Spain have won just seven matches at major international tournaments since winning Euro 2012. Ahead of 2024 edition, we examine their recent past and look to the future.

Having last year whetted their appetite for success by winning the 2023 Nations League Finals, Spain have a new objective in sight at Euro 2024: to become the most successful men’s team at the European Championship and add a fourth crown to their collection.

Spain’s last great success, Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine (yes, we acknowledge the Nations League as a trophy, but it doesn’t have the grandeur of a European Championship or the World Cup yet) is long gone. It was a title that capped Spain’s most glorious era by linking Euro 2008, World Cup 2010 and Euro 2012, becoming the first men’s international team in history to win three major titles in a row.

However, Spain’s recent performances at major tournaments have raised many doubts, finding themselves eliminated on penalties in their last three campaigns (excluding the Nations League). First, by hosts Russia at the 2018 World Cup in the famous 1,000-pass match (the only match in which a team completed more than 1,000 passes in the tournament), in which they accumulated just 1.2 expected goals (xG). Then, three years later against eventually champions Italy at the delayed Euro 2020, despite Spain managing more than twice as many shots as their opponents (16/7). And finally, World Cup 2022 surprise package Morocco saw Spain off 3-0 in a shootout after a 0-0 draw to reach the quarter-finals, with La Roja recording a solitary shot on target in 120 minutes of football while tallying 1,019 passes attempted.

Essentially, the manner of these eliminations have hurt more than the knockouts themselves, acting as arguments against the style of play that once made the national team great – the best, even. There’s no getting away from the fact that a record of seven wins in the 21 major tournament (Euros and World Cup) matches La Roja have played since their last major title in 2012 (D9 L5) is thoroughly underwhelming for a side deemed by the Opta supercomputer to be fourth favourites this time around. To put that record into context, Spain won 15 of the 19 European Championship matches they played in in 2008 and 2012 (D3 L1).

Euro 2024 Predictions - Tournament Winner

While Spain may not be able to directly return to that historic and triumphant era, just as they can’t suddenly respawn the unique players such as Iker Casillas, Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta and David Silva who made those successes possible, what can be replicated – or, perhaps ‘reimagined’ is more apt here – is the style of play known worldwide as tiki-taka. That’s not to say Spain have ever truly abandoned these principles in the past 12 years, but the results have been rather different. After all, they’ve enjoyed more possession than their opponents in each of their last 136 competitive matches in all competitions, ironically last seeing less of the ball in a game during the match that changed everything for La Roja, the Euro 2008 final in Vienna against Germany (46% possession).

Germany v Spain Euro 2008

Since then, possession of the ball has become a blessing and a curse for the national team (71.3% win rate in those 136 most recent competitive matches – W97 D23 L16), becoming the only team to attempt more than 1,000 passes in a single World Cup match, a feat they have achieved on four separate occasions yet managing to win just one of those, the 7-0 against Costa Rica in Qatar.

Spain Passing Record Morocco

This footballing dissonance has resulted in Spain qualifying for the final stages of major tournaments with ease (only three defeats in their last 81 qualifiers) but being eliminated despite not suffering a single defeat in two of their last three appearances at Euros and World Cup (Russia 2018 (W1 D3) and Euro 2020 (W2 D4)), as many times as in their entire history beforehand (Euro 1996 (W1 D3) and World Cup 2002 (W3 D2)).

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be confident about Spain’s regeneration ahead of Euro 2024, with new coach Luis de la Fuente arguably less dogmatic with respect to ball domination than his predecessors, and results have been largely positive.

For example, they were crowned Nations League champions in 2023, and there’s plenty of promising young players who have revitalised areas of the team, such as Nico Williams, Pau Cubarsí and Lamine Yamal, not to mention the good form of more experienced players such as captain Álvaro Morata and midfield leader Rodri.

At Euro 2020, Spain reached the semi-finals of a major tournament for the sixth time in their history but were knocked out for the first time in this round by Italy on penalties. And yet, despite getting so close to the final, Luis Enrique’s side were erratic. On the one hand, they scored 13 goals in their six matches (including three own goals), a record previously surpassed in a single tournament by Michel Platini-inspired France in 1984 (14).

However, 10 of those 13 goals came in just two games: there was the 5-0 win over Slovakia in the final group game, then the 5-3 defeat of Croatia in the round of 16, requiring extra-time to see off the latter. That made them the first men’s team in the history of the finals to score five or more goals in back-to-back games; an impressive achievement, for sure, but one that did little to prevent the national team from exiting the tournament even without a defeat, as occurred three years earlier in Russia.

