KAZAN, Russia – Spain did enough to beat Iran in their second match of Group B play at the World Cup Wednesday, and it will progress to the last 16 if it draws its final game against a Morocco side that has already been eliminated. But is that sufficient?
A week after Julen Lopetegui was sacked for taking the Real Madrid job, questions as to what might have been had Spain still been managed by the man who led it through qualifying are inevitable, and the victory over Iran was weirdly short on answers.
“Today we got three points,” said Lopetegui's replacement, Fernando Hierro. “We have four points as a whole, but it seems people are happier after the match against Portugal than today, it’s just a feeling. After the game you have an interview and people say, ‘Oh this isn’t working, that’s not working,’ but we have four points. We all want to get better, and we’re all going to work hard. But we were happier after the game against Portugal even though we took one point then and three points.”
There will be those who think Spain should be sweeping aside opposition such as Iran, but that is to ignore what a challenge was posed by Carlos Queiroz’s side. It had not lost in 22 competitive matches stretching over four years before Wednesday, a run in which it had kept 18 clean sheets. When Queiroz was assistant manager to Sir Alex Ferguson, he overhauled how Manchester United played, making it a much more cautious, defensively secure side. His version of defending is not about strength and power and winning headers and tackles, though, or at least not principally so; it is about positioning.
With a 4-5-1 that often became a 6-3-1, Iran is extremely hard to break down. There simply is no room, and that neuters players such as Jordi Alba, whose great strength in an attacking sense is his capacity to run beyond the opposition's back line. Even a player as technically gifted as Andres Iniesta is limited when there is no space to slide the ball into.
The positive, then, is that Spain kept playing and eventually forced an opening that led to a goal. When Iniesta was finally granted the opportunity to play a decisive pass, he did. What followed was then a distillation of Diego Costa’s career. He turned superbly, creating space in a crowded box in a way very few forwards are capable of. He then had the strength and the presence and the good fortune that Iran right back Ramin Rezaeian’s attempted clearance struck his shin and cannoned over the line.
That, though, is what Costa offers. He may not be quite so technically gifted as some Spain forwards of the past, but he gives them an edge, a brawling, streetwise presence capable of provoking a goal from nothing. And that means that even when Spain is under pressure or, as it was here, struggling to find a way through, there is always a chance.
“He fights very hard at both ends of the pitch,” said Hierro. “He gives everything, and he is surrounded by people who want him to do every well. I am very happy with him and his commitment.”
That is an asset that should not be overlooked. When Spain won the World Cup in 2010, it did so scoring just eight goals in seven games, controlling possession and wearing opponents down. This team is perhaps not quite so fluid, or quite suffocating in its possession, but Costa gives it a sense of mongrel Vicente Del Bosque’s sides at times lacked.
And it is not that it is short of the silky passers that characterized the side of eight years ago. There is Iniesta, of course, but also David Silva, Lucas Vazquez and Isco, the distribution of whom on the pitch with Isco on the left and Vazquez on the right marked the first real tactical tweak of Hierro’s reign.
“You have to get used to fact I’m the national coach,” Hierro said. “We understood it was very important to overman on the left. Our scouting showed us exactly that; that’s what we had to do. We needed to play deep on the right and have some space there for Lucas and Dani [Carvajal] when they had to fight two against one. It is true sometimes on the left they have changed the whole style of game, have changed their right flank but, on Dani’s side, Lucas’s side we created space we were able to penetrate, able to get balance and that’s why we took this decision.”
Far more of a concern is the defensive wobble Spain suffered having gone ahead, as though it felt such a pressure to score it relaxed having done so. It’s not necessarily a major issue, particularly if it is primarily psychological, but it is something that needs fixing.
At the other end, Spain can console itself with the thought that it will face few sides that defend as a Queiroz side defends–and even if it does, there’s always Diego Costa to conjure something.