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A good storyline masks a disappointing Euros for Luis Enrique and Spain

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The manager never found the right mix in front of goal and it doomed his side.

Italy v Spain - UEFA Euro 2020: Semi-final Photo by Frank Augstein - Pool/Getty Images

A few things, out of the gate. First, Spain played really really well against Italy in many facets of the game. Second, Pedri has taken his excellent club form to new levels in this tournament. Third, as an international footballer, Alvaro Morata has largely come good. Fourth, Spain’s tournament leadup was disrupted in a way unlike any other team at the tournament.

These are some of the headlining realities that stand in apparent contrast to what I’m about to say, and they certainly don’t mark the only positives for Spain at this year’s Euros. A semi-final berth, Busquets at possibly his last major tournament being as good as ever, we could go on. That said, this absolutely must be a disappointing Euros for Spain.

What really happened vs the Narrative

A big part of why I found this Euros disappointing for Spain is I never got swept up in the narrative. See, scoring five goals in back to back games and making a semi-final sound great, but the actual meat of how Spain got there is a lot more complicated.

Folks want to talk about the disrupted leadup to the tournament, but Luis Enrique compounded the issues in the leadup by not taking the full allowed complement of players. He’s the only manager who made that sort of decision. In real terms, he thought two empty chairs were more useful to Spain’s chances than players like Iago Aspas and Jesus Navas.

Then the actual matches started. Spain was far and away the most talented team in their group, the only true heavy hitter in a list of respectable but not remarkable sides. They responded to this by not scoring against Sweden at all in their opener. Some might point to the training disruption, some might point to Busquets not being able to play, but Spain had more than enough talent to at least put a goal on the board and just couldn’t. They may not have had as smooth a preparation as Sweden but it shouldn’t have mattered. They were playing at home.

Another dull draw followed against Poland, for that team’s only point of the entire group stage- again Spain were at home. To drive this home Spain could not keep a clean sheet nor score multiple goals against a team that lost to Slovakia.

In the third group match, the flash in the pan finally happened, and narrative around this team started painting over the reality. They dusted Slovakia on a day nearly everything went right, again at home.

In the knockouts they faced a solid Croatia side who had not been able to play any home matches and in fact had had to play two of their group stages matches in literal away matches against their opponents- England and Scotland. Sure, both teams had to fly to Denmark after the group stages, but it was the first plane Spain had boarded all tournament. While being the less fatigued, more talented side, while having Busquets back, while holding 68% of the ball, Luis Enrique’s Spain still conceded twice after the 80th minute.

The less fatigued Spain went on to win in extra time and the narrative after the match was that they had managed to scored five goals two matches in a row. Most folks ate that narrative up with a spoon but there was a clear fragility there that Croatia had exposed.

Then came the Swiss, a team that, yet again, had traveled far more than Spain. They arrived in Russia having been to Budapest, Baku on two separate occasions, and Rome, having gone to penalties themselves against France the previous round. Again Spain struggled against a team less talented than them who had endured far more logistical fatigue and despite having a man advantage from the 77th minute on, they could not find the net with shot after shot.

Finally, for the first and only time all tournament, Spain faced a challenger with as much talent as them in Italy. As I said before they played really well but the finishing let them down and the randomness of a penalty shootout sent them home. They left the competition having had one match where everything really clicked and five performances with one crucial flaw or another.

Blaming Lucho

Much was made before the tournament of Spain lacking the sort of finishers they had in Raul, David Villa, or Fernando Torres of old (though for a lot of strikers before the stat era we remember them as being better than they really were). This narrative somehow got lost when the en vogue thing became to praise Alvaro Morata, even though the striker missed as many ‘big chances’ in the first four matches as he ultimately made appearances in the competition (six). Spain piled on the xG all throughout the tournament so surely it can’t be the manager’s fault they didn’t finish in front of goal, right?

I say wrong. Several factors made Spain’s xG numbers and apparent control misleading, and Lucho made multiple decisions that hurt the team’s chances of scoring. There are multiple ways to accumulate xG. 2.0 xG in a given match accumulated through twenty 0.1 xG shots is just not as valuable as 2.0 xG accumulated through three shots of 0.33 xG (as an example) and eleven 0.1 xG shots. You might look at the first set of shot numbers and find them gaudy, but that 2.0 xG would have happened without the side ever getting a truly good chance. The Switzerland match is a great example. In 120 minutes, Spain accumulated an astonishing 3.8 xG on 29 shots. That’s an average of 0.13xG per shot. High possession stats and a lot of shot attempts miss the fact that a lot of those shots and a lot of those passes were just garbage that didn’t actually do anything.

I would argue that Spain’s issues were as much about the lack of true quality chances as they were about finishing, but both chance quality and finishing were impacted, I’ll argue, by the fact that Luis Enrique shuffled his front three almost every match. Nevermind that he left one of the nation’s best scorers in Aspas and one of their best chance creators in Jesus Navas home, Lucho took a bunch of forwards who don’t usually play together and refused to let them build real chemistry as the tournament went on because they were next to different forwards almost every single match.

In addition, the entire philosophy of the right flank was re-thought mid tournament. Marcos Llorente was (strangely) put in the right back slot for the first couple of games, only to be pulled and all but vanish for most of the rest of the tournament. Llorente was one of the most deadly midfield finishers in Spain last year, and he only played a handful of minutes in his natural position all tournament for a team that struggled in front of goal for long long stretches of time.

Conclusions

I just don’t buy the narrative. Making a semi-final isn’t necessarily an impressive accomplishment, and this Spain team should have accomplished so much more. Losing to Italy on penalties in a semi-final isn’t a bad way to go out at all, no shame in that, but before that match were so many disappointing performances against weaker opposition that I just can’t step back and say the team truly played well in this tournament. Folks will point to Portugal winning it all in 2016 with subpar performances as a way of saying that only the results matter, and I think that’s true when you actually hold up the trophy in the end. But when you bow out of a major tournament with no trophy and your side spent massive chunks of the competition playing indifferent football against sides they had way more talent than, I’m just not impressed with the person setting that side up.

I love the young core of this Spain side, I think they have a lot of good ahead of them. I just don’t think they’ll accomplish it with Luis Enrique in charge.