Sports

Spain Tiki-Taka’s Itself to Death Against Russia

Spain's players look dejected after losing to Russia
Spain’s forward Rodrigo (R) and teammates react to Russia’s victory after the penalty shootout at the end of their World Cup round of 16 match at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Sunday. Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

The 2018 World Cup has claimed another pre-tournament favorite in its early goings. Spain joins Germany and Argentina after losing on penalties to Russia in a game that finished 1–1 after extra time. As they have done so many times over the past decade of international soccer, the Spanish players saddled another team on to its passing carousel of gradual doom. Unfortunately for Spain, this time the team it tiki-taka’d to death was itself.

Its staggering passing numbers—1,029 completed in this game alone—disguised the fact that this Spain was not like the versions that won the European Championship in 2008 and 2012 and the World Cup in 2010. Gone was the team many accused of trying to walk the ball into the net, that eschewed the good in favor of the perfect. This Spain kept possession as a means of killing time between sudden bursts of violence from Sergio Ramos and Diego Costa, which seemed to be its main method of actually netting goals.

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The 2018 team scrounged half-chances, scoring via pinball wizardry from Costa or Nacho’s Rubber Soul of a swerving volley. (That got one-upped by Benjamin Pavard’s Revolver of the form for France Saturday.) There was little effort, and even less effectiveness, devoted to actually penetrating opposing defenses; the objective seemed to be to hypnotize opponents into forgetting about one of its diminutive passing cogs, then take advantage when the defense scrambles back in that direction.

Call it War and Pass. Here the war came on the Spanish goal, with Ramos reacting to a football tackle from Sergei Ignashevich by fortuitously dragging the Russian defender into the path of the ball so it bounced off his calf and into the net. It probably would have been a penalty for Spain anyway. Neither Ramos nor Ignashevich seemed to have any idea where the ball was, though that didn’t stop Ramos from running away celebrating, as though the world would just take his word for it.

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Then the pass. And another and another, ad infinitum. Spain didn’t even attempt its first shot until after Russia had tied the game. Ramos and Gerard Piqué had had little asked of them defensively since the opener against Portugal, and they didn’t look good when called upon since then. Ramos spent the early portion of this game trying to win headers by climbing Russian target forward Artem Dzyuba like a toddler trying to pull himself up on a couch, all pushing from the elbows and feet wriggling in the air. Dzyuba ended up victimizing Piqué to earn the penalty, heading a cross directly into Piqué’s upraised arm.

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When Russia did manage to catch up to the ball, the team had success forcing the Spanish midfielders off it. But with Dzyuba leading the line, the Russians’ opportunities for quick counters were always going to be limited, like they were trying to head off a retreating enemy by rolling their cannons after him. Perhaps this contributed to the curious lack of Russian urgency even when its players did get the ball near the Spanish goal; they seemed to be trying to line up their shot just right even after Dzyuba subbed out in the second half.

Or maybe playing for penalties was always part of the plan. Maybe Russia knew that Spain’s passing hypnosis worked both ways, that scoring a winner too early could jolt a potentially threatening opponent out of its own stupor, that its own fitness levels could hold up through 120 minutes in the Spanish whirligig.

Mission accomplished. Spain never came to. When Iago Aspas stepped up to take the deciding penalty for Spain, he tried to pass it right down the middle.

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