Spain have been one of the standout teams of Euro 2024 after seemingly leaving their devotion to tiki-taka’ in the past under Luis de la Fuente.

Before Euro 2024 started, Spain will have arguably been missing from most discussions regarding favourites to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy in July. England, France, hosts Germany and Portugal probably dominated such debates, but with the group stage over and knockouts beginning in earnest, La Roja are absolutely in the conversation.

Probably the most impressive side of the tournament so far, Spain breezed through a so-called ‘group of death’ that breathed life into their quest for a record fourth European Championship title. The only team to win all of their games, and without conceding a goal, Luis de la Fuente’s men have looked sharp.

Granted, we’re hardly talking about a team with no history or pedigree here. It’s not that long since Spain won back-to-back Euros either side of their 2010 World Cup success, and we shouldn’t forget they only missed out on a place in the final of the delayed Euro 2020 due to a penalty shootout defeat to eventual champions Italy.

But the expectations on them ahead of this tournament were fairly low considering who they are and the fact they won the UEFA Nations League last year. There’s an acceptance they’re a team growing through transition since De la Fuente replaced Luis Enrique after a disappointing 2022 World Cup campaign, and yet they’ve resembled one of the most cohesive sides in the tournament.

It was highlighted before the championship began that Spain have shown perhaps more adaptability and greater open-mindedness with respect to their tactical style since De la Fuente took charge. While possession dominance has still largely been theirs in matches, that has in part been influenced by the inferior opposition they regularly met in qualifying, rather than being a non-negotiable aspect of their philosophy.

Euro 2024 possession

And that shift has arguably been the most notable aspect of their Euro 2024 campaign. De la Fuente’s Spain are different, less bound to the ideals of ‘tiki-taka’, the possession-focused approach that brought much of their ‘golden generation’s’ success but had since become the lightning rod of recent underachievement.

There had been hints of a diversification away from tiki-taka as long ago as the 2014 World Cup, ahead of which coach Vicente del Bosque insisted Spain had evolved to bring more direct play to their game, an assertion backed up by the presence of Diego Costa in the team.

“Football is not only short passing. Long balls are as important, and a certain depth,” Del Bosque told Bild in March 2014.

But how much did they really move on? Del Bosque’s successor, Julen Lopetegui, wanted his players to be comfortable without the ball but still demanded they “dominate all facets of the game”; some would argue his use of wide players who were effective in transition marked a departure from tiki-taka, though others felt the principles were fairly similar just “without the fundamentalism”, as Marca put it.

Robert Moreno, briefly in charge between Luis Enrique’s two spells at the helm, was apparently eager to move away from their reliance on possession control and give power to counterattacking and swift transitions, but he was dismissed when his predecessor became available again following a period of mourning after the death of his nine-year-old daughter.

Then, in Luis Enrique’s second period in charge, it could even be said Spain veered closer than ever to the tiki-taka of old. Across the World Cup and European Championship, there are only seven instances on record of teams recording more than 900 passes in a game (including extra-time); all but one of them is Luis Enrique’s Spain side either at Euro 2020 or the 2022 World Cup (the exception being Fernando Hierro’s Spain vs Russia at the 2018 World Cup).

Results were mixed to say the least. Spain tallied 1,058 passes in the shock 2-1 defeat to Japan in Qatar and 1,019 against Morocco as they were dumped out on penalties having managed just one (!) shot on target in 120 minutes. Before either of those games, La Roja attempted 1,045 passes in the 7-0 demolition of Costa Rica.

Spain v Costa Rica pass map

While impossible to say everyone had just become wise to their style, because they still won plenty of matches, it’s undeniable that their success in tournament football diminished. Possession dominance didn’t help them past Russia in 2018, they failed against Italy three years ago and then in 2022 against a Morocco side most would agree boasted far less natural talent, but displayed admirable spirit and immense organisation.

The team carried out Luis Enrique’s “idea of football to perfection” in their elimination by the Atlas Lions, the coach said at the time. For many, that was the problem. His critics felt he was utterly dogmatic in his approach, whereas De la Fuente’s apparently greater flexibility is yielding positive results at the moment.

Spain v Morocco xG map

It cannot be said De la Fuente has completely abandoned the desire for control that we’ve come to associate with Spain. After all, ahead of Euro 2024 they went 136 competitive games in a row – dating all the way back to the Euro 2008 final – with more possession than their opponents, and the new man was in charge for a portion of those.

However, there’s a feeling in this tournament that Spain’s inherent ball-playing abilities simply underpin a more adaptable, direct and quicker system. They still have the technical ability to keep the ball, but the speed and one-v-one talents of Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams out wide are among the team’s greatest assets. In the 1-0 win over Italy, for instance, those two attempted 17 dribbles combined as the Azzurri full-backs were kept under almost relentless pressure.

In years gone by, Spain’s ‘wide’ men would routinely tuck inside to facilitate more efficiency in possession in central areas, but Yamal and Williams operate much wider, allowing them to stretch the play and ensure the team is more expansive. The passing networks below provide a snapshot of this change.

Spain passing network World Cup 2010
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst
Spain v Italy passing network
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

It’s not just Yamal and Williams looking to engage defenders, though. Spain have collectively averaged 25 take-ons per 90 minutes in Euro 2024, a figure they’ve not bettered at a major international tournament since Euro 1996 (31 per 90).

Furthermore, Spain’s 54.4% average share of possession at Euro 2024 is the lowest they’ve recorded at a major tournament since the 2002 World Cup (52.6%); it’s a huge decrease in particular from their three most recent campaigns, managing 77% at Qatar 2022, 72.5% in Euro 2020 and 74.7% at Russia 2018.

Of course, a major contributor to that uncharacteristically low possession figure was a practically unheard-of 46.7% against Croatia; it was of course the match that ended Spain’s 136-game, 16-year run of having at least 50% of the ball. And it mattered little.

Sure, Croatia were somewhat wasteful, but Spain created good opportunities and were clinical in front of goal as they ran out 3-0 winners. On Matchday 2 they then produced one of the performances of the tournament as they dominated Italy from start to finish, unfortunate to only win 1-0 thanks to a Riccardo Calafiori own goal – they crafted opportunities worth 2.02 expected goals (xG) to Italy’s measly 0.16, out-shooting them 20-4.

But it wasn’t so much domination through death by a thousand passes (which evidently didn’t work against Italy in Euro 2020); with 57.1% of the ball, they obviously spent more time in possession, but their control was as much to do with the incessant activity of the wingers (and Marc Cucurella) plus the team’s collective desire to win the ball back quickly, registering the third-most high turnovers in a game at this tournament (14).

Spain pressing v Italy

While it’s obviously early days and no tournament is won in the group stage, there’s suddenly a feel-good factor around Spain. They find themselves in the tougher side of the draw, thus on track to meet Germany in the quarter-finals if they get past Georgia this weekend, but the fact they’ve managed to develop their style quite considerably could work in their favour, potentially making them a bit less predictable than in the past.

Back home, comparisons have been made to Euro 2008, with Fernando Torres telling Marca: “There are similarities, such as the lack of credit the two teams went to the tournament with, both in terms of the players and the coach. Then, with the progression of the tournament, the excitement took over the country for the fans and the media.”

Of course, this could all end in yet more disappointment as opposed to the glory of 2008. But after years of beating around the bush, hinting at evolution, it seems Spain might finally be freeing themselves of their tiki-taka shackles.

It remains to seen whether it’s the new normal or just a momentary fling, though the early indications at Euro 2024 suggest it suits Spain rather well.

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