CAPE TOWN - Who says you need the ball to win a football match? I guess you don’t, as hosts Russia so unexcitedly demonstrated in eliminating Spain on penalties from the 2018 World Cup on Sunday night.
As a footballer, I understand the thinking, and can probably appreciate the strategy. A coach always looks at his squad, assesses the strengths and weaknesses of his players, and then evaluates what the opposition has to offer. From there, the game plan is hatched. Russia knew they would have no chance if they tried to play the passing game with Spain; they would be on a hiding to nothing.
So they sat deep and allowed Spain the ball in non-threatening areas - and, then, they ran, covered, harried, tackled and frustrated the life out of their opponents. They kept it tight and compact, narrowed the field and crowded the middle, which meant Spain spent 120 minutes passing the ball sideways and backwards. This Russian way wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty darn effective.
However, as a football fan, I take no joy in what I saw. This is the problem with the modern game: it is filled with too many determined and committed athletes, but not too many real footballers. Think about it, Russia never even tried to play when they got the ball; they just weren’t interested. And then think about Saturday’s two games - France v Argentina and Portugal v Uruguay - in which each team played football the way it was intended, and we were treated to the best day of the tournament thus far.
While Russia is celebrating their place in the quarter-finals, neutral watchers are likely to be subjected to even more of the same dull, lifeless and uncreative drivel from Russia in the next round. Spain’s exit, like that of world champions Germany, should sound a loud and clear warning that this passing game, this possession-based style of football, desperately needs to be tweaked and refined.
Spain, like Germany last week, dominated the ball for the entire match. The Spanish, in fact, passed the ball more than a 1 000 times on Sunday - that’s an astonishing statistic - but it got them nowhere because they were too predictable, too laboured in their build-ups and, to be honest, they never looked like breaking down the resolute Russian defence. While it’s a style that has been very effective in the past, and will continue to be the foundation of football success going forward, it’s abundantly evident that it needs something more. It requires more dynamism and urgency, and more speed, both in thought and in feet.
Pep Guardiola is still a devoted practitioner thereof, hence Man City’s success in England, but look at why he is effective: breaking down obdurate defences with the energy of Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling, and the intelligence of Kevin de Bruyne. Both Spain and Germany had the requisite slick passers in their squads, but they never had the game-breakers.
🇪🇸 End of an era as Andrés Iniesta retires from Spain duty: "A marvellous spell is over. Sometimes the end is not as you dreamed it." 👏👏👏— UEFA Nations League (@UEFAEURO) July 1, 2018
🏆 UEFA EURO 2008
🏆 2010 FIFA World Cup
🏆 UEFA EURO 2012 pic.twitter.com/dVdKJvlHUP
To conclude: it’s only fitting that we say: “Adiós, Andrés Iniesta.” Spain’s extraordinary midfield maestro called time on his international career after Sunday’s defeat, but the memories he leaves us with are eternal. In a decade dominated by the brash brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo and the celebrated genius of Lionel Messi, the 34-year-old Iniesta, the scorer of the winning goal in 2010, will be remembered not just for his touch, talent and incisive passing, but also for the unpretentious, self-effacing manner.