To redress the balance, the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) turned to a man whom they trusted from the youth system: De la Fuente. He took over from Luis Enrique with a renewed commitment to youth and a more nuanced approach to possession. Despite two defeats in 12 games, the positive results have also come thick and fast, winning the Nations League Finals in the Netherlands and then comfortably qualifying for Euro 2024.

With De la Fuente at the helm, Spain scored 25 goals in eight Euro 2024 qualifying matches, a record bettered by only two other teams: Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal (36) and Kylian Mbappé’s France (29). Spain were also one of the teams with the best difference (+7.2) between goals scored (25, including two own goals) and expected goals (17.8), evidence of a clinical edge often missing in the recent past.

Spain Goals Euro 2024 Qualifying

It’s also potentially a good sign that those goals have been spread around the team rather than relying on a sole player to shoulder the burden; 12 different players scored at least one goal for Spain in their recent Euro 2024 qualifying campaign, with only France (14) having more. Spain’s top individual scorers were Joselu and Morata with four goals apiece.

Morata ended the 2023-24 La Liga season as the joint top-scoring Spaniard with 15 goals and ought to have ample opportunities to add to his tally at senior level in Germany. With 34 goals in 72 international appearances, he’s one goal away from equalling David Silva as the fourth-highest scorer in the history of the men’s national team. And while he has received criticism in the past for being wasteful in front of goal, Morata’s recorded at major international tournaments isn’t anything to be sneered at. Having scored nine times in 14 appearances at the Euros and World Cup, he’ll have his sights on matching – and potentially overtaking – David Villa’s haul of 13, a record for the men’s team.

But their most important player is almost certainly Rodri, who’s developed into one of the best and most complete midfielders in world football at Manchester City. A leader of this new Spain, the former Atlético Madrid star is the player who’s accumulated the most minutes under De la Fuente (908) and through whom almost everything goes for La Roja. In qualifying, he was the only Spain player to appear in the top 10 for attacking sequence involvements, and he’s even become the one in charge of taking penalties, such as the two he converted against Brazil in March’s 3-3 friendly draw.

Back in his natural midfield position after the Qatar 2022 experiment of playing him at centre-back was abandoned, Spain would do well to try to replicate Rodri’s role at City, where his influence as an attacking entity has increased significantly to the point where he ended 2023-24 with nine goals and 13 assists across all competitions.

Rodri goal involvements

Other strengths of this new Spanish team are the quantity and quality of the young players who make up the squad – and that’s even without the injured Gavi. Of those, Williams and Yamal stand out for their senior numbers. The duo, who finished among the top five most-prolific dribblers in La Liga 2023-24 with 191 and 141 take-on attempts respectively, will provide the bravery and directness in attack that has been so lacking for Spain in recent major tournaments.

Athletic Bilbao star Williams, who was selected for the 2022 World Cup, has made 13 appearances for the senior national team and been involved in six goals (two goals and four assists), a record surpassed only by Morata (eight goals, one assist) and Joselu (five goals, two assists) since his debut in September 2022. The Basque winger, who will likely be deployed from the left, has also emerged as one of Europe’s most creative wide attackers, with his nine assists following a ball carry (running five metres or more with the ball) across all competitions in 2023-24 bettered by no other player from the top five leagues (level with Ousmane Dembélé).

Nico Williams chance-creating carries

On the opposite flank will be Yamal, who was one of Barcelona’s best performers in the Blaugrana’s largely disappointing 2023-24 season (seven goals and seven assists in 50 first-team appearances). The teenager has already broken a host of records at club level and they’ll likely continue to topple this summer at the Euros.

Assuming no one even younger comes from out of nowhere, Yamal will become the youngest player in European Championship history as soon as he features, and as long he gets on to the pitch before the final (14 July, the day after he turns 17), he’ll also be the first 16-year-old to ever appear at the tournament. He’s already made six appearances for Spain, scoring twice and assisting once.

It’s worth noting, though, that Spain do find themselves with a fairly tricky draw after being put into Group B with Croatia, Albania and their Euro 2020 conquerors, Italy. At least there is the possibility of going through as one of the best third-place teams as well, but La Roja cannot expect to be allowed to ease into the tournament – they’ll need to hit their stride pretty much immediately.

Admittedly, they probably don’t have the same star quality as the likes of England, France, Germany and potentially even Portugal, but no nation at Euro 2024 has an identity as strong as Spain’s. Sure, individuals can win tournaments almost by themselves – just ask Platini. But cohesiveness and collective understanding are fundamental to going deep at major tournaments; Spain have this in abundance and it’ll ensure they always have a chance.

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