It was the soccer equivalent of a main character slowly walking down the dark hallway in a horror movie: we had an inkling of what would happen as Alvaro Morata stepped up for a penalty against Slovakia with the match tied 0-0 in the final group stage match of the 2020 European Championship, but we still couldn’t turn away. And while Spain would eventually get five goals following Morata’s miss, they still had to rely on keeper Martin Dubravka punching in an own goal to open the scoring.
And not that Morata should solely be blamed for failing to hold his nerve as Gerard Moreno also missed a penalty in a 1-1 draw against Poland. In fact, in a stat that would appear to foreshadow some knockout heartache, Spain have missed their last five penalties.
Rarely do narratives fit this cleanly as Sergio Ramos, Spain’s main penalty taker who once scored 25 penalties in a row, wasn’t on the squad. Soccer teams, like nature, abhor a vacuum. As Spain struggled for goals and a definitive penalty taker through the group stages, Ramos was giving his final goodbye at Real Madrid after 16 years with the club. Spain manager Luis Enrique, responsible for leaving Ramos behind, once said that “to take him off penalty duty would be a joke” after Ramos missed a pair last October.
The juxtaposition between Ramos and Spain was inevitable after Enrique failed to name a Real Madrid player on the Euro roster. Granted, Ramos was injured, and there were no obvious candidates outside of centerback Nacho Fernandez or midfielder Marco Asensio. As was a running theme this entire season, the lack of Real Madrid representation was more a dearth in quality than Enrique’s Barcelona background holding a grudge - but we also know how perceptions and narratives gain momentum. Not to say that Enrique should have named a Real Madrid player just to calm the situation, but certain international teams are burdened by the weight of symbols.
Maybe naming a half-fit Ramos to the squad would have diverted some of attention away from the lack of penalties or goals, such is the captain’s off-field gravity. Instead, his absence created the vacuum which was partly filled by Morata’s woes, with the striker probably the worst candidate on the side to fill such an emotional role due to his self-critical nature and enigmatic nature. Granted, Morata did score the lone goal against Poland. But his performance was overshadowed by Robert Lewandowski on the other end, with the Polish striker’s quality only further showing what Spain lacked.
Enrique tried his best to shape Morata’s narrative, going straight to the numbers: only David Villa and Harry Kane have scored more goals than Morata through 40 games with their respective national teams. He began rattling off the names of more strikers that Morata has outscored, including Kylian Mbappe, Romelu Lukaku, and Antoine Griezmann. Enrique added that Morata “does a lot of things well,” a concession managers usually make for strikers struggling to fulfill their obvious purpose. Though in placing numerical constraints and bringing up comparisons to other players unprovoked, it was as if Enrique was trying to convince himself as much as the rest of the world.
Maybe Enrique has a point when it comes to Morata’s “other things.” Buoyed by the Slovakia match, Spain rank second in Expected Goals (xG) through the group stages. But the lack of incisive goal-scoring only brings to the forefront the worst stereotypes of Spanish football over the past decade: the sideways passing that infamously defined their Round of 16 loss to Russia in the 2018 World Cup in which they completed 1,115 passes to their opponent’s 291 (their lone goal in the match also came from an own goal).
In the least surprising statistic of the tournament, Spain topped the group stages in passes completed by almost 300 passes. They led in all the varieties of the form, from the short intricate touches to the long-range passes. And with defenders Jordi Alba and Aymeric Laporte ranking first and third in passes attempted, we can already paint the matches: long spells of possession going back and forth between the backline, their opponents bunkering in a 442 shape inside their own half, and Morata getting criticized on Twitter after missing chances.
“All [Spain] do is pass from one side to the other. They don’t even have a player who knows how to give a final pass,” said former Real Madrid midfielder Rafael Van der Vaart, who was perhaps too eager to turn on Enrique considering the lack of Madrid players.
Enrique himself isn’t immune to criticism. His baffling tactical decisions include playing Marcos Llorente, who reinvented himself as one of the most productive Spanish attackers last season with 12 goals and 11 assists through trademark runs into the box, at right back. Moreno, tied for second in La Liga with 23 goals last season, has either been on the bench or played at left wing to accommodate Morata. And if Spain’s possession game is so predictable, why not put on Adama Traore to induce chaos? And we can also go as far back as the foundation of the squad itself, with Enrique leaving the likes of Iago Aspas and Jesus Navas off the side.
The lack of goals turned Enrique philosophical. He stated that translating his side’s midfield superiority to goals is “the hardest thing in football” while adding that other sides in the tournament create the same number of chances as Spain and “they do score goals.” While the perfect situation is finding goalscoring within the run of possession, it is appropriate that Cristiano Ronaldo is the leading goalscorer through three games. There are tradeoffs for putting great goalscorers in lineups. What you lack in a cohesive pressing game, you make up for in match-winning moments. How much is a manager willing to compromise in vision and ego?
Of course, Spain do not have a finisher on par with Ronaldo. So you could argue that the amount of passes isn’t just Enrique’s side reverting back to type, but actually is their most pragmatic way to victory. Yet we have also seen this before and know exactly how it plays out. Spain’s fate has already been decided not by random luck or sporting competition, but by structure.
In the meantime, Ramos has been linked with joining PSG, Manchester City, and Arsenal next season. That’s all before his oft-rumored daydream move to Inter Miami.
As for Enrique, he spoke of his relief at Spain getting through to the Round of 16, just falling short of describing his feeling as a “liberation.” There’s a resignation within Enrique, with each match representing one more day of holding off the inevitable criticisms of his formations, of his team’s lack of convincing style, and of the lack of Real Madrid players. Enrique famously left Barcelona in 2017 due to exhaustion from the pressure, both results-based and symbolic, of the position. His role with Spain was a continuation of those gestures and double meanings. Up until winning the final itself, there is no respite or joy. Just imperfect matches, loud criticisms, and little moments of freedom in between.