Spain and Sweden split the booty in a goalless tie after one of the most one-sided encounters you’ve seen in a while. Not because one team (Sweden) was bad and the other (Spain) was good, but simply because they took radically different approaches that both worked in their own way. And after taking different routes, they ended up in the same place; Although it felt like a win for Sweden and for Spain it felt like two points were lost.
La Roja Manager Luis Enrique does his thing. Has always. At AS Roma. At Celta Vigo. Near Barcelona. It’s not arrogance; It’s about studying the options, using your common sense, and doing what you think is right. Knowing that whatever the result, you will walk with your head held high and your conscience clear.
You saw that when he called up 24 players for the European Championship, none of them from Real Madrid. He no longer needed body, he no longer needed Real Madrid types, be it aging legends (Sergio Ramos), defensive Swiss army knives (Nacho) or former child prodigies (Isco, Marco Asensio).
It’s not about what you did; It’s about what Luis Enrique expects from you. Thus, the starting XI he sent against Sweden had a total of 229 internationals compared to 593 internationals for the opponent. Eight of the Spanish eleven have had 20 or fewer caps compared to just one Swede.
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The experience in the lineups was reflected in what Luis Enrique and his counterpart, Janne Andersson, asked their players to do. The latter stood up low and narrow and looked for a break. Luis Enrique exhumed a 2021 version of Tiki Taka, to the point of endless suffocating possession of the ball and a concerted manhunt at every rally in order to regain him.
The result was a first half, with Spain hogging the ball and setting passing records (most in the first half of a European Championship game since counting began in 1980) while nearing almost 80% possession. And on the side they created three clear chances: a header from Dani Olmo (saved by Robin Olsen); a captured shot from Koke (which should have hit the target); and after a Marcus Danielson mistake a terrible Alvaro Morata finish that went far.
When Luis Enrique watched it all from his Marcelo Bielsa-like seat on a water cooler on the sidelines, Luis Enrique should have been happy. Not only were the opportunities created. It is the fact that Sweden struggled to get out of their half, with their far-behind men Emil Forsberg and Sebastian Larsson and their strikers Alexander Isak and Marcus Berg far enough away to form their own autonomous region (Isaksberg has a nice sound ).
But soccer is a strange, low-valued sport. And so it came about that Sweden actually had the best opportunity of the first 45 minutes when they emerged on one of the few opportunities Unai Simon had in his sights. Isak, the gifted Beanpole, who, if you grind properly, could remind you of a certain Zlatan Ibrahimovic, defeated Aymeric Laporte and hit the ball into the goal. It hit Marcos Llorente, then hit the post and settled in Simon’s arms. Averted danger.
If you thought this might have prompted Luis Enrique to move on at halftime, you don’t know your Luis Enrique. He roamed the Jedi sideline in his white button-down and white sneaker combo, arms crossed, chin scratched. Yoda preached patience. He would too.
This type of ball possession football isn’t just about pecking and poking until you find the flaw in opposing armor. It’s also about wearing them down mentally and physically. If you defend as deeply as Sweden does, you can’t switch off and rarely get a break.
So he kept turning the screws until he got a fright. After a Swedish counterattack on the hour, Forsberg set up Isak, who wriggled through three opponents and whipped a flat ball over the goal for Berg, who whistled him completely with the graceful footwork of a lamppost.
More chin scratching. Further changes. And more doubling with more pass. Thiago Alcantara, perhaps Spain’s best passer, and Pablo Sarabia followed. It started for Rodri (no holding midfielder when there is nothing to hold but empty space) and Morata, whose feast-or-hunger meter tended towards the latter.
Andersson countered with his own chess and replaced his two big strikers for two quick merchants in Robin Quaison and Viktor Claesson. It also seemed to double: Do you want to bring us further to death? Fine. We’ll make it clear to our road runners for a long time.
Another throw of the dice for Luis Enrique. This matter of patience? Path. His wingers Olmo and Ferran Torres came along, along with the tricky Mikel Oyarzabal and another striker in Gerard Moreno. And to be fair, the chances came too, many from crosses, like the one that Olsen put out of Moreno. The Villarreal hero managed to fire three shots in under 20 minutes – and a very solid penalty appeal when mistreated by Danielson – but to no avail.
The Swedish barricades held. It wasn’t nice – they somehow only managed 315 touches, the lowest in the tournament’s recorded history – but Spain’s balling didn’t work and they still created two crystal clear chances. In the cold, tough world of football at major group stage tournaments, a draw with the top seeded in the opening game means you have one foot in the knockout round. Now all that’s missing is a victory over Poland or Slovakia.
Andersson made no secret of it: “I’m not ashamed of this point at all. If we want to get points from teams like this, we have to play like this.”
And Luis Enrique?
It is stretched into the sky. That is what happens when you choose to be unconventional – at least according to the cannons of the modern game – and not win. But maybe that’s a little unfair. Not just because they could have scored three goals in the first half alone, but because the framework did what it was supposed to do: minimize risks and maximize opportunities. The Swedes’ chances were excellent, as were the individual skills of Isak, one of the best young center-forwards in the game.
If there’s a mistake, maybe it’s the staff. If the opposition wants to park the bus, instead of a bouncer like Rodri, they might need a guy who can short-circuit it and get it out of the way like Thiago. Olmo and Torres are good players but maybe the style they play at the club level is a little too far from what Luis Enrique wants to do, especially when there is no place to run. And then there is Morata. When he’s gone, he’s gone. Moreno not only has a 30-goal season behind him, he’s also selfless and a workaholic. And he’s got a hot lead right now.
But there is a lot that can be built on. Llorente and Jordi Alba were excellent outside. Pedri showed zero stage fright. Koke moved the ball well. A little tweaking is enough.
It doesn’t matter what I think or you think or the masses of the Spanish media think. Luis Enrique will do his own thing.