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Ken Early: Tiki taka a nightmare from which Spain vainly struggle to awake

If chances start to go in, they will take some stopping in Euro 2020 knockout stages

The European Championship finals used to be a flat-out sprint, but that’s gradually changed over the years. To win it you had to play two matches from 1960-76, four in 1980, five from 1984-92, six from 1996-2012, and seven since 2016.

In the early years you simply had to hit the ground running, whereas now it is a tournament that can be won by slow-burners.

One team that might be in the latter category is Spain, whose tournament record since completing their hat-trick of title wins in 2012 has been dire. Beaten 5-1 by the Netherlands and dumped out in the groups in Brazil in 2014, out to Italy in the second round in 2016, and out again in the second round to hosts Russia in the 2018 World Cup.

The last of these exits was the most traumatic, as Spain smashed the record for the number of passes in a World Cup match yet failed to convert total dominance of the ball into scoring opportunities.


They passed the ball around in front of a massed Russian defence for what seemed like hours, while their striker Diego Costa stood forlornly in the penalty area, waiting for somebody - anybody - to aim one of these passes in his direction, and wondering if he was the victim of some kind of prank. To watch this display was at first puzzling, then frustrating, then boring, then, finally, laughable.

It looked like Spain had become so obsessed with possession that they had forgotten how to play football. Clearly the style of play that had been untouchable in 2008-12 was no longer working - but was this because Spain no longer had players good enough to bring the style to life, or was it because the style itself had been rendered obsolete by the tactical and physical progress of other teams?

A fiery all-rounder as a player, Luis Enrique had never been the most zealous apostle for the ultra-controlled passing style, and he decided that after Russia, enough was enough. It was time to reintroduce forgotten concepts such as speed, risk, and hitting occasional balls into the box for your centre-forward. He signalled the new departure by leaving out Sergio Ramos, the ultra-dominant captain who had made a World Cup record 183 passes in that stupid Russia game.

The rejection of Ramos was made more pointed by the fact that Luis Enrique called up only 24 players when he was entitled to call 26. The message was clear: it’s time to move on.

So of course, Spain have attempted 2400 passes in three matches - 20 per cent more than their nearest rivals, Germany, nearly twice as many as the Czech Republic, and nearly three times as many as Wales and Sweden.

They have averaged 68 per cent possession in their three matches so far - by far the highest share in the tournament. Tiki taka is a nightmare from which Spain vainly struggle to awake. Enrique's centre-forward, Alvaro Morata, has become an international laughing stock, with at least one stunning miss in every match so far, and only one goal to show for his efforts.

But no striker in the competition has had more shots on target than Morata's five, while only Robert Lewandowski had more shots overall and only Cristiano Ronaldo has more expected goals. Has he just been the victim of a run of bad luck that is bound to come to an end sooner rather than later?

Spain spent most of the group stage straining to score, and yet they finished their three matches with more expected goals than any team except the Netherlands. If these chances start to go in, they will take some stopping.

But they are still in the (much) stronger side of the draw. Beat Croatia and the likely prize is a quarter-final against France. Win that and it’s a semi against the winner of the strand that includes Italy and Belgium. Any one of these teams would rank as the strongest team in the other half of the draw, but instead they will spend the next few days knocking each other out.

The Netherlands must also be looking at the draw and wondering if this could be their year

England v Germany is the obvious heavyweight tie in the weak half, but neither team feels a convincing heavyweight. Germany have had a weird and chaotic tournament - dull against France, electrifying against Portugal, then nervous and flustered against Hungary. England by contrast have been consistent, but not in a way that is likely to scare anybody.

Gareth Southgate has looked at the recent tournament successes of teams like France and Portugal and, understandably, concluded that the first priority for any would-be winner is to be solid in defence. England have been as solid as polished concrete, but this solidity has come at the expense of any hint of spontaneity or creativity in attack.

England had five shots on target in three matches - only Finland and Slovakia had fewer, while the more successful attacking sides such as Italy, Belgium, Netherlands and Spain all had at least three times as many. If they are as shot-shy against Germany they have little chance of making the quarter-finals.

The Netherlands must also be looking at the draw and wondering if this could be their year. World Cup runners-up in 2010 and third in 2014, they failed to qualify for the tournaments in 2016 and 2018, but seemed to have regenerated by 2019, when they topped a Nations League group including France and Germany and then beat England on the way to losing the final against Portugal. At that point they looked like major candidates to win Euro 2020.

If Dutch confidence has receded since then, it's because the team's defence seemed to have crumbled, with Virgil van Dijk suffering his knee injury and Matthijs de Ligt struggling for form at Juventus. The regular goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen was ruled out of the tournament by a badly-timed infection of Covid-19.

But so far their patched-up defence has proven able to handle what has been thrown at them, with Oranje de Ligt looking much more confident than Juventus de Ligt.

Frenkie de Jong, Gini Wijnaldum and Marten de Roon make up one of the best midfield units in the competition, while up front, Memphis Depay gives them speed on the counter and the potential to score goals out of nowhere.

It’s not a talent glut to compare with France or England or even Belgium - but with that kind draw and a little luck, it could be enough.