In the end Gary Neville was right.
We all laughed when he said the Spain team had no goals in it, just before they put seven past Costa Rica in their opening match, but scoring was always going to be the problem against a certain type of defence and it was the root cause of their early exit from Qatar.
They went through Costa Rica’s defence like thirsty cowboys through swinging saloon doors, but Morocco’s door was guarded, alarmed, locked and bolted and the way in which Luis Enrique’s side had neither the brute force nor the ingenuity to breach it was what dominated the inquest on Wednesday ahead of the team’s scheduled touchdown on Spanish soil at 16.45 local time.
Spain’s lack of prowess in front of goal came back to bite them as they are out of the World Cup
Luis Enrique believed that he could thrive without depending on a traditional centre forward
In some ways the coach tripped on the same stone that has caused Pep Guardiola to stumble in the Champions League in the past. The reluctance to use a centre-forward and that total belief that teams can be worn down by clever passing combinations.
He achieved it to brilliant success with peak Lionel Messi but it’s tougher without him and Spain have no one on his level for all that Pedri started the tournament brilliantly.
City now have Erling Haaland and Spain had a Haaland of sorts in Betis’ big centre-forward Borja Iglesias but after only one call-up, when he didn’t get a start, the target man was left behind as, in a group of 26, Luis Enrique took only Alvaro Morata among his seven forwards.
Morata (middle) was his only No 9 option in the squad and that told in struggles vs Morocco
The likes of Dani Olmo (left) and Pedri (right) started the tournament brightly but soon faded
Ansu Fati was picked but it seems ahead of being fit enough to make a difference and when he did come on against Morocco he was too far from goal as Spain found no space in Morocco’s packed and well-ordered defence.
Manchester City’s Rodri was one of the successes of the tournament playing well at centre back and he was the most honest post-match.
‘We expected them to play with 11 behind the ball and it is frustrating,’ he said.
‘Maybe we don’t have the type of players to break down that sort of defence. We need to get round the outside of teams and have players going past opponents one on one.’
He had seen this movie before. The criticism of Luis Enrique is that knowing it was coming there was no way to deal with it. Not only was their no imposing No 9, neither Spain full-back over-lapped to the byline as too much went through the congested middle.
The exit at the hands of Morocco was also a cruel reminder that the golden era is long gone.
Gary Neville was ridiculed after Spain’s 7-0 win over Costa Rica that goals will be their downfall – but as shown against Germany, Japan and Morocco, he was right after all
Ferran Torres (right) formed part of a front three that showed a lack of ingenuity when needed
Spain’s fans were given a sobering reminder that the golden era at major tournaments is over
Spain are on the same path as so many teams who win the trophy and then can’t reproduce the magic – and that path goes through the wilderness.
Thirty years of hurt? Maybe, maybe more. So far it’s been 12 years since they won in South Africa and in their 11 World Cup games since they have only won three against Australia, Iran and Costa Rica.
What wont wash with Spain’s footballing public is the idea that they were hard done by.
‘Football has been unfair to us again,’ said Ferran Torres after the defeat.
Goalkeeper Unai Simon’s analysis seemed closer to the truth: ‘It serves no purpose to say that we were the better team’, he said.
El Confidencial’s correspondent in Qatar, Albert Ortega, summed up the way no-one will stand for the penalties violin being played. He tweeted: ‘Since when has passing the ball 926 times but with only two shots on target counted as playing well?’
Not all the criticism was brutal.
La Vanguardia labelled Spain ‘impotent’ and Marca described the World Cup exit as a fiasco
El Pais described Spain has having plenty of possession for nothing on their front page
Morocco won 3-0 in the penalty shootout to set up a World Cup quarter-final against Portugal
After the original ‘Fiasco for mediocre Spain’ appeared on Marca a more measured response from one of their Wednesday morning editorials urged Luis Enrique to stay, headlining that him remaining in the job would be ‘good news’.
Others urged that this was a failure and the end of the Luis Enrique era.
‘The only favourite in their game to fall in the last-16 was Spain,’ said Cadena Ser’s match commentator Antonio Romero.
Failing against the first serious rival in the knockout rounds is the new reality for the team that won three straight trophies from 2008 to 2012. It’s a reality that hurts, and all the more after those seven goals against Costa Rica.
‘Spain don’t know what to do with the ball,’ was El Pais’ headline. That summed it up – all possession but no punch and, as a consequence, knocked out.