Spain passed the ball over 1100 times against Russia on Sunday. The completed over 800 passes in regulation, a record in the World Cup since they started tracking such things in 1966. Russia completed 300 passes in the same game.
Spain lost to Russia in the match in penalty kicks, 4-3.
There is a belief in sports that if one team has the ball for the majority of the game, it must mean that they are attacking. Having the ball means that you are on offense, and when you are on offense, you are trying to score. Right?
Well, not always. Spain’s use of possession is often just as much a defensive tactic as it is an offensive one — they prevent the other team from scoring by not allowing them to have the ball. This is a common observation with the Spain team, but it was carried to its extreme on Sunday vs. Russia.
And this is Spain’s whole thing. They pick you apart. Death by 1000 paper cuts. Except for this game, when they bled themselves to death.
Spain’s main problem was that they were too conservative with their possession. Yes, they had the ball for nearly 80% (!) of the game, but it was irrelevant because they were maintaining possession mostly just to maintain it, and waiting for a Russia mistake that never came, and we all sat on our couches screaming “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO SOMETHING” at the TVs for two hours.
Spain have won countless games before by doing just that — maintaining possession, passing the ball around, poking and prodding until the other team switches off, or gets tired of chasing, and Spain exploits that moment of weakness and takes advantage.
When Spain was leading 1-0 after an early own goal from Russia, they seemed to settle into that mode. They had their goal. Russia was packing it in. They’d pass around for 90 minutes, maybe nick a second goal late when Russia had to throw guys forward, and that would be that. Onward.
Then Pique stuck his arm up in the box and gave Russia a penalty kick. Dzyuba converted, and we had a 1-1 game.
For the last five minutes of the first half, after Russia equalized, Spain looked enlivened. They got more direct, pushed hard to work the ball into Diego Costa in the box, and several chances sprung up because of it. It looked like they were no longer content to just maintain possession ... they would risk losing it, sure, but Russia didn’t seem too dangerous going the other way, and they would make a go of it.
Then after halftime, Spain came back out and ... started passing around again. The directness was gone. Yes, they dominated possession. Sure. So what? It was the most oddly conservative gameplan I’ve seen, and resulted in a horrifyingly boring second half and extra time. Spain seemed happy to do what they do, pass around, hold the ball, poke and prod, poke and prod.
For me, the question was: What was Spain waiting for?
Other than Isco and a bit of Iniesta when he came on, most of the Spain players looked disinterested in creating, well, anything. Russia closed down fast and worked hard on defense, and Spain didn’t want to make mistakes or something, and that was that. They won the possession game, which Russia didn’t care about. Russia were delighted to lose the possession game.
Russia packed it in the box, worked hard on defense, and tried to last until penalty kicks. It worked. The paper cuts never did any damage. Koke and Iago Aspas had their penalties saved, and that was it.