Spain may have less possession against Sarina Wiegman’s side, but that actually makes them more dangerous
“This is a team that likes to play ‘Tiki-Taka’, hold the ball and play the nice game. Spain had never won anything and that style helped them succeed and now we want to stick with it.”
“Nobody will see Xavi or Iniesta in this tournament, but our philosophy is the same as the men’s team in recent years,” said Spain captain Veronica Boquete ahead of the 2015 World Cup.
Things didn’t quite go so well in Canada – Spain dominated possession in one of their three group games and only picked up a point against Costa Rica. But the intention and the identity were clear: whenever we do it, we will do it the Spanish way.
Spain have remained true to their mantra of possession ever since Boqueta’s message. It reflects Barcelona Femini’s commitment to the same principle after the men’s team – and certainly the men’s game in general – transitioned to a more counterattacking, less possessive style.
Spain averaged 75 percent possession in the group stage; no other team managed more than 67 percent. This becomes even more significant given the strength of the Spanish opposition. They had a lot more possession in the 2-0 loss to Germany than England did in the 8-0 loss to Norway.
But what if it wasn’t through their choice, but through the choice of their opponents? Germany was more than happy to sacrifice possession in exchange for potency. Denmark always tried to play straight and had a shot every 25 passes – Spain played 709 passes but were lucky to win. The absence of Alexia Putellas, arguably the greatest women’s footballer in the world, should not be overstated. But it wouldn’t have completely changed the problem.
Instead, Spain have become the great tiki-taka exception: the team that passes and passes but only scores headers. Four of their five goals were scored with their heads (one penalty, the other). With all the open game patterns, Spain was far too easy to defend, stagnated positively against Germany and for large parts of the win against Denmark. Their greatest threat comes from Set Pieces, a bizarre hybrid of La Masia and Tony Pulisian principles.
Until Monday, in an interview with the Guardian, midfielder Laia Aleixandri suggested Spain could be a better fit against an opponent who would likely not allow Spain to dominate possession. You can see that as sacrilege to the team’s identity, but it’s more of a piece of rational thinking. Spain have limited England to a single shot on target in their last two meetings (one in 2020, one earlier this year). They also have an average of 60 percent of the ball, far less than usual.
One of the unique characteristics of the development of women’s football after its grotesque 50-year ban is that it enables rapid improvement with only moderate investments. Spain is the latest example. Barcelona Femení turned professional in 2015; Six years later, they defeated Chelsea 4-0, won the Champions League final and ushered in a new era of dominance in women’s football.
The speed of that rise puts Spain and England in stark contrast. This English generation, with their World Cup quarter-finals in 2007 and 2011 and major tournament semi-finals in 2015, 2017 and 2019, seems to have been aiming for this tournament for years as their most realistic hope of triumph. Spain, who had never won a knockout game in a major tournament before, were the pre-tournament favorites out of nowhere.
Which means Spain are aware that for the first time in a while the pressure is on their opponents more than they are. They were clear favorites against Finland and Denmark. Against Germany they should exercise their new power over the old guard. Brighton will be in ecstasy as the sweltering heat unleashes a wave of relief that will give way to football fever. The atmosphere for England’s group game against Norway at the Amex was by far the most positive of any game I’ve been to. But KO football brings nerves; Where expectation and pressure meet, fear remains.
England are favorites for a reason. They have improved exponentially under Sarina Wiegman and their players are fully prepared to move up the class. Complacency kills momentum and it’s hardly England’s fault. The atmosphere in Brighton will create pressure but also inspire those who have had years to experience it and those who thought it might never come in the first place. But they have to be wary of a Spanish team who know we haven’t done their best yet and are determined to spoil the party. You might even compromise principles to do this.
Beth Mead vs Leila Ouahabi
Beth Mead’s record at this year’s European Championships – five goals in three games – is remarkable considering she missed out on last summer’s Olympic squad.
In her special clash against Spain, she will face Leila Ouahabi, who recently joined Manchester City after 11 years between Valencia and Barcelona.
Despite being replaced at half-time by 21-year-old Olga Carmona in the last group match, Ouahabi is likely to retain her place in the quarter-finals.
One of the most renowned attacking full-backs in the game, Ouahabi offers a different proposition than the defenders Mead has embarrassed so far. When she starts, Mead will be challenged defensively by a player who can force the Arsenal attacker to retreat while attacking from the left.
In response, England need to be bold, although that seems to be their default attitude under Wiegman. But – as we saw when Finland surprisingly took the lead after 50 seconds and Germany netted within three minutes – Spain’s defensive line can be caught off guard and exploited. Mead could be the player starting this scrimmage.
Irene Paredes vs. Ellen White/Alessia Russo
The choice between Ellen White and Alessia Russo is perhaps the only selection dilemma facing England ahead of the quarter-finals, having remained the same throughout the group stage.
Russo has scored three goals off the bench and is pushing White into the starting position, although the Manchester City striker is expected to get the nod.
Regardless of who Wiegman starts, they will have to get past Spain captain Irene Paredes, who made her international debut in November 2011 and has become a major figure on and off the pitch.
Her defensive prowess is well known, but her leadership skills would have been tested at the tournament, where she was tasked with rebuilding an injury-stricken environment for record goalscorers Jennifer Hermoso and Alexis Putellas.
Aitana Bonmati versus Keira Walsh