‘Sometimes it’s cruel’: Spain depart World Cup cursing shootout

<span>Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Luis Enrique asked for a thousand penalties; he got a thousand passes. Spain exited the World Cup early, and in style. There is always something sudden about how it ends, even if it’s been coming, even as you know it could happen.

“All that’s left now is nothing,” Unai Simon said when it was all over. “Just [the need] to assimilate the fact that we’re out, that none of this has brought any reward.” It was late, and it was done. The following morning at 9.28 Spain’s bus pulled out of Qatar University, heading to the airport.

“We’re going home in a bad way: it’s one of the worst days,” Rodri said, and then he used a word that would be repeated often in those minutes soon after Spain had been knocked out by Morocco: “Football’s like that, sometimes it’s cruel,” he added.

Cruel kept coming up; unjust, too. “Football was unjust again,” Ferran Torres said. “The way it happened is cruel,” Marcos Llorente said. “We’re out on penalties, in the cruellest way,” Sergio Busquets said. “It’s always head or tails, and it came up tails.”

For Pablo Sarabia, it had been particularly painful. Three minutes he played at the World Cup, four times he touched the ball, twice he hit a post: with 10 seconds remaining and the first attempt in the shootout. Sent on purely to take a penalty, he had come this close to saving himself the need and sending Spain through instead.

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“Fate was capricious there,” Luis Enrique said. Yet he knew this was not purely chance; he had said so himself, 24 hours earlier. On what would turn out to be their penultimate evening in Qatar, Spain’s head coach had dedicated his pre-match press conference to taking apart the cliches.

As the questions came in, so did the responses: “That’s a cliche, so is that.” Mostly it was done in defence of a style, an act of (self-)vindication, and he was enjoying giving a bit back, but the theme continued when it came to the inevitable question of the shootout. “It’s not a lottery: that’s a cliche too,” the coach insisted.

Yet nor was it something that he alone could control. Luis Enrique said he had told his players that they had “homework” before the World Cup: he wanted them to take a thousand penalties at their clubs. If they waited until they were in Qatar it would be too late. When the shootout came, it was a shambles. “I wouldn’t change anything except their goalkeeper,” Luis Enrique said, but Spain took three and didn’t score any.

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If it’s not a lottery then, much as the margins are fine, did that mean they had done something to deserve this? “I don’t believe in chance,” Simon said. Sarabia had scored 16 out of 16 from the spot, Carlos Soler scored a hat-trick of penalties against Real Madrid, Simon studies sequences and styles closely and he carried his paper with him.

But the conditions in which Sarabia especially stepped up were not ideal – albeit his was actually the best struck of the three. “Horrible,” one player called the penalties. “If the penalties had gone the other way we wouldn’t be talking about what’s wrong: we would have been in the final of the Euros and still in the World Cup,” Llorente said.

He was right, of course, but it poses a more significant, recurring question about the philosophy with which Spain have kept ending up on the spot and on the edge. This was the third consecutive knockout game to go to a shootout under Luis Enrique: they beat Switzerland, lost to Italy, and went out against Morocco. It was the fifth consecutive game they have gone to extra time.

Over the past two tournaments, they have won just twice inside 90 minutes. Elimination in Russia 2018 was also on penalties. They had played 1,000 passes, and not scored. On Tuesday night was under a different coach – back then Fernando Hierro was an emergency appointment replacing Julen Lopetegui – but it felt familiar.

Pablo Sarabia’s penalty comes back off the post.
Pablo Sarabia’s penalty comes back off the post. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Spain had played more passes than anyone in the group stage by a long way, 2,737, compared with Argentina’s 1,992. There were 1,019 more on Tuesday night. But 77% of possession yielded just one shot on target. It may be simplistic to question the style – a cliche, Luis Enrique would say – and the finality and fury of some conclusions now is absurd, but it is legitimate too.

Certainly, it is legitimate to ask if it is applied as it should be since opponents always close off and defend deep and breaking them open, as Spain’s coach said after his side’s exit, is “the hardest thing in football”.

If your style entrenches teams in that counter-approach, that suggests adjustments may be needed, some alternative sought, some tightening of the screw. And that’s the thing here: Luis Enrique was a twist on tiki-taka. His tenure wasn’t just a repeat of the last decade.

At times, it has worked well. Under Luis Enrique Spain scored six against Croatia, Germany and Argentina, and started this tournament with seven against Costa Rica. But there has always been a weird sense of not knowing what was coming: they could be brilliant or, well, really not. And the speed, the intensity and incision with which the style was imposed then and for much of the game against Germany, was absent against Japan and Morocco.

There are other elements, from the youth of the team to the lack of a forward, the defensive vulnerability and that intangible idea of character and leadership. Of course, there are names of absent men being thrown into the mix too, questions raised about Luis Enrique’s desire for the group to be very much his. Some in Spain have been waiting for this.

But, while superficial, most of the fall out crystallises in the style, not least because the manager’s discourse and approach is so clear, non-negotiable, which is not the same as saying it’s properly applied.

“We followed his idea from start to finish,” Ferran Torres said. “We’re the only team that takes risks; others don’t until they’re behind,” Luis Enrique insisted. But perhaps that’s only half true, applicable only to one end of the pitch. In attack, it sometimes seems it is not risky enough.

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“Maybe we don’t have the characteristics of players to attack that kind of defence,” Rodri said on Tuesday night. “Maybe we need more one against one on the wings, people breaking into space.”

That reflection invites simpler yet more profound analysis. Do Spain have the players? Does the perfection of an academy structure with a clear footballing philosophy, the entrenching of a system, create wonderful midfielders but lead to the absence of precisely those players who can break the system? Since they won the 2010 final, Spain have won just three games at the World Cup, and none in knockouts: against Australia, Iran and Costa Rica.

“If we had won on penalties, we would be talking about a great job,” Rodri said. Mostly, they were talking about Luis Enrique’s job. His contract is up. He had resisted committing his future beyond this competition; now the federation, seeing the old ghosts appear, familiar flaws, is less inclined to continue, too. A decision will be made soon, the sporting director said.

“Now’s not the time,” Luis Enrique said, on his way out of the stadium and the World Cup, “now I just want to get home to my loved ones and my dogs.”