Spain joined Germany and Argentina as two of the football heavyweights to be knocked out of what is becoming an astonishing World Cup in Russia.
Just eight years after the Spanish won their first ever World Cup in South Africa with their ‘tiki-taka’ style of play, short passing and high possession is fast becoming a style of the past. Despite having 79 per cent of the ball over 120 minutes against Russia, the Spanish were beaten in a dramatic penalty shootout, in a fixture that perfectly sums up this World Cup.
It’s a tournament where you don’t need possession to win, with many teams preferring not to have the majority of the ball at all. Against Russia, Spain passed the ball 1114 times but could not find a winning goal against the hosts despite having 24 shots compared to Russia’s 7; however, that matters little now.
New Spain coach, Fernando Hierro, who was appointed the day before the tournament started in a bizarre move by the Spanish FA after sacking Real Madrid bound Julen Lopetegui, said that teams win competitions by making the fewest mistakes. But his team took no risks, they were overly cautious, but rarely threatened the Russian goal. The whole pattern of the game saw Spain passing it ineffectively, whilst Russia just sat back and waited.
Former French defender, Bixente Lizarazu, who won the World Cup in 1998, once described Spain’s footballing style as “love without the sex. It lacks a bit of spice”. This same style did win Spain two European titles and a World Cup it must be remembered, but there is becoming a new approach and world order in football where winning is not all about possession.
It might not come as a surprise that Russia had very little possession against a team like Spain. However, the host nation only enjoyed 39 per cent of the ball during their opening day demolition of Saudi Arabia when they ran out 5-0 winners.
Although possession football has been the game’s purest form of winning games and the right way to do it in many people’s eyes, this approach has been turned on its head during this World Cup. Unless you have the players to execute a high possession game, you’re better off without the ball.
One startling stat really backs up this new theory. There were three teams, powerhouses of international football, that averaged more than 65 per cent of possession during the group stage, Germany, Spain and Argentina. Yet all three teams struggled and are now back at home.
Germany, the defending World Champions, finished bottom of their group. Spain won just once, 1-0 against Iran. Whilst Argentina needed a very late goal against Nigeria to get them through the group stages.
Even the team with the fifth highest possession stats from the group stage, Saudi Arabia, were hammered 5-0 by Russia and lost their second game to be the first team eliminated from the tournament.
Unrelenting possession, designed to wear down opponents by tiring them out, effectively became passive passing with very little threat. Passing a team to death is no longer as effective as it used to be; it’s been sussed out.
The new, seemingly more exciting counter attacking style is far more than just a backs to the wall defence job. France executed it perfectly when beating Argentina 4-3, with 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe’s pace far too much for Argentina to handle.
This is the reason we have seen so many surprise results at this World Cup.