Sports

Lessons From the Most Insane Day of Soccer in Recent Memory

Spain’s thrilling win and France’s shocking defeat showcased how to not win championships.

Left: Spain's players celebrate their victory with raised arms at the end of the UEFA EURO 2020 round of 16 football match against Croatia. Right: French players walk off the pitch dejected with their heads down after losing to Switzerland.
Spanish triumph, French agony. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Martin Meissner/Pool/AFP via Getty Images and Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images.

This isn’t how you win championships.

Yes, when your team scores five goals in two consecutive games—which Spain’s 5–3 win over Croatia on Monday made it the first team to do in a major tournament since Pelé’s Brazil in the 1958 World Cup—that’s good. Playing better on the offensive end than any other team in the tournament is a net positive. Flooding your opponent’s goal with scoring opportunities is a great way to advance.

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But only if you actually put them away in all your games. Despite posting better underlying numbers than just about everybody in the group stages, Spain finished second in its group’s actual standings. It failed to score against Sweden and put just one past Poland, despite creating chances in those games at rates comparable to the two games in which it scored five. Spanish forward Alvaro Morata scored a great goal that proved to be the winner against Croatia, but he also added approximately three new exhibits to his ongoing performance art showcase in finding creative ways not to score. The Spanish forward is like some anti–Rube Goldberg machine, moving with perfect efficiency and natural grace through all the steps a striker is supposed to take before biffing the end result, or finding out that he had strayed a half-step offsides the times he does put the ball in the net.

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Championship teams are supposed to be efficient. Championship teams are supposed to minimize their own mistakes. Championship teams aren’t supposed to kick the ball into their own goals from damn near the halfway line.

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After two weeks spent worrying about its ability to finish chances, suddenly Spain found itself in trouble on the other end. The own goal was eventually credited to Spain’s 18-year-old rising star Pedri, but there’s no denying the lion’s share of the blame belongs to goalkeeper Unai Simón. It is an awkward bounce, close to Simón’s feet, and there’s just no view on television that will give you a proper sense of how fast that ball is moving—but if you’re playing goalkeeper in a major international tournament, then scooping out difficult backpasses is going to be an essential part of your job description. If you’re playing for Spain, then it might be the most essential one.

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Spain would tie its match after a bit of pinball in the box late in the first half, but it deserved way more. Traffic flowed one way for the first 45 minutes, and the half ended tied only because of Spain ramming into a telephone pole while backing up. Its brilliant but mistake-prone methods from the first two group stage games seemed to have returned.

And yet, it could be worse. There will prove, in the end, 23 different ways to not win Euro 2020, and few of them will be more disheartening than the one the French came up with in bowing out to Switzerland on penalties. France spent the entire tournament playing with the diminished intensity reserved for friendlies. But after Switzerland’s early opener, Les Bleus finally executed their gamer lean to score three in about 15 second-half minutes, starting with an absurd touch from Karim Benzema and concluding with Paul Pogba’s long-range strike.

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And then, the game in hand, the World Cup champs downshifted again and let the Swiss score two goals in the final 10 minutes to tie it up. France created the better chances in extra time, but its lackadaisical transition defense—the French plan seemed to be to call the joke’s bluff and see if N’Golo Kanté really could cover the entire land area of the planet—kept giving the Swiss chances to break out and vent some of the pressure. By the time the tiebreaker was required, the emotion and the momentum felt like they had remained with the Swiss.

Spain, by contrast, worked to pin the other 2018 World Cup finalists in their half. While much of the spine of the Croatian team from that tournament run had returned, more of them were aging out of their primes than into them. At 35, Luka Modric was still the most effective tool Croatia had to break the Spanish press, but his mobility (granted, at the end of a long season) has declined to the point where it was rare to see him contributing in two phases of play at once. If he was dropping deep to help move the ball forward, then there was rarely time for him to follow it so he could also play the incisive ball that might lead to a goal.

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Spain broke through in the second half by picking around the edges of that core, especially on the Croatian fullbacks, neither of whom were on the World Cup team. Spain’s César Azpilicueta caught 19-year-old left back Joško Gvardiol ball-watching on the second goal. On the third, an unexpected restart after an injury caught Gvardiol still drinking water and way out of position, gifting Ferran Torres a free run onto the keeper.

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But this game may have proved one way to fight back against Spain that doesn’t involve waiting for one of its players to bounce the ball off the post and have it rebound all the way back into his team’s goal. The Spanish intensity let up late in the second half as its forwards and midfielders tired, and the reprieve allowed Croatia—as Switzerland did—to score twice in the game’s final 10 minutes. Basically, if Spain isn’t defending on the front foot, then its defense might be vulnerable. That wasn’t a problem in the group stages, where the teams had trouble breaking through the press and its own finishing woes took center stage. Croatia asked more questions of Spain’s pair of central defenders who played just 22 times for Manchester City between them this past season, and only Simon’s heroics in atoning for his gaffe kept Croatia from getting more past him.

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But the difference between Spain and France was that Spain didn’t have to fumble for its On switch after giving up its lead. La Roja had stumbled, it had tired, it had blown easy chances and made stupid mistakes. But it was trying the entire time, always driving to goal, always creating chances. The Spanish players played as though they had something to prove, as if their reputation rested on this game.

Which in many ways it did. This is perhaps the most surprising detail about this Spanish team: its relative lack of big names starring for big clubs. Where its golden generation once dictated the narrative of the global game, Spain is now largely a team of players with national rather than international reputations, made up mostly of stars on smaller clubs and quality rotation pieces on bigger ones. Much was made of the fact that, after its captain Sergio Ramos withdrew from consideration to rehabilitate an injury, the team featured zero representatives from Real Madrid—but there are also only three Barcelona players on the team: midfielder Sergio Busquets, the last remaining player from the team that won the 2010 World Cup; defender Jordi Alba, who featured during the Euro 2012 win; and Pedri, who has started all four of the team’s Euro 2020 games so far and is widely tipped as a future star for club and country. (Defender Eric García will also move to Barca this summer.) In 2010, the year Spain won the World Cup, five Spanish players were named in the top 10 for the Ballon d’Or award. In 2019, the last edition held before the pandemic, not a single Spanish player appeared in the top 30.

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Going deep into a tournament like this is a great way for the Spanish players to build their reputations. Many of the last generation were underappreciated before their run to the Euro 2008 title, which coincided with the start of an era when the global club game revolved around Barcelona and Real Madrid. This tournament could be the perfect chance for Pedri and Torres to triumph, and to introduce themselves to the world, if they can finish the job.

The French team, by contrast, was filled with players who had already made their names in the last World Cup and in the team’s run to the finals of the 2016 Euros. France has replaced Spain as the globe’s premier talent factory. It is reductive to assume that a team of stars is going to play lazily, but the French game plan of slow retreats and letting individuals showcase their attacking brilliance one at a time seemed designed to permit a certain indolence, perhaps with the assumption that it could be dispensed with when truly necessary. It couldn’t, not even at the first time of asking. That isn’t how you win championships either. But even if you’re heading to the exits, it’s better to go out trying.

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