When the criticism of Alvaro Morata reached its most vicious, Luis Enrique reassured the striker that he had such faith in him that he would start no matter what. Anyone watching the meeting, however, might not have thought this was the message given from the manner of it. Although the coach’s words were empathetic and encouraging, the delivery was typically aggressive, almost defiant.
That kind of intensity is Enrique’s natural demeanour, of course, but there has been extra intent to it for this tournament. The idea is to instil a similar obstinacy in his team.
It has emphatically worked, in a way a Spanish national team has never seen before. That is just as well because no Spanish national team has ever faced so many setbacks before. It is all the more impressive, then, that they have performed better than the vast majority of their predecessors.
As Spain reach the last four of a tournament for just the seventh time in the country’s history – and just the fourth time outside the 2008-12 glory era – it is worth considering how differently Euro 2020 could have gone. It could have been another disaster, confirming a reversion to all the old perceptions of the team, right up to their propensity for “bottling it”.
That is because, right from before the tournament, everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. Even more problematically, each thing fed into the next, only making it worse.
Spain were the first side to suffer a real complication from a Covid case, with Sergio Busquets’s positive test result not just taking the captain out of the opening games but disrupting a week of their preparation time. That was deeply frustrating for Luis Enrique because he’d marked that period out as extended time to finally work on his more direct system with greater depth.
It was inevitable that the inability to do so led to a reversion to type in the opening two games. Spain just passed their way to nowhere other than frustration, on an awful pitch in front of a disgruntled crowd, as they lacked the intensity that Luis Enrique had been so eager to introduce.
It was not a coincidence that more time with the coach brought the release against Slovakia, but even that brought complications. Spain began to score but Morata did not, missing a penalty and then going off just before a goal was put on a plate for his replacement, Ferran Torres.
That game should have shown that the team had solved an eternal problem, but there was somehow still a new punchline on an eternal joke. Their nature found a way. Having previously struggled to pass their way to goal, Spain created a new complication for themselves against Croatia by just passing the ball into their own net.
They had fresh calamity, and maybe another scapegoat in Unai Simon, but not fresh legs. Collective defensive collapse and consequent anxiety brought extra time in that last-16 game, before the worst kind of individual defensive error brought extra time against Switzerland.
That quarter-final saw so many misses that it eventually forced the Spanish players into a situation they had missed from more than any other country at these Euros: penalties. There was their long history of failure in shootouts, and then their recent history with penalties. Spain had missed their last five.
It looked like this was the inevitable end point of their tournament, the farce it had been building towards, the reductio ad absurdum.
It seemed certain it was only going one way, especially when Busquets hit the post.
Spain responded. They displayed an obstinate refusal to give in, or to be set upon by setbacks, or to surrender to circumstances.
This was best displayed by Simon in the shootout. He refused to just passively wait for his fate, or the kicks. He took action. It was almost like the reverse of Joe Hart against Italy in 2012, in that Simon’s approach reversed the trajectory and psychology of the shootout. His movement diverted it down another direction.
It has been like that throughout. Spain haven’t just accepted their fate. Gerardo Moreno moved on from so many misses to score his penalty. The team just went back and beat Croatia again, having already beaten them once.
Morata scored a decisive goal many thought beyond him, as Spain displayed a resolve many thought beyond them.
“You can complain about many things in this Spanish team,” Luis Enrique said in the group stage, “but never that they do not go for the game from minute one to 90.” And often to minute 120.
Much of that, as with Morata, is down to Enrique’s management. The team certainly play in the image of their manager in that regard. They have the same admirable obstinacy.
Some of that is by sheer force of his personality, some if from more considered moves. The squad has been specifically picked along these lines.
Enrique has selected “fighters” like Koke, as well as a series of young players who have the hunger he requires, and are easier to hone.
Even the absence of Sergio Ramos might have worked to their favour in this regard, since they don’t really have any stars who are on a different level in terms of profile. A maestro like Thiago Alcantara might have been irritated at his lack of minutes, but he has played his role well. Everyone buys in.
The offset is a lack of prime quality, which hasn’t really been tested yet.
Many of the players are hugely promising but there remains the sense that – as with the brilliant Pedri – this is all a touch too soon. Some believe that the Barcelona playmaker has been picked largely to give him tournament experience for the future, and that his is largely a preparatory campaign. Pedri has instead excelled, though, and ensured the team have persevered.
Italy may prove there is a limit to that. Roberto Mancini’s side look better able to control a game, against a Spanish side that has actually been at its best when games start to go out of control.
At the same time, that may suit them. Spain’s biggest problems have been when teams sit back. This Italy won’t do that. It may play into Spain’s feet.
But then maybe another setback will actually suit them. Maybe that’s what brings out their best?
Enrique and his team know not to overthink these games by now.
“You can’t pick when things happen,” penalty hero Mikel Oyarzabal says. “When they come, you just have to adapt.”
And respond. That is what Spain have done. It is very much in the image of their manager.
The overall picture may be of a team that is not yet ready to win a tournament. But they seem ready to respond to any situation.
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