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Luis Enrique’s Spain turns passing into an elevated art, with Gavi, Pedri, Morata and the wondrous Busquets

It's not revolution, or counter-revolution, but an evolution, and you need to dwell into the minute and specifics to fully grasp and enjoy Spain's ultra-butterfly football.

Spain's head coach Luis Enrique walks off the pitch with the players at the end of the World Cup group E soccer match between Spain and Germany, at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor , Qatar, Sunday, Nov. 27, 2022. The match ended in a 1-1 draw. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

It’s the same old Spain; yet it’s not the same old Spain. Both hypotheses are right, yet wrong. Spain plays a high-passing, high-possession, counter-pressing game; but not the way Xavi and Iniesta played it, not the way Pep Guardiola and Johan Cruyff envisaged it; rather, they play it the Luis Enrique-way; the Gavi-Pedri way. It’s not revolution, or counter-revolution, but it’s an evolution, and you need to dwell into the minute and specifics to fully grasp and enjoy the ultra-butterfly football Spain has unleashed in the World Cup.

The soul and pulse of Spanish football is a constant—passing, short (poison-smeared) velvety passing. The passing sheet of any Spain iteration in the last two decades looks much the same—like a child’s notebook, a mass of arrows, arrows over arrows, arrows crossing out each other, arrows forming a piece of art in itself, the mass becoming a cluster near the opponent’s box. But look closer, the difference emerges; the passing is more vertical and direct, and if you happen to watch, discernibly quicker and (slightly) longer.

There are crosses and headers. This is a side that could bore you with a thousand passes; but this a side that chooses to kill the opponent with a thousand passes. Rather, this is a quicker and more direct side. Guardiola’s Barcelona after a shot of caffeine.

It was inevitable—even the noblest, grandest of philosophies need a tweak and tinker, lest it becomes stale and irrelevant, but without destroying the essence. Like rebuilding a monument without losing its original charm. Beyond a point, tiki taka, that most gorgeous art that won Spain the World Cup and made Barcelona scale unparalleled heights of beauty and success, had begun to rust and rot. Spain needed a change (and so did Barcelona, and coincidentally it was Enrique that altered it) and Enrique rang in the change, in a subtle and incremental way that did not destroy the soul of Spain’s game. That is passing. The life and soul, the heartbeat and pulse of Spanish football. It’s a non-negotiable for Enrique, and a reason you might call this team a throwback.

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The broad layout has been the same—hog possession, press high, pass, pass and pass. Against Costa Rica, they completed 1000 passes, Spain’s most in any game; versus Germany, the numbers dropped to 542, but that was understandable given the stature of their adversaries, though the number was twice as many as Germany’s (271). Though Germany, too, is a possession-keeping side, Spain still managed 64 percent of the ball. On an average, Spain were in Germany’s box for 65 percent of the match, according to 365stats.com. The last time they had a less than 60 per cent possession was back in 2020 in a game against Germany. The build-up play, too, is patient and elaborate, building out from the back and passing back and forth before unlocking the defence with a killer pass.

But how this side functions is different. Enriques’s men, or rather teens, like to maximise the width of the pitch, unlike the congested central paths of classical Spain. Even the defenders are spread out—making them vulnerable to counters, and leaving space for quick forwards to exploit. The spacing ensures that when they are without the ball, they have the space to exploit when once they re-seize possession.

The goal against Germany embodied the directness and verticality of their approach—Gavi to Pedri from left to right; Pedri to Dani Olmo, Olmo to Jordi Alba on the left, Alba to Alvaro Morata, who makes a run behind the German line and flicks the ball home.

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They often switch their attack from left to right, orchestrated by the Gavi-Pedri combination that reminds of Iniesta and Xavi, though the layers are different. Pedri in the Iniesta role of conducting the orchestra, playing simple football (sometimes that is the most difficult football, as Cruyff would say), but doing 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 space 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 in football without even breaking into a sweat or stretching his sinew. Little wonder then that his Xavi considers him the most talented young player in the world.

He has been Spain’s most creative force in both games, the pass-circulator, the assist-giver, the soul-provider. The greatest praise came from Enrique: “Anyone who knows anything about football knows that no one has ever seen that from anybody at 18, not even Sir Andrés Iniesta.” There was a sequence in the Germany game when he weaved past Ilkay Gundagon, then spun past Nilkas Sule, cut back from the byline and laid off Alvaro Morata. Only that his pass was unusually heavy. But the simplicity of his moves were bewildering, nothing expansive, nothing flashy, just neat simple moves.

If Pedri gives music to Spain, Gavi gives rhythm; he starts the press, he piles the pressure; he stings and instigates, he is tough as well as elegant. Gavi’s inclusion in the Euro squad sparked doubts, as he the then 17-year-old had little exposure to international football. But Enrique had seen enough of him to be convinced. He always insists: “When I am looking for players for the national team I pick the ones [who] are best at interpreting our tactics.” Gavi is the perfect addition to the robustly young team.

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The oldest outfield player is Sergio Busquets, who is 34, and a bridge between generations. In a sense, he exemplifies the difference between the two different (but same) generations. In previous avatars, he was more locked-on at the base of the midfield. Now, with extra verticality, his involvement is more active in ball distributions, and his quick-thinking is a reason Spain moves the ball much quicker. He also man-marks his No 6 counterpart to sniff out the midfield tussle. Enriques calls him his most important man. “He is not very well understood by many people, maybe because he has been around for so long and people are tired of him, but he is unique. Unique, and a guarantee,” he had once said.

Enriques is more flexible with his front-man too. In both World Cup games, he started with Marco Asensio, deploying him as a false nine. He used the more classical No 9 Alvaro Morata as a substitute, though he was the preferred front-man in the qualifying games. Morata gives further verticality and directness to Enrique, a definite cutting edge at the tip, and he makes his side all the more dangerous. Against Germany, he sped up Spain after coming on and ran the striker’s run for his goal.

That goal and the build-up to the goal embodied the new Spain; the Spain of Enriques; the Spain of Pedri and Gavi. But the soul of both is passing.

First published on: 28-11-2022 at 19:35 IST
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