Luis Enrique’s Spain beat Norway in a scrappy display at the Mestalla stadium. Sergio Ramos’ penalty proved to be the winner as Joshua King‘s penalty for Norway cancelled out Rodrigo’s opener. Spain dominated possession but lacked an incisive edge despite a positive start. The win was much needed given Spain‘s poor Nations League campaign.
Enrique’s Spanish side had a blend of experience and youth. Sergio Ramos started alongside Inigo Martinez in defence as Gerard Pique’s career remains mired in controversy with Jordi Alba and Jesus Navas operating as the full-backs.
Navas’ selection was quite interesting given Sergi Roberto was available on the bench. Navas has been playing as a wing-back for Sevilla this season, a switch that makes sense given his age. In midfield, Spain played a three-man midfield with Sergio Busquets starting in his usual role at the base of the midfield; Dani Parejo and Dani Ceballos formed a pivot ahead of him. Ceballos was allowed to play with more freedom as Parejo recycled possession.
In attack, Alvaro Morata led the line with Rodrigo and Marco Asensio on either flank.
Norway lined up in a traditional 4-4-2 with Joshua King and Tarik Elyounoussi in attack. Eyes were on Martin Odegaard as the Norwegian has been impressive on loan at Heerenveen this season. The Madrid loanee started on the right-wing. The Norwegians were clearly prepared to endure overloads in the middle of the pitch.
Right from the onset, Spain’s tactics were clear as they relied heavily on the wide areas and overlaps. Morata’s aerial presence represented the biggest threat to the Norwegian defence. As Norway were compact and maintained their rigidity in the middle of the pitch, Spain opted to concentrate play in the wide areas.
Navas and Alba took up an extremely high line. Alba and Asensio were frequently involved in overlapping play on the left-wing. Navas’ pace and dribbling allowed him to get behind the Norwegian defence frequently, especially into the space vacated by Rodrigo drifting into the penalty box.
Enrique frequently got his midfielders to help out the wide players as well as they created 3v2 situations against the opposing winger and full-back. When Spain lost the ball, they pressed intensely and committed many tactical fouls, especially on the Norwegian wide midfielders in order to prevent a counter. The tactic worked well but Spain always looked susceptible to the counter.
Buildup issues and Norway’s defending
Norway did a good job of nullifying Spain’s talented midfield, preventing the likes of Ceballos and Parejo from being able to influence the final third. Spain struggled to buildup effectively through the middle of the pitch due to their midfielders roaming too much.
Busquets would frequently drop deep, sometimes even between the centre-halves in order to receive the ball which staggered the buildup and forced either Parejo or Ceballos to drop deep themselves. Either Ramos or Martinez should have been more proactive in terms of playing the ball out of the defence.
As Alba and Navas took up positions high up the pitch, the passing options for the centre-backs were limited and hence made the Spanish attack look quite one-dimensional.
Spain’s attacking movement
One positive for Spain was the partnership between Alvaro Morata and Rodrigo. Spain have struggled in recent years to find a reliable option at centre-forward but Morata, despite all his flaws, has the capability to be not just a goalscorer but an integral cog in the Spanish system as such. Spain are far too intricate to resort to a system that emphasises on playing aerial crosses to the target man but the game against Norway indicated an intelligent tweak to the same tactic.
Most teams are aware of Morata’s heading abilities and therefore opt to mark him tightly in the penalty box. This situation was where Morata and Rodrigo’s partnership really flourished. When the ball was played wide to the full-backs, Morata would prepare to make a blindsided run between the Norwegian centre-halves causing chaos and essentially leaving space behind him for other Spanish teammates to run into.
For the opening goal, Morata dragged the Norwegian defenders out of position and when the ball fizzed past him, Rodrigo was on hand to volley it into the goal.
With Asensio usually preferring to operate more centrally, the Spanish were essentially a 4-4-2 themselves although with more freedom and minimal rigidity. At times with Busquets between the centre-backs, Spain resembled a 3-4-3 as well which emphasises how reliant they were on the wide players.
It was interesting to see the Spanish press work as perhaps Enrique attempts to make the side more Barcelona-esque. Spain were urgent to press whenever they lost possession, especially in the initial stages. Navas’ and Alba’s tireless running was key to this aspect while Parejo offered more solidity in midfield. The side itself was quite a departure from the more elegant Spanish sides of the past but made sense given the options available to Enrique.
The three points were undoubtedly an important confidence-boost for a Spanish side that are just finding their way and identity under Luis Enrique. Under the former Barcelona boss, we can see quite a few aspects that are similar to his Barcelona side such as the reliance on Busquets, pressing the opposition high up the pitch and fluid movement between the attackers.
For Norway, it was a credible performance and they will feel hard done by the loss despite looking resolute for the majority of the game. In the end, it was the quality that Spain possessed which helped them take all three points in their first Euro 2020 qualifying campaign.
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