Spain’s Euro 2020 campaign finally got going yesterday, as a 5-0 win against Slovakia secured Luis Enrique’s side a spot in the last-16. It looked like it might be another frustrating afternoon for La Roja when Alvaro Morata missed an early first half penalty, but a bizarre Martin Dubravka own goal sparked them into life, before goals from Aymeric Laporte, Pablo Sarabia, Ferran Torres and another own goal completed a convincing win.
Here’s how Spain lined up:
The shine was taken off a little by events elsewhere; a late Sweden winner against Poland meant Spain finished second in Group E, so will face a tough test against Croatia on June 28 in Copenhagen. Nevertheless, Wednesday's performance suggested that things are starting to click for Spain. Here’s what we learned.
Sergio Busquets is key
Spain sorely missed Sergio Busquets against Sweden and Poland, and his player of the match performance against Slovakia showed just how important he is. Against opposition that surrendered 66% possession and sat deep for much of the game, the Barcelona man’s footballing intelligence was key. His understanding of space and time, when to pass, when to hold on, when to draw out an opponent, was incredible. Busquets is a facilitator, a coach on the pitch, the kind of player that makes those around him better. His calmness and reliability allowed the likes of Pedri and Koke to take more risks, and it paid off. If Spain come up against a more dangerous or pacier opponent later in the competition, then Rodri might be a safer option to sit in front of and shield the back four. But against a defensive block where timing is everything, then Busquets has to start.
This is Pedri’s world…
And we’re just living in it. The 18-year-old was sensational, and if it wasn’t for his senior teammate, would’ve been a shoe-in for player of the match. While he looked right at home in Spain’s previous two group games, against Slovakia he pulled out all the stops; his movement was excellent, his awareness cat-like and his passing other-worldly. Pedri had three goal creating actions, (a number that includes ‘pre-assist’ type passes) and he won the free-kick that resulted in Spain’s fifth. His delicious dink played in Gerard Moreno, who drew out Slovakia keeper Dubravka before crossing in for Laporte to head home. Pedri then, without looking, swept a ball out to Jordi Alba on the wing like it was the easiest thing in the world, before his Barca teammate squared for Sarabia to tuck away. The consistency of his output makes it scarcely believable that he is still a teenager for another 17 months. It’s no wonder that he’s played every minute of Spain’s three group games. He’s going to be Spain’s linchpin for years to come.
Please, no more penalties
Spain fans across the world should take this opportunity to pray that a penalty shootout doesn’t lie in wait for Luis Enrique’s side. Alvaro Morata’s penalty miss was Spain’s fifth consecutive spot-kick miss, a very real issue that could prove to be the margin between success and elimination. Worryingly, given the penalty taking prowess of some of the players who have contributed to that run, the problem looks to be a psychological one. Sergio Ramos, ever reliable from 12 yards, missed the first two, while Gerard, who scored all 13 of his penalties for Villarreal last season, hit the post against Poland. The decision to allow Morata to step up on Wednesday seemed a strange one, given Gerard had only missed once all season – for us, the Villarreal man should be on duty next time the referee points to the spot.
Room for improvement
Yes, Spain scored five, but Slovakia were pretty abysmal. They didn’t test the back four or Unai Simon once, and La Roja didn’t have to be superb to beat them. Before Dubravka slapped the ball into his own net, the crowd at La Cartuja were becoming increasingly frustrated at Spain’s yet-again wasteful finishing, with Morata and Pedri missing decent opportunities. But as the old adage goes, you can only beat who’s in front of you. The Croatia game on Monday will provide a better indicator of Spain’s chances of winning the tournament, should they progress.
Gerard started for the second consecutive game, although Pau Torres dropped to the bench with Eric Garcia preferred at centre back alongside Laporte. Gerard again looked lively, linking up well with Morata in the early stages both on the left and then the right-hand side, before providing the assist for Spain’s second goal, Laporte’s first for La Roja. Pau came on as a late substitute and once again looked assured on the biggest of stages.