Luis Enrique’s Spanish revolution takes nerve-shredding step forward

Luis Enrique wants Spain to be more vertical, but the problem with verticality is that it can lead to chaos. At least with the sterility of possession there is a sense of control – and against Croatia on Monday night there was none of that. But it may be that a draining win that toyed with the emotions and demanded extraordinary character was a necessary battle in the Luis Enrique revolution.

Not that there was much sign of that in the first half, which began in the traditional manner. Pass, pass, pass, miss. Pass, pass, pass, miss. Then a twist: pass, pass, pass, absurd own goal. Every time you think Spain can’t possibly wring any more out of the same old joke, they find a new level of comedic haplessness.

But the problem is, Spain need the passing. They had conceded just 12 shots in the group stage, fewer than all other sides, and had leaked only one goal. They may have ended up with five goals for the second game running as Croatia pressed higher, leaving space behind their defensive line, but once that familiar pattern of passing in front of a deep-lying opponent was taken away, Spain were exposed. Pass, pass, concede possession, panic at every ball into the box.

There is an anxiety in Spanish football. The old certainties don’t seem so certain any more. No Spanish club has reached the semi-finals of the Champions League in either of the last two seasons – and that’s not just because of the financial problems undermining Real Madrid and Barcelona. It is also a tactical issue.

With Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, Spain in effect invented modern football, took the press‑and‑possess game to previously unimagined levels.

But the problem with revolutions is that they keep revolving, and those who instigated them are often left behind. It’s a familiar story: somebody rises with a radical project and enjoys great success but then falls into the trap of believing their way of doing things is the right way, perhaps the only way, and so is unable to respond when a challenger emerges. Why change a winning formula? If you’re the best, why worry about anybody else? And when the issue is a football culture and is, for financial and political reasons, dominated by institutions as badly run as Real Madrid and Barcelona, the decadence can be profound.

Luis Enrique has always been aware of the issue. He is not complacent. At 51, he still looks ferociously fit. He is, after all, somebody whose response to retirement from playing was to take up ultrarunning. When he took over at Barcelona in 2014, he made a conscious decision to make them more direct. It was not a comfortable or easy process, but it did bring the 2015 Champions League title. With Spain, his aim has been much the same: give them more verticality.

In 2012, Spain completed an unprecedented run for a European side, winning a third successive major tournament. Their football was the best in the world not only in the club game but at national level as well. After which they went three major tournaments without winning a knockout game. The draw against Sweden in the opening group game in this tournament felt worryingly like the exit to Russia in 2018, an almost self-parodic exercise in futile passing.

Old habits tend to die hard in international football, in which teams have a habit of failing in predictable ways. But revolutions are not easy; by definition they are traumatic and disruptive events. Whatever advantages Luis Enrique’s greater verticality offers offensively, it does expose the centre of defence.

There is a balance to be struck in that regard, and defenders have to learn a new way to play. Pass, much longer pass, cross, header may be the formula going one way, but Spain cannot rely on character to get them through in every game. There is a serious danger this team will be too physically and emotionally spent to perform to their utmost in the quarter-final. But there is a sense in which that shouldn’t matter: this was always a tournament of transition, of instilling the new style before the World Cup.

This time, that spirit was enough. However nerve‑shredding the victory may have been, whatever issues the change of approach may have caused, Luis Enrique brought a first win in a knockout game for Spain since the final of Euro 2012. He also now has a team who will always remember Copenhagen, veterans who will perhaps always be able to say they were there when the revolution began.