There’s a game you see, and a game you don’t. You see players chasing a ball, but you don’t see the journey they’ve made, the effort and the sacrifices, the injuries and the injections. You see a World Cup in Moscow, but you don’t see the graft and politicking that brought it here. As Spain and Russia played out 120 minutes of the most tepid tedium at the Luzhniki Stadium, we saw Fifa president Gianni Infantino sitting in between King Felipe VI of Spain and Dmitry Medvedev, the president of Russia. What were they talking about? Who knows? Who will ever know?
You see this Russian side, a team of pitifully limited Championship-level players somehow elevated to World Cup quarter-finalists by virtue of a flawless penalty shoot-out and two hours of running like Transformers. But you can only guess at the elixir of practice and patriotism and passion and pride and god knows what else that has allowed them to do so. You see the Spanish, a team with all the technical ability and footballing intelligence you could hope for at this level. But you can’t see the curious strategic logic by which, until the final 15 minutes of extra time, they played this crucial World Cup last-16 game at the pace of a sedate pre-season friendly.
So what was really going on here? Everyone knew how the host nation would set up: five genuine defenders at the back, sitting so deep they were almost on the Moscow ring road, grappling and lunging and sliding and colliding and chasing and scrapping for everything. Nobody expected Spain to get into an arm wrestle. But in the face of Russia’s uncompromising approach, they simply met fire with felt. They were playing their own game, the game they wanted to play. But Russia had other ideas, and made them play a heavy and chilling price for it.
Even as normal time dissolved into extra time, the lack of intensity, of vigour, of haste and intent, was genuinely startling. Apart from Sergey Ignashevich’s early own goal, about the most animated you saw any of them was when a furious Koke marched over to referee Bjorn Kuipers midway through the first half to lodge an aggrieved protest over Russia’s physical tactics. Where the game demanded quickness, sharpness, speed and movement, Spain simply tried to knit the ball gently around them, with all the misplaced optimism of trying to reason with a mugger.
And so for large parts, it almost felt as if Spain and Russia were in fact playing two different games: Spain sitting on their velveteen thrones, knocking the ball about to each other with impunity and a sense of extreme leisure, Russia trying frantically and ferociously to get their attention. Just before half-time, they succeeded in spectacular fashion: a rare foray forward resulting in the penalty from which Artem Dzyuba equalised. And if we thought that might jolt Spain into life, we were wrong. Coachless and clueless, they simply carried on in their well-worn groove: even the speed of their passes across the turf seeming slower than optimal. It was almost as if they were playing this game at 2am, after a couple of brandies and a heavy chicken dinner.
Which brings us neatly to Isco, the player who seemed to encapsulate Spain here in all their gilded, maddening narcosis. Handed the main creative burden in the absence of Andres Iniesta and Thiago Alcantara from the starting line-up, the Real Madrid playmaker took a scarcely credible 197 touches in the game, almost half as many as the entire Russian side put together. He was the most influential player on the pitch by a wide margin. In a sense, he ran the game. It’s just that if Spain were going to progress, he needed to run it a good deal better.
He’s a wonderful player, of course, no question about that: with a lightness of touch and a balance that allows him to suspend himself, mid-manoeuvre, for just a fraction of a second long enough for you to commit. But occasionally it feels like Isco is playing the game he can see, rather than the one everyone else can. Where Spain demanded thrust and pace, he offered only continuity; where Spain needed diamond, Isco offered only more gold leaf. Just 12 of his 132 completed passes went forwards.
There were far worse players out there in a Spain shirt: David Silva struggled badly, and Marco Asensio was a bitter disappointment on his elevation to the side. But somehow, Isco’s failure to find the telling contribution was the decisive factor. And for a nation spoiled by three consecutive tournament wins, and now soured by three consecutive failures, their return to the top rung of international football will depend on whether Isco can play the game that is required of him.
There was a moment in the first half that seemed to sum all of this up. Isco received the ball just inside the Russia half, Diego Costa making the run beyond him, an opportunity opening up. Instead, Isco checked in the other direction and knocked the ball back towards the centre circle. It was almost as if he felt time was limitless, that there would always be another opening, another attack, another chance. And there will, of course. But now Spain will have to wait another four years for it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies