With the Nations League Finals being at the centre of attention last week, Euro 2020 Qualifiers should get a fair mention as well. Fifty-five teams have roared back into action after two months break to continue the fight for the places in next year’s tournament.
On Friday night the Faroe Islands hosted the three times European champions Spain. The Faroes began the qualifying campaign with two defeats, losing away to Romania and Malta. On the other hand, Spain had a much better start coming out victorious in both of their matches against Norway and Malta. It was only the third meeting between the two sides, the last one being played 23 years ago when Spain beat the Faroes 6-2. This tactical analysis will explain how Spain outclassed their less talented opposition.
Faroe Islands lined-up in a 4-4-1-1 formation. Teitur Gestsson started between the sticks which was only his third cap for the national side; ahead of him a back four consisting of Gilli Rolantsson, Odmar Færø, Viljornur Davidsen and the most capped player in a current squad and team captain Atli Gregersen; Solvi Vatnhamar, Heini Vatnsdal, Brandur Olsen and Arni Frederiksberg were the midfield unit with Hallur Hansson positioned just behind a lone striker Klaemint Olsen.
Spain, for the third time in this qualifying campaign, fielded a 4-3-3 formation. Kepa Arrizabalaga got ahead of David de Gea in a pecking order for the second game running; he was protected by the back four consisting of Sevilla’s Jesus Navas at right back, Sergio Ramos and Mario Hermoso at the heart of the defence, while Valencia’s Jose Gayà started the game at left back for the second match in a row; Atletico’s Rodri Hernandez was the only holding midfielder for Spain with Sergi Roberto and Santi Cazorla as the number 8’s; the attacking trio of Iago Aspas, Isco and Alvaro Morata was selected to break down the opposition’s defensive barricades.
The Faroe Islands’ defensive organisation
The Faroes were expected to spend most of the game without the ball where they would have to defend in numbers trying to disrupt Spain’s intricate attacking play. Consequently, they lined up in a predictable 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 formation when out of possession containing two banks of four and two up top, one of whom would try to interfere with Spain’s centre backs.
In certain moments at the start of the game, the Faroe Islands tried to apply high press to disrupt Spain’s build up from the back. However, they only pressed actively for three to five seconds and then immediately retrieved once Spain broke down their first line of press.
Even when the high press was implemented it was not too hard for Spain to break it down as only certain sub-groups within a team did it.
In general, the Faroe Islands defended quite narrow with ten men within proximate distance to each other to prevent Spain from playing through the middle and force them out wide.
Spain’s offensive organisation
Spain, when in possession, reacted to the Faroe Islands’ defensive shape by switching between three formations. As mentioned previously, the Faroes tried to press Spain higher up the pitch in the first minutes but usually retrieved back after five seconds. Then, they would reorganise themselves into a mid-block which meant that Cazorla dropped deeper to collect the ball and started the build-up from there (see below).
It resulted in a 2-2-3-3 formation when in possession with both centre-halves, Rodri and Cazorla forming a box shape that created numerical superiority for Spain to play out from the back. Both full-backs positioned themselves high up the pitch with Roberto being the most advanced of three central midfielders. When Cazorla dropped deeper it meant that Isco was positioned closer to Morata and Aspas.
Nevertheless, when the ball was moved over to one of the flanks, Cazorla would move further up the pitch with Spain switching to a 2-1-4-3 formation.
On some occasions when the Faroe Islands moved all three units higher up the pitch, Isco also dropped deeper to collect the ball and start the build-up from the back. It meant that Cazorla would step-out to the left to cover the space vacated by the left-back Gayà.
Spain in control
It did not take long for Spain to go ahead. Cazorla played a short corner to Isco who whipped a decent ball in that was met by Spain’s captain Ramos who headed it home. The Faroe Islands used zonal marking which clearly did not work as Ramos scored his 19th goal for the national side by purely out-jumping Gregersen.
Even though Spain immediately took control of the game by having loads of ball possession (73% in first 15 minutes) and scoring an early goal, the three times European champions did not threaten opposition’s goal much. Spain’s attacking trio of Isco, Aspas and Morata tended to position themselves quite close to each other in between the Faroe Islands’ back four. The intention was to try to play the ball through the middle into feet of one of the front three that would have allowed Spain to put massive pressure on opposition’s back four.
Nonetheless, due to the Faroe Islands’ narrow defensive shape, Spain struggled to execute the plan and were forced to use both full-backs a lot in the first 20 minutes who tried to stretch the pitch by positioning themselves wide on both flanks. This resulted in Spain putting quite a few crosses in with either Navas or Gayà being the provider. A total of 18 crosses were delivered by Spain in the first half that indicated their struggles to play through the middle. However, only six of those crosses reached the teammates devoting poor delivery from both full-backs.
The Faroe Islands’ limited offensive threat
As it was predicted before the match, the Faroes adopted a so-called “long-ball” approach on rare occasions when they had the ball. In the first 15 minutes, the Nordic minnows played 20 long balls, 13 more than Spain. In the first half an hour, a total of 28. When the Faroes managed to get closer to Spain’s final third, they tried to take advantage of every throw-in that they had. In the first 30 minutes, the Faroe Islands delivered three long throw-ins into opposition’s box; however, Spain dealt fairly easily with all of them.
There were a few occasions when the Faroes did not go long and tried to move the ball through the flanks involving patient build-up. Spain, after conceding ball possession, often counter-pressed very quickly by closing down the ball carrier in numbers. On a few occasions, it worked out in the Faroes’ favour who were able to progress to the final third through the flanks, as mentioned above.
Despite Spain failing to turn ball possession into clear cut chances in the first 15 minutes, the second goal was a textbook example of how one killer pass can open up a tight defence. Rodri, who played as a single pivot in this game, beautifully picked out Isco who positioned himself between the lines and was able to receive a pass unpressurised.
However, the Faroe Islands’ midfield unit did not cover themselves in glory. Hansson’s (highlighted in white, first picture) lack of awareness meant that he did not cover shadow Isco that allowed Rodri to easily pick him out with a forward pass. This one pass cut off six Faroe Islands’ players. As a result, the Faroes’ left-back had to step out and pressurise Aspas to prevent the latter to carry the ball through the middle. This meant that Navas had acres of space on the right flank with the Faroes’ left winger unable to cover the space due to narrow defensive shape. Navas himself finished off a brilliant attacking move with a precise low finish into a far corner scoring his first goal for Spain since 2013.
Spain’s coaching staff deserves credit for employing Navas at right back position. It was foreseeable that the Faroes will not impose a lot of threat going forward; therefore, starting a pacey winger at right back instead of a more solid defensive alternative turned out to be a wise decision.
Spain remain in control after interchanging the goals
After conceding the second goal, the Faroes’ dropped deeper to consolidate defensive barricades even further. However, on occasions, they managed to hold on the ball and play direct. One of such occasions resulted in a corner which was successfully converted and got the Faroe Islands back into the game.
Nonetheless, as expected Spain did not panic after conceding and were still fully in control. The 2010 World champions finished the first half having 77% of ball possession. The Faroes continued to keep a narrow defensive shape that forced Spain to spread the play from wing to wing trying to disrupt opposition’s tight and narrow defence. The third goal from Spain did not change much either with the Faroe Islands still defending very deep into their own half and Spain gradually starting to find pockets of spaces between the Faroes’ defensