain are quite good out of possession in the defensive phases, it is important to note that the main reason behind their excellent defensive metrics, which we have seen in the data viz for this section, is because of how they set-up in possession.
Essentially an ‘attack is the best form of defence mentality’, their domination of the ball in games severely reduces how many defensive duels and aerial duels they must compete in every game as well as limiting how many shots the opposition can have against them per game. When the opponent does not have the ball, they cannot score, an ideology which has stayed through with them for a long time now in terms of the country’s main coaching philosophy.
In this data representation, displaying all of the shots that Spain have conceded in their previous eleven games, we can see how this actually is considering they played some high-ranking footballing countries within that time such as Germany, the Netherlands, and the Ukraine.
More impressive is that just nine of the shots they conceded in total had an xG of over 0.2, meaning that almost all of the shots taken against them are low value chances, decreasing their chance of scoring per game.
Spain’s recoveries in their own third are quite low, mainly because they tend not to drop into their own third when defending. Instead, when the opposition break through their high press, they collapse into a defensive mid-block as opposed to a low block, holding the line firmly until they are forced to collapse even further towards their own box.
The shape looks to be a 4-5-1 in this mid-block but typically one of the wide players or central midfielders pushes out and creates a 4-4-2.
As we can see here, the right-winger, Torres, has pushed up and moved across to create a two-man front-line of pressure with Morata, switching the system from a 4-5-1 temporarily. This is because the ball is in the wide areas and Spain’s mid-block has shifted across. When Germany move the ball back to the central corridors, Torres will drop back to create a 4-5-1 as he needs to be ready to defend the wide areas should the ball be switched to it.
Spain are constantly active in the defensive phases, which contributes to their very impressive defensive attributes, which we saw from the metrics at the start of this section.
Spain are not a team predominantly known for their transitions, particularly in their transitions from defence to attack. However, they are still very useful at attacking transitions as they have players up front who are rapid.
When transitioning though, Spain use a mix of supporting runs out wide to stretch the opposition’s defence, as well as late runners who are making runs from deep to arrive late for a cut back or just to provide more bodies in the box. Typically, they would use four to five players in a counterattack, although this does depend heavily on the situation and so can fluctuate under a number of variables.
As we can see from this scenario, Spain have gotten themselves into a fantastic position in transition. They have two runners out wide stretching the opposition’s defenders which has created plenty of space for Morata to make a run through the middle and to be slipped in behind. There are also two midfielders supporting from deep, making late runs into the box for cut-backs.
When their transitions are in full flow, they can be deadly, as seen in the Spanish national team’s recent 6-0 thrashing of Germany where they scored some fantastic goals from rapid counter-attacks after winning the ball back.
In defensive transition, Spain look to counterpress the opposition to win the ball back as high up the pitch as possible before potentially transitioning themselves in dangerous areas. They do this through their in-possession set-up. Spain constantly have players supporting the ball-carrier with short passing options. By having players at short proximity to the player on the ball, Spain can then counterpress with multiple players at one time if they lose it as we can see in the following image:
As can be seen from this example, Spain have lost the ball and are in defensive transition mode. Instead of retreating, they look to push up with numbers on the ball-carrier to close him down before he can play forward and hit them on the break. They generally do this with at least two or three players, sometimes more depending on the situation.
Going off what was discussed earlier in the ‘attacking phase’ section, Spain’s forwards have a medium to high number of touches in the box and shots on goal per 90, but they range more medium to low on the graph regarding their actual goal contributions and expected contributions.
The reason for this is because they mainly play for possession-based teams like Barcelona and so most of the teams that they play against, namely lesser opposition, sit deep and defend in an organised low block, typically in a 4-5-1, 5-3-2, or a 5-4-1, whilst the centre-forward or one of the centre-forwards sit on the number ‘6’ to stifle their ability to progress into the final third.
The opposition sitting in a low block stifles the chances they create because there are plenty of bodies behind the ball, which makes it more difficult to get into good positions to score as there is little space and it also makes it harder for creative players to create better quality chances.
One of the main reasons why Spanish players have a high volume of shots on goal though whilst also having a low xG contribution is because a lot of shots are also taken outside the area. Against teams that sit deep, there may be a lot of room outside the area. Shots from deeper areas of the pitch are lower in terms of xG quality so a high volume of shots from this area of the pitch would bring down the overall xG contribution for a player.
Straight away, after looking at this graph, we can see that Spain’s midfielders are almost all excellent at contributing to how their sides play in possession from the first two thirds of the pitch, but not so much in the final third.
These midfielders all usually play in deeper positions in the midfield as a lone number ‘6’, in a double-pivot, and as an ‘8’. Olmo would be the main exception though of course as he plays more as a winger and as a number ‘10’ just off the centre-forward. One could argue that Marcos Llorente could be another exception as he can play as a ‘10’ and even out wide as he has done for Atletico Madrid this season, although he also plays in deeper positions and even at right-back at times.
Spain’s midfielders are excellent at taking the ball from deeper areas of the pitch from the backline and progressing it to the forward players in the final hence why the national side has a number of players who rank high on the graph for progressive passes per 90 and passes to the final third per 90 such as Busquets and especially Liverpool’s Thiago.
However, what we also see is that they are not efficient in the final third in terms of goal contributions and expected goal contributions. Essentially, if Spain’s forward line are not firing in the summer, it is unlikely that they will get much goal-scoring help from the midfield.
While Spain’s forward and midfield line have their own deficiencies, the backline is by far the highest performing area of the team. From a first glance at the graph, we can see that the Spanish defenders have been excellent in and out of possession for their respective sides with the lowest ranked defenders still performing to a decent capacity.
Dani Carvajal is the highest-ranked player in terms of successful defensive actions per 90 and percentage of possession-adjusted interceptions, with Pedro Porro and Diego Llorente also ranking quite high and are able to play at right-back too, however, Carvajal and Porro were left at home by Enrique and so the Spanish national team are coming into this tournament without a recognised right-back, although it is likely that either Diego or Marcos Llorente will start in this position.
We can see from the graph on the right, which measures the defenders’ progressive passes and runs per 90, they are all performing at a medium to high level which shows how comfortable they are on the ball. In a system like the one that Luis Enrique deploys, being comfortable in possession is a huge bonus.
Pau Torres is quite possibly the most consistent performer out of all of the players above who were brought to the tournament as he is performing very consistently on both metrics while Aymeric Laporte and Garcia are also impressive in all four metrics, so Enrique has a tough choice to make ahead of the tournament.
Jorge Resurreccion, more commonly known as Koke, is going to be a key player for Spain in the European Championships this summer. The central midfielder has just come off the back of a stellar campaign with Atletico Madrid where he won La Liga under Diego Simeone for the second time in seven years and the Spaniard played a crucial role throughout their title chase.
Koke is such as a well-rounded midfielder and is capable of playing in a variety of different positions in midfield. Simeone, typically known for his adoption of a rigid 4-4-2, has opted to use a more expansive and unconventional 3-5-2 with Los Colchoneros this season, one of the catalysts behind Atletico’s title victory. In this system, Koke has been used as a number ‘6’, and ‘8’, a wide midfielder, and even as a wingback, one of the stranger tactical nuances deployed by the Argentinian head coach.
The 29-year-old, who still has three years left on his current deal with the Spanish giants, has shown himself to be a real leader on the pitch, hence why he is the club’s captain since the exit of Diego Godin in 2019. However, his hard work is one of his better qualities. Koke helps his team out defensively just as much as he helps them in attack which can be seen from the stats in the player profile above.
For a player who has predominantly played in deeper positions in the midfield, as well as out wide, Koke has intriguingly solid attacking statistics. He has an incredibly high number of deep completions per 90 as well as smart passes, through passes, and passes to the penalty box per 90, all of which he is above average in compared to the rest of La Liga’s midfielders. Not only this, his expected assists per 90 (xA) are very high too, but he is on the below-average scale in La Liga for shots per 90 and expected goals (xG) per 90.
In terms of his progressive passing metrics, Koke is seriously impressing in this area too. He completes an astonishingly high number of passes to the final third per 90, which have high accuracy. He also completes a high number of passes per game in general, with superb accuracy, much higher than La Liga’s average for central midfield players.
Defensively, Koke tends not to challenge much for aerial balls but when he does, he has a high completion rate. The Spaniard has a tendency to get stuck in when his team lose the ball and is not afraid to engage with any opposition player, hence why he competes in a high number of defensive duels per 90. More impressive though is his high competency in these defensive duels as he wins most of them.
Atletico’s star man will be vital for Luis Enrique’s team as he is a very well-rounded player who is excellent on the ball as well as off of it despite not being the most physically imposing player in the squad.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
Spain are certainly not the best team at the tournament in terms of squad depth or quality of players, but they could potentially be one of the underdogs. La Furia Roja were given quite a favourable group, although not overly easy, playing Poland, Sweden and Slovakia. However, it is likely that they will progress as the group leaders, potentially earning themselves a comfortable tie in the Round of 16. A semi-final finish would be very respectable for a side who are in somewhat of a rebuild, which is where we see them finishing at the Euros in the summer.