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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Euro 2020: Spain flies on young wings

Teenager Pedri at the heart of revival after two tepid performances.

Written by Sandip G |
Updated: June 28, 2021 2:51:49 pm
Spain' Ferran Torres celebrates a goal with his teammates in UEFA Euro 2020. (Twitter)

Just like that, with the flick of a switch, Spain moved from boring to exhilarating. Over 192 minutes of sterile domination against Poland and Sweden in the first two games, they completed a staggering 1,625 passes, shot the ball 29 times at goal, 10 of which were on target, but managed just a goal.

Over the next 97 minutes, against Slovakia, they made 666 passes, hogged possession for nearly 55 minutes and had 19 goal-intended strikes, of which five pierced the net. Makeovers seldom arrive so hastily.

The numbers would suggest that relatively fewer passes and ball domination liberated Spain, that in brevity they have found the cutting edge. It was only partially true. Spain, against Slovakia, showed more purpose with the ball, they were sharper and clever. But, in essence, they did what Spain always do. Everything they did, they did it through the ball, be it when defending or attacking, nurturing it like a parent would a child.

Two changes, though, went a long way in their revival. A personnel switch: Sergio Busquets replaced Rodri at the heart of the midfield. And a tactical tweak — Pedri and Koke were pushed up while fullbacks Jordi Alba and Cesar Azpilicueta were pushed back. The latter pair would not join or overlap as vigorously as they had been used to. The move was fundamental to providing the best environment for Pedri to bloom.

Teenaged visionary

It attests the quality of Pedri that an 18-year-old, from Tegueste, a village on the island of Tenerife, is considered the heartbeat of a storied side. Recognition doesn’t come cheap in Spain — he is the youngest Spaniard to feature in Euro finals, the youngest to play 50 times for Barcelona and was younger than Messi when he rang in his first assist.

Even the comparisons with Andres Iniesta are not out of place, though presumptuous. Pedri has a similar frame, small and slight, intelligence and repulsion to limelight. Like the legend, he does just the simple things but the right things. He does not indulge in nutmegging or dribbling, or do a lot of step-overs or feints, swivels or turns. He finds spaces that others don’t; he has time that others don’t have, he visualises routes to the goal that others don’t. And pulls off all these tough acts without even breaking a sweat or stretching a sinew.

A few months ago, Pedri’s back-heel after a 20-pass move resulted in Messi’s record-breaking 644th goal for Barcelona. It was seen as a passing of the mantle by the Spanish football fraternity. The coronation of Barcelona’s king in the post-Messi era (whenever that arrives). The same was said when Ronaldinho masterminded Messi’s first goal for Barcelona.

It would be long before Pedri attains half the stature of the Argentine, but he showed why it’s worth tweaking formulas and making space for him with a sublime performance against Slovakia. He logged in not a single goal or assist, but there was his hand (rather head) in three of Spain’s five goals.

The goal Pablo Sarabia scored exemplifies his eye for a defence-shredding killer pass, but wrapped in velvet. It was nothing more than a measured, low-ball to find Alba, who was in lots of space at the left of the box and he, in turn, fed Sarabia, who swept the ball home with a neat left-foot finish from eight yards out. The whole Slovakian defence froze, as no one had thought that Pedri would spot Alba’s run. He played a definitive role — providing the pre-assist pass — in setting up Aymeric Laporte (a chip from a repelled corner to Gerard Moreno) and Ferran Torres’ goals too.

Overall, Pedri had 70 touches of the ball in the opponent’s half – the most among the front five – fed seven passes into the box and six in the final third. Every one of these passes found the man it was intended to. His through-balls were 100 per cent accurate as well.

Croatia, of course, have a bruising backline and more worldly-wisdom than Slovakia. The marking would be tigerish and more physical too. This could be the biggest test yet for Pedri, but one that he could come out of with his reputation enhanced.

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