Spain's flaws were laid bare vs. England; now it's up to Luis Enrique to set things straight
During Spain's 3-2 defeat to England in Sevilla on Monday night, there were a couple of things missing compared to their last home game, the 6-0 thrashing of Croatia. Namely an opponent that surrendered and the aggressive, "all for one" spirit that Luis Enrique loved so much when the World Cup finalists were dismantled in September.
In fact, that this match only finished 3-2 to England is a welcome distraction from some of the major issues that were glaringly obvious. So was the fact that Sergio Ramos could make such a fuss about a penalty decision that should probably have been given in Spain's favour, would have brought a red card for England's keeper and would, in all likelihood, have changed the result.
The fuss was a handy distraction -- it covered the front page of Diario AS, too -- because while it was fair to argue that the referee was probably in the wrong, it had no chance of obscuring Spain's woeful deficiencies even if it had been given and scored.
First, as part of a cold, harsh look at this fledgling Spain era and the difficulties that were exposed, some very specific kudos can be awarded to England's scouting and planning. They patently looked at the pattern of Spain 6-0 Croatia and drew some firm conclusions:
1. They noticed that Croatia participated heavily in both the result and the flamboyance of La Roja's football by raising the white flag at 2-0 down. Zlatko Dalic admitted that his team lost interest in the match, and England drew conclusions from that.
2. The very clear-cut chances, which Ivan Santini and Ivan Perisic had to score but were wasted before Spain took over the game, were a truer indication of Spain's current defensive organisation than anything else.
3. They also saw that Spain's high line of defence left chasms of space between David De Gea and his back four. England reckoned (and so it proved) that would be perfect for Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, given their power, pace and ability, to play quick pass-and-move football.
All of that, plus the fact that England forced some very high-quality saves from De Gea at Wembley (two from Rashford) in their 2-1 defeat and felt they'd been robbed of a Danny Welbeck goal left Gareth Southgate's team not only wholly sure they could beat Spain this time but crystal-clear as to how they'd do it.
However, while it's important to highlight England's excellence -- Sterling told me post-match was that the visitors showed the "clinical finishing we've been lacking" -- it all combines to present an unfortunate truth about Spain. Luis Enrique's team has shipped a load of really clear goal chances to their opponents in each of their three competitive matches since the World Cup. And not only have they apparently done nothing to correct this trend, but the situation has deteriorated as well.
Had England scored five or six on Monday night, it wouldn't have been outlandish based on the pattern of the game, though Spain did hit the bar and had one cleared off the line.
Why haven't Luis Enrique, his staff or the players addressed this or at least recognised the trend?
I see zero credibility in the school of football analysis that tries to get away with "Everything's wonderful!" one week and then "They really aren't any good!" a couple of weeks later. So don't get the impression either that Spain were utterly hopeless here, or that the impact of their creative/attacking play against England, Croatia or Wales in their previous three games (aggregate score: 12-4) was blown out of proportion.
With Dani Ceballos on the pitch and a greater pride in their performance in the second half, Spain once again demonstrated their potency. They are quick, technical, free-scoring and dangerous if the opposition can't play counterattacking football effectively. But in Sevilla, his team left Luis Enrique with numerous problems to address.
First and foremost: Why, and how, did Spain go out against England patently suffering from the delusion that "We'll thump this lot easily"? It was a detectable attitude, whether conscious or subconscious, and it was ruinous. The number of unforced, basic errors Spain committed, both positionally and in their use of the ball, was stunning to behold.
The most clamorous mistake came when, already 2-0 down and with regular warnings that further disaster was looming, Sergio Ramos and then Sergio Busquets gifted England cheap possession within about 20 seconds of each other around their own penalty box. Infantile. For England's second goal, how can two of their forwards, Kane and Sterling, give six Spain players the runaround while taking down a long boot from the keeper and score? It was simply inexplicable.
Secondly: If Luis Enrique is to persist with his 4-3-3 attacking idea, it looks vital that either Isco or Ceballos (or both) are in the starting XI. If the midfield is Saul, Busquets and Thiago and Spain suffer a night where Asensio, as in Sevilla, doesn't drop back and work in midfield and Aspas does anything similar, then Spain's midfield can be outnumbered and Busquets made to look slow.
Ceballos in midfield adds pace, aggression, work rate, a creative edge to forward passes, urgency and an innate hunger to prove himself. Whether in a three- or four-man engine room obviously depends partly on the opponent and partly on player availability.
Thirdly: As much as Spain were picked off by passes behind their back line that might have been prevented by making fewer mistakes or, in the case of Ross Barkley's little chip into the box for the 3-0 goal, where was the pressing that La Roja applied so eagerly against Croatia? Time after time, England were allowed to do things in space as Spain's pressing was ragged and uncoordinated. That, aside from actually losing, will drive Luis Enrique to distraction. It's not the style he wants to see from his team.
Fourthly: Why isn't Jordi Alba playing? Luis Enrique claims it's never personal, only about football. Monday night's display shows that not only do Spain require his authority, experience, pace and football intelligence, but there's absolutely no possibility that anyone could believe that it's for footballing reasons alone that he's not in the squad or the team.
Fifthly: Isn't it time to accept that a four-man midfield with two strikers, with Alvaro Morata the guy to build around, is the way forward, not only to protect a Spain defence looking confused and ragged without Gerard Pique and Alba but to create better-quality goal chances? Rodrigo or Koke with Ceballos, and the return of Isco, would add defensive rigor, increased effort, better tackling and a way to squeeze the space between the lines that Sterling, Kane and Barkley used so well on Monday.
"Nothing but problems" is the way it sounds after reading all that. But that's what autopsies bring: They show the causes to explain why something is defunct. Luckily for Spain, their attacking, creative and competitive spirit will probably remain unfazed by this experience.
It's a cold, hard fact that if Spain go to Croatia and win next month, they'll be in the Nations League final four next summer with a chance of lifting the trophy. But, just as factually, if Luis Enrique, his staff and the vast majority of these players continue to ignore the repeat lessons of their last three competitive matches, then not only is that away victory in November much less likely, but the teams who also play in next summer's semifinals won't fear them. Not as much as they should, anyway.