The big question facing Spain at the 2022 World Cup

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In the Spanish dressing room, there were no conciliatory gestures, no backslaps about getting through and getting back up. Luis Enrique was seething.

“I don’t have anything to celebrate,” the manager said. “I’m not one bit happy.”

Luis Enrique told the players as much. They have been given some harsh truths, as the manager now tries to reinvigorate this team so they have some chance of fulfilling the potential they have actually shown in this World Cup.

Luis Enrique suddenly has to find a lot of solutions. The grand question is whether he is fully aware of what the problems are.

He wasn’t aware of the biggest problem of all, which was that Spain were actually going out of the World Cup for a remarkable few minutes on Thursday night. Costa Rica were leading Germany in their game, and consequently leading Spain in the group, despite a goal difference of minus-five after that opening 7-0. It was simply incredible that Luis Enrique’s side were in that position after such a victory, but the two situations are probably connected.

There is an argument that one of Spain’s best ever World Cup wins might have been one of the worst things to happen to them in this one.

It was as if it created an undue confidence and complacency, that infected their performances against Germany and Japan – especially after going 1-0 up in both games. Rather than just play in the assertive manner that had put them ahead, it was like the intensity Luis Enrique requires gave way to indulgence.

Playing the ball out from any situation became playing themselves into trouble without realising. There was – to be blunt – almost an obnoxiousness to how comfortable they felt they were. It could be seen in Unai Simon’s refusal to just play an easier ball and instead go for a more difficult one, inviting pressure before trying to execute a Cruyff turn close to his own line.

He was soon snapped out of that.

Japan, to their immense credit, had realised that complacency was there to be got at. They shook Spain out of it with sheer relentlessness, hounding them into bad decisions, worse passes and so many errors.

There was a satisfying irony to the fact Simon was left with no option but to just try and whack the ball out of play, only for it to end up at the feet of substitute Ritsu Doan, who thundered it through the goalkeeper. Simon had by then messed up with both his feet and his hands, and all in the one moment.

Luis Enrique later spoke of three minutes of “panic” and temporary “collapse”. It was a lot simpler than that.

That now famous picture of the ball just about staying in play wasn’t an image of controversy. It was the best possible representation of how much further Japan were willing to go than Spain, how they would chase the lost causes that these supposed World Cup challengers wouldn’t.

The big question now is whether this is a wake-up call or a warning; whether it is a jolt or a revelation.

Was this in turn the best possible result Spain could have, in the opposite way to do that win over Costa Rica, or are they just not good enough?

The defeat to Japan has actually left them in a more favourable part of the draw, that many around the squad had actually been talking about. It should be stressed that Luis Enrique never indulged this, and wanted to finish top of the group. He realises the value of momentum and image.

Spain have now lost both. That means that, even if Morocco and a potential quarter-final against Portugal are easier than Croatia and then perhaps France, this path isn’t the same as taking it before the group began. Spain aren’t here because Germany outscored them. They’re here because they’ve shown they’re vulnerable and inexperienced, prone to complacency and error, and not all that used to dealing with pressure.

While Luis Enrique has excellent qualities, and may even be the best coach in the World Cup, he’s not perfect and it is possible some of this comes from him.

The youth of the squad gives him the energy he craves but means they lack that extra experience. It is really only Sergio Busquets that offers it. Simon is obviously a problem, and that compounds issues at centre-half.

The squad has gaps and flaws. Luis Enrique’s desired intensity can overcome those flaws on the pitch in a tactical sense, but it is possible they can lead to other issues. He almost makes Pep Guardiola look calm.

There were moments during the match when the manager was wild-eyed – and this without knowing they’d be going out. That can mean a struggle to adapt to adversity, and it was notable that Spain only tested goalkeeper Shuichi Gonda once on going behind. That was also a long shot.

Luis Enrique has work to do with his side before the last-16


Spain now look much longer odds for this World Cup. It’s hard to see them in the same way as after the Costa Rica game, when they felt one of perhaps three or four teams on a different level.

That points to how a tournament itself can change teams, and influence a competition’s own evolution. But that can also work the other way. Spain themselves saw this from the other side against France in 2006. A team with inherent qualities can suddenly kick on, having got through the group stage.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Spain’s best level – which they have achieved for at least 100 minutes of this group stage in total – is probably the highest level of the tournament.

They have the most defined idea of football. They also have newly defined problems.

Spain got away with it against Japan, in a way that should never have happened in the first place.

That might be the best thing that happens to them, or it might just show this was a tournament too soon.

Monday will start to say. Luis Enrique has an awful lot of work to do in the meantime.

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