The beauty of this Spain team is that it keeps evolving. After technical skill and the ability to retain possession finally overcame the neurosis of past failure at Euro 2008, there came the years of control in 2010 and 2012, as World Cup and another European Championsip were collected playing safety-first keep-ball. For all the criticism of its supposed negativity in Poland and Ukraine there were signs of another Spain emerging, one that had begun to come to terms with the problem posed by an opponent that sits deep against it.
It is an issue any possession-based side will have. If you dominate the ball to the extent that an opponent despairs of ever winning it back, that opponent will eventually simply stick men behind the ball, allowing you possession but trying to deny you space in the final third to create any goalscoring opportunities. Spain’s response for a long time when faced with such an opponent has been simply to keep passing. The process is attritional but Spain essentially knows that as long as it has the ball it isn’t going to concede and that, eventually, an opponent is likely to be worn down. A mistake — and a goal — will come.
At the Euros, Vicente del Bosque, the Spain coach, spoke again and again about “control.” But he also spoke about “profundidad” — depth of field. If an opponent packs men behind the ball, what is lost is depth of field: Spanish attacks essentially start higher up the pitch and that means that “verticalidad” — verticality, playing the ball towards goal — is far harder. The risk is that the team with the ball ends up playing too horizontally, going back and forth across the pitch without making any progress, without generating the burst of speed necessary to puncture a well-drilled rearguard.