You may have heard this one before. It was noisy in Seville, but the roof was never truly raised at La Cartuja, the sound that lingered from Spain’s opening game at Euro 2020 instead the whistles of supporters who had watched their team dominate possession, complete 918 passes for 85% of possession, setting a new tournament record, but just not find a way through.
Before them was a tight, defensive organised Swedish team satisfied with the final score – a team Luis Enrique described as having “decided to defend and base everything on long balls” – which helped to explain it, as did a goalkeeper who made two wonderful saves, but there was familiarity in the frustration too. Only six members of this Spain squad played at the last World Cup in Russia, where they were knocked out by the hosts despite playing a thousand passes in Moscow, but some of the issues remain.
A game where they impressed for 45 minutes and then slipped away in the second half until a late, dramatic charge saw Luis Enrique’s side make sufficient chances but not take them. Ultimately, they had to accept a 0-0 draw which could might have been worse after they were twice cut open by the superb Alexander Isak – who hit the post and set up Marcus Berg to somehow miss a glorious opportunity that would have made this even bigger shock. “They could even have won,” Luis Enrique admitted.
“Our plan is to have the ball to create chances, control the play and press in the opposition half,” Luis Enrique had said and that was what he got. Kick-off was delayed by two minutes because there was a problem with the goal, which was prophetic, but once it did start the pattern was immediately apparent.
Within ten minutes, Spain had played a hundred passes; within twenty it was two hundred, and they weren’t slowing down. Almost quarter of an hour passed before goalkeeper Unai Simón touched it; everyone else in the Spain team had done so repeatedly.
Koke in particular took charge. Together with Ferran Torres and Marcos Llorente, he overloaded the right side. Which wasn’t to say there was nothing on the left, where Jordi Alba was running chest out and head back and Dani Olmo drifted inside, his passing clever and his willingness to shoot significant, as was shown with an effort that almost caught out Robin Olsen just before half-time.
At that point, Spain had 83% of the ball but that hasn’t always been seen as a good thing and what they didn’t have was a goal. They also had a scare, Isak escaping Aymeric Laporte on 37 minutes, getting into the area, pausing and watching his effort cleared off the line by Llorente, via the post.
That would have been some blow for Spain who should have led. Olsen had made a superb low save from Olmo’s header after Koke’s cross. Then Koke sliced just wide from the edge of the six-yard box and sidefooted over an even better chance when he ran on to Olmo’s pass. It still wasn’t happening, even when Marcus Danielson’s mistake gave Álvaro Morata the kind of chance he dreams of and has nightmares about. Alone in front of the keeper, seemingly unconvinced, he bent past the post.
That drew whistles which would only grow louder for the former Chelsea man and Spain went into the dressing room still at 0-0, despite having set a tournament record for passes in an opening half. The task ahead of them appeared a mental one: to insist, to not lose patience and certainly not concentration. Yet they also had to accelerate and, above all, take their chances. The problem perhaps is that very realisation made it more likely they would not. Certainly, Morata struck the ball timidly wide when it fell to him, another snatched unsure shot drawing more ire and more angst.
Changes were coming closer too. There had been moments early on when Sweden seemed uncertain but as time slipped safely by the game was now where Janne Andersson imagined it and hoped to keep it, his team in no hurry to step out. Until, suddenly, they did. Isak led a counter which concluded almost on Spain’s goal-line, fabulous footwork taking him past three men to lay it off for Berg – who, with the ball seeming to sit up awkwardly on a poor pitch, missed from three yards.
Substitutes were made, Morata withdrawn to whistles that his teammates censored afterwards, and Spain sped up. If that was to be expected, the departure of Isak soon after was not, Spain’s defenders probably tempted to whisper: ‘gracias’. Their issues now were only at one end, where Marcos Llorente did superbly to cut it back for Pablo Sarabia to shoot, and to where they kept heading, ever more quickly. When Gerard Moreno was sent on there was a huge roar, responsibility and hope now on his shoulders.
But if the threat was greater now, fans hammering at seats and roaring them forward, Alba motoring up the left, Moreno in the middle, time escaping, that yellow wall wasn’t going anywhere. Behind it, nor was Olsen, saving from Moreno’s header in the 92nd minute, and then watching another one slip past his post on 95 taking Spain’s last hope with it.