Spain crashed out of the World Cup with a penalty shoot-out defeat to plucky and lucky hosts Russia, who eventually gained reward for their uber-negative tactics by holding La Roja to a handful of clear chances.
Spain coach Fernando Hierro – only appointed two days before the tournament following the shock sacking of Julen Lopetegui – is already being subjected to fierce criticism after his team failed to turn their overwhelming dominance of possession and territory into more penetrating attacking play.
And that is the game’s main talking point.
Over-cautious Hierro pays the price
Acting Spain coach Fernando Hierro made a tactical tweak for this encounter, dropping Andres Iniesta and recalling Koke into the midfield. And it wasn’t just a change of personnel, as Hierro also changed the team’s shape to line up with a 4-2-3-1 formation, placing Koke deep in a double-pivot in midfield alongside Sergio Busquets.
That move – and Russia’s tedious negativity – helped Spain establish firm control over the flow and tempo of the game, with Koke’s tactical awareness and excellent pressing playing a big role in winning back the ball quickly and keeping the action almost entirely inside Russia’s half.
But with Marco Asensio and David Silva both enduring poor games in their attacking midfield positions, it also left Spain badly lacking in attacking penetration, with Isco the only source of creativity and Diego Costa starved of service.
With Russia hardly ever attacking, it was calling out for Hierro to switch to a back three and introduce another striker, but instead he retained the shape and introduced Iago Aspas instead of Costa rather than alongside him.
He eventually introduced Rodrigo to partner Aspas for the final 20 minutes, and the Valencia man twice nearly won it to show he should have been brought on much earlier rather than risking the lottery of penalties – which eventually proved so costly.
Russia play it safe
Hosts Russia, meanwhile, produced one of the most negative performances of the tournament, or perhaps any tournament, protecting their three-man central defensive line with a six-man midfield and getting everybody behind the ball, defending deep inside their own half and only very rarely showing any kind of attacking intent.
Compared to the previous day’s end to end thriller between France and Argentina, and the no-holds barred battle between Uruguay and Portugal, it created a painfully slow and uneventful contest, but Russian coach Stanislav Cherchesov can’t really be blamed for adopting a pragmatic approach which preyed upon Spain’s weakness – their inability to penetrate well-organised defences.
The home team’s only attacking tactic was launching long ball towards big front man Dzyuba, and that bore fruit when they were gifted an equaliser as Gerard Pique lost the flight of the ball from a corner and the striker headed it goalwards against the arm of the Barcelona man, who had inexplicably left it pointing straight in the air.
Other than that, Russia had nothing to offer going forward and spent the rest of the game holding on for penalties, which eventually proved so glorious for the home team.
End of an era
This game will almost certainly trigger the international retirement of several Spain stars who played a key role in their team’s glory years between 2008 and 2012, when they won three consecutive major trophies.
The first of those will be Andres Iniesta, who has the added bitterness of being left on the bench for his final international game. Central defenders Sergio Ramos and Pique, respectively aged 32 and 31, could also call it quits, along with midfielder David Silva (32) who had so little impact in Russia, while Busquets, Jordi Alba and Costa (all 29) may have played in their last World Cups.
And with interim boss Hierro certain to be replaced by a new permanent boss in the coming weeks, the exit in Russia marks the end of an era for the most dominant international team in recent history.
Croatia made nine changes as they recalled their leading names for the World Cup last-16 clash with Denmark in Nizhny Novgorod.
Zlatko Dalic made wholesale alterations to his side for their final Group D game with Iceland, with qualification already secured.
Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic were the only players to keep their places, with the likes of Ivan Rakitic, Mario Mandzukic and goalkeeper Danijel Subasic coming back in.
Denmark, meanwhile, made just the two changes to the side that held France to a goalless draw in their last match, with defender Jonas Knudsen and forward Yussuf Poulsen coming in for Jens Larsen and Pione Sisto.
The winner of the tie faces hosts Russia in the quarter-finals.
Fernando Hierro’s chance of joining the ranks of the great and successful interim bosses went up in smoke on Sunday as his heavily favoured Spain side crashed out on penalties to World Cup hosts Russia in the round of 16.
Spain dominated the game but were held to a 1-1 draw over 90 minutes and extra time, with the temporary head coach left devastated as he failed to deliver the expected win.
Here’s an in-depth look at Hierro’s big selectorial gamble and tactics:
Goals – 1
Shots – 23
Possession – 79%
Pass Accuracy – 90%
Successful Passes – 1006
It’s hard to say what Hierro got wrong, or what he could have differently. He took the big call of dropping Iniesta, but it wasn’t as if Spain missed a beat without the veteran, as they settled into their usual metronomic passing. Nonetheless, that decision will always be second-guessed now that his side have crashed out of the World Cup.
TACTICAL TALKING POINT
In dropping Iniesta, Hierro made a slight tweak to Spain’s usual 4-3-3 formation. Marco Asensio’s inclusion made Spain’s set-up more a nominal 4-2-3-1 on the day. In theory, this should have meant more naturally attacking players for Spain’s midfield to pass to. It didn’t quite work that way. If anything, this was a game crying out for someone like Cesc Fabregas or Juan Mata, and there was nothing Hierro could have done about their absence.
Again, all people will remember is the call to drop Iniesta. It takes serious guts to make a call like that, right or wrong. What will go against Hierro is that he made the decision and then Spain lost, which means it’s all anyone will talk about. And given that the man Hierro entrusted to replace Iniesta, Asensio, had little impact on the game, minus serving up the free-kick for Sergei Ignashevich’s own goal, critics will wonder what purpose the decision served.
RATING – 6/10