When Luis Enrique got into the Wembley dressing room and saw how downbeat some of his younger players were, he knew exactly what to say.
“What are you doing crying? Lift those heads. You should be proud of yourselves.”
If penalties distil football to its essence, their aftermath takes emotions to extremes. There really is nothing like it in the sport, nothing that so displays the thin line between elation and desolation.
As the entire Italian bench rapturously raced towards Jorginho, many of the Spanish players sank to their knees in despair. They knew it should not have ended like this.
Just as there was such a line between the emotions of the two teams, there was also that line between the feelings within the Spanish squad. It was mostly the youngest that were sad, regretting what might have been, while the senior players were proud, and hopeful about what might come next.
Pride and optimism ended up being the prevailing emotions. The sense of a squandered opportunity was more than tempered by the knowledge that this young squad grew into the game and produced their best performance in a most difficult contest.
Spain were exceptional. Luis Enrique had thoroughly out-coached Roberto Mancini. “He showed he is a great manager,” Aymeric Laporte said. The federation must have full faith in him.
It was telling how some of the discussion around the manager transformed in the aftermath of the game. The politically motivated arguments over the absence of Real Madrid players were shown to be what they are: worthless. Luis Enrique is worth much more.
The calculations he made with this team, involving some brave risks, produced enough chances to win the game many times over.
There, of course, we return to a familiar theme and a familiar figure. There was a tragic inevitability to Alvaro Morata’s ending, given the way his tournament had gone, but the actual story was much more complicated.
The forward had been excellent for much of his performance. He had even looked to be Spain’s saviour for a long time. His impetus charged the team just as the match was reaching its most challenging period, with Italy ahead, and Spain running out of time.
He finished for the equaliser as if he had all the time in the world. It was masterful and he looked to be a player in full confidence, but appearances can be deceiving. The penalty displayed what lay beneath.
The truth is that, just like his team, Morata’s performance didn’t deserve the outcome. He showed why Luis Enrique had such faith in him. The all-round display was what he gives the team. He just doesn’t give them a true cutting edge.
If it feels unfair for many to so fixate on Morata’s own psychodrama, the issue does reflect a broader issue with the Spanish team. They actually create so many chances, but can’t take them.
This is something that needs to be solved for 2022, but Luis Enrique does look to be on the right path.
He may need to come up with something creative – the way in which Vicente Del Bosque used Cesc Fabregas in 2012 – but it is already progress that Spain created so many chances.
There were periods when they battered Italy. Even more impressively, they looked like they had several levels to go up, that they had even more potential.
That is why the overriding feeling is pride, and hope for more progress. This team has so much young talent, above all Pedri.
They also have a clear idea of play, one that will surely only get more defined and deepened the more time Luis Enrique works with this squad.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that the build-up to this tournament robbed them of a week of training and proper coaching, due to Sergio Busquets’s Covid case. That Spain finished it playing the way they did shows what they can be capable of.
Euro 2020 may have been a tournament too soon, and this semi-final a game too soon – which shows they performed ahead of schedule by getting this far. They have surpassed most Spanish teams in history, after all. They can go well beyond most of their predecessors for the future, and perhaps match the feats of the 2010 team.
They do have a player in Pedri, who might well end up close to the level of Xavi or Andres Iniesta. He is that good, and it was incredible to think he is that young.
If anyone feels that is an exaggeration, consider one figure from the game. Pedri completed all of his passes. And these weren’t safe or easy passes either. Some of them were divine through balls that opened the Italian defence, and could have killed the game had the chances they produced been taken.
Pedri now symbolises how good the chances for the future are.
“We have shown that this squad can win the World Cup,” Jordi Alba said. “We were the team with the clearest ideas. We should be proud. Later, in the World Cup, it will be seen. Important squads like Argentina and Brazil will come, but we’ll be there fighting.”
That is something else Luis Enrique has restored to Spain: real resolve. There is real hope again, even amidst the anguish.
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