SoccerMatch Report

Spain’s new approach blows Croatia away with devastating attacking spell

Spanish wingers Nico Williams and 16-year-old Lamine Yamal caused the Croatia defence no end of problems

Daniel Carvajal celebrates scoring Spain's third goal during the Euro 2024 Group B game against Croatia at the at the Olympiastadion in Berlin. Photograph: Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Euro 2024 Group B: Spain 3 [Morata 29, Fabián Ruiz 32, Carvajal 47] Croatia 0

When we last encountered Spain, at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, they were trying to walk the ball into the Moroccan net. Such overt arrogance led to elimination on penalties, with the final cut administered by Madrid-born Achraf Hakimi’s cheeky panenka.

La Roja responded by abandoning tiki-taka. The mesmerising system of pass and movement, which delivered a World Cup and two European Championship titles since 2008, has been replaced with a more urgent, transitional style dictated by Rodri and Fabián Ruiz.

Spanish directness yielded the first goal for Álvaro Morata on Saturday evening in Berlin, before the frightening speed of 16-year-old Lamine Yamal helped create two more before the interval. At 3-0, huge numbers of Croatians in the 68,844 crowd were stunned into silence.

“Maybe, in other times, having more of the ball guaranteed better results,” said Luis de la Fuente, the Spain coach, after Croatia owned 56 per cent of possession in the first half. “Now we can surprise teams. We have shown that you don’t have to have so much of the ball if you’re a team with the speed of Lamine or Nico Williams or Ferran Torres, that gives you something else.”

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Eye-popping sprinters showing off inside the Olympiastadion is nothing new. ‘Jesse Owens Avenue’ brings you up to the venue, in recognition of the American’s four Olympic gold medals won here in 1936, while Usain Bolt’s 9.58 second dash from 2009 remains the 100 metre world record.

For 28 minutes, Luka Modrić appeared to be brewing another special chapter in the stadium’s layered history, as the back-pedalling Spanish seemed uncertain without possession. So, they kept it, utilising the wide threat of Yamal and Williams to allow Ruiz split the Croatian defence for Morata’s low finish past Dominik Livaković.

Patterns of play are already visible at Euro 2024. As Toni Kroos dictated the German orchestra to a 5-1 victory over Scotland in Munich on Friday, Modrić initially sat deep and forced the Spanish matadors to break sweat. When Williams and Yamal rushed him, the Real Madrid maestro picked out Mateo Kovačić in the same slot Germany captain İlkay Gündoğan had tortured the Scots.

Both teams created three chances to score in the opening 45 minutes with Croatia, for the most part, the better attacking entity under a warm evening sun. The difference was precision. Every time Spain scored, Croatia carved out a similar opportunity, yet it was three-nil come full-time, albeit with plenty of drama in between.

Instantly after Morata’s goal, Kovačić was rushing forward but forced on to his left foot, a snap shot was well held by Unai Simón.

Spain quickly struck again, with Yamal striding off the right before Fabián Ruiz turned Modric one way and Marcelo Brozovic the other before he expertly finished. Two chances, two-nil.

Croatia midfielder Luka Modric gestures to team-mate Josip Stanišić during the Euro 2024 game against Spain in Berlin. Photograph: Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

The game was a blur; Kovačić let fly off his better right boot but Simón parried towards Lovro Majer who smashed the rebound into the side netting. Next, Joško Gvardiol came hurtling down field but the big defender’s ball across the six-yard box was missed by Ante Budimir.

The third Spain goal, once again, came off Yamal’s flank as the muscular kid cut inside and a perfect cross found Dani Carvajal’s outstretched toe.

Three-zip at the turn usually guarantees a boring second half. Not here. The introduction of Croatian folk hero Ivan Perišić united the various Zagreb tribes behind the goal. Modric was quietly replaced on 65 minutes by Mario Pasalic. Notably, Morata also limped off.

The Croats reward for matching Spain is so many areas never came, with the dynamism of Chelsea’s Marc Cucurella to the fore until a bizarre confluence of events involving English referee Michael Oliver harshly rubbed out a Bruno Petkovic goal.

When Majer blocked Simón’s attempted clearance, the ball fell for Petkovic but as he rounded the Spanish goalkeeper for a tap-in, Rodri tripped him up. Penalty and inexplicably just a yellow card for the Manchester City midfielder, who was visibly relieved and quickly replaced.

The drama was only beginning. Petkovic’s decent spot-kick was denied by Simón, only for the striker to finish Perišić's cut back to make it 3-1. Or so it seemed. On the walk back over halfway, Oliver stalled, hand to earpiece, before disallowing the goal as Perišić had tiptoed into the box before the penalty was struck.

Spain will remain cautious ahead of their meeting with Italy in Gelsenkirchen on Thursday. They also started like a locomotive in Qatar, beating Costa Rica 7-0 and drawing with Germany, before their tournament went badly askew against Japan and Morocco.

Croatia produced as competent a performance from a team that lost 3-0, so they should quickly turn the page for Albania in Hamburg on Wednesday.

SPAIN: Simon; Carvajal, Le Normand, Nacho, Cucurella; Pedri (Dani Olmo, 59), Rodri (Zubimendi, 86), Fabian Ruiz; Yamal (Torres, 87), Morata (Oyarzabal, 67), Williams (Merino, 68).

CROATIA: Livakovic; Stanisic, Sutalo, Pongracic, Gvardiol; Modric (M Pasalic, 66), Brozovic, Kovacic (Sucic, 65); Majer, Budimir (Perisic, 56), Kramaric (Petkovic, 72).

Referee: Michael Oliver (Eng).

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent