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How Spain Can Dominate a Game and Still Barely Win

Getty Images
Getty Images

Spain took 18 shots, passed the ball sideways more than 700 times, and needed 87 labored minutes and an out-of-body performance from an elder statesman to score just one goal against one of the worst teams at Euro 2016. For a side that has struggled with a lack of incisiveness, today’s 1–0 win over the Czech Republic might seem like a Nolito-shaped neon warning sign. Except the two-time defending European champions got exactly what they wanted.

Scoring goals is always hard, and, like everything else, it’s especially difficult in international soccer. The way to solve against that is to create as many high-quality chances as possible and hope that enough of them go your way. Against the Czechs, Vicente del Bosque’s side did just that:

On another day, Spain would put in the same performance, win 3–0, and be the title favorites after Round 1. Or, in a less-forgiving world, they’d create the same shots, but Gerard Piqué’s winning header would hit the post, the 91st-minute shot by Vladimír Darida would find its way past David de Gea, and Spain would continue their slide, following their destruction at the 2014 World Cup.

Against the Czechs, Spain had more than 68 percent of the possession, dominated territory, and completed 442 more passes than their opponents. Although Xavi and a few other players have been cycled out of the system, there remains a beautiful, frictionless ease in the way they move the ball down the field and then keep it there. But since they’re so good at possession, so good at solving all the puzzles that pop up across the field, it does feel like Spain could always score more. Shouldn’t all that pretty passing pay off?

Maybe it should, and maybe with a different alignment of players and a more vertical tactical impetus they would blow everyone off the field. But that’s not this team: They possess as a partial defensive tactic — the other team can’t score when the ball is at your feet — and they push the possession forward just often enough to find the chances needed to produce just enough goals. Sometimes the passing prohibits the attack, but despite the tight scoreline, today wasn’t one of those times.