Spain reached the semi-finals of the European Championships for the third time in their last four attempts, after squeezing past ten-man Switzerland on penalties. Luis Enrique’s side got off to the perfect start when Jordi Alba’s deflected half-volley put them ahead after eight minutes, but a defensive mix up between Aymeric Laporte and Pau Torres gifted Xherdan Shaqiri an equaliser midway through the second half. Spain laid siege to the Swiss goal after Remo Freuler was shown a straight red card for a late challenge on Gerard Moreno, but extra-time goalkeeping heroics from Yann Sommer kept the score line locked at 1-1. Given recent events Spain fans were probably fearing the worst when the game went to penalties, but Unai Simon was the hero, saving two spot-kicks as La Roja triumphed 3-1. Spain may have only won one match inside 90 minutes at Euro 2020, but now Italy await in the semi-final on Tuesday 6 July. So, what did we learn from this game?
Here’s how Spain lined up:
Penalty hoodoo over?
Heading into the game, Spain had missed five consecutive penalties, the first two of which actually came against Switzerland in the Nation’s League last year. When Sergio Busquets hit the post with the opening kick of the shootout, elimination felt inevitable. Then something strange happened; Spanish players actually started taking good penalties. Dani Olmo found the top left corner and, even after Rodri spurned Spain’s third kick, Gerard held his nerve to smash into the right. When Mikel Oyarzabal placed the ball down for the decisive penalty, he showed no hint of nerves or anxiety – after all, he did score a Copa del Rey final winning penalty three months ago. He found the bottom right corner and Spain were through.
Winning a shootout will do wonders for Spain’s mental block when it comes to penalties. The success is testament to Luis Enrique’s faith and belief in the mental side of the game, having employed a number of sports psychologists to work with the team. He has instilled a sense of bouncebackability, a next man up mentality. We miss a penalty? Don’t worry, we’ll score the next one. No one exemplifies this more than Spain’s shootout hero, Unai Simon. The Athletic Club keeper has responded superbly since his howler against Croatia. He made several excellent stops, before saving penalties from Fabian Schar and Manuel Akanji. “I’m a better goalkeeper than yesterday, but a worse one than tomorrow”, he told the press after the Croatia game. That kind of attitude is exactly why Spain are the mentally toughest team around.
Pedri, Busquets and Koke have arguably been the best midfield trio of the tournament, and they are showing no signs of slowing down. All three were constantly taking receiving the ball under pressure while on the half-turn, allowing them to easily distribute the ball up field while making it hard for Switzerland to execute an effective press. When midfielders drop deep to try and get things moving it’s a problem, but the fact that Spain’s trio are creating space and looking so comfortable under pressure proves that they are a cut above.
Marcos Llorente came on for Atletico teammate Koke just before extra-time, and admittedly gave Spain a different dimension. He began finding the half spaces that he so often does for his club, allowing him to drive into the box and provide pull-backs. He’s a terrific option to have, but we think Koke just offers that little bit more in terms of passing and controlling the game. Against Italy, the same midfield trio will provide Spain the base from which to control the game.
As was the case in the second half of the Croatia game, Aymeric Laporte and Pau Torres did not look entirely comfortable alongside each other. Much has been made about the use of two left-footed centre-backs, with Laporte shunted over to the right-hand side to accommodate Pau. It looked like the unnatural position caused the Switzerland goal; with Pau caught out by a lofted ball, Laporte rushed over to intercept, only for the ball to bounce off his right thigh, into Pau and straight into the path of a through-on-goal Freuler. Set-pieces caused problems too. On at least four occasions Swiss corners found free headers inside the box, with Laporte and Pau all too often losing the men they were meant to be marking. Against a more ruthless side, Spain might have found themselves in trouble. With Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci to deal with in the semi-final, Laporte and Pau need to get their act together.
As previously mentioned, Pau Torres returned to the starting line-up, but didn’t look entirely convincing alongside Laporte. The young centre-back had a superb season for Villarreal, and part of this could be down to the off the ball guidance and leadership of Raul Albiol. With a wise head beside him, Pau has looked imperious. Without that hand to hold – less so.
Gerard Moreno came on as a second half replacement for Alvaro Morata, yet he was uncharacteristically wasteful in-front of goal. He spurned several good chances, including an absolute sitter at the beginning of extra time. Unless Morata’s wastefulness is contagious, we expect Gerard to snapping up opportunities again soon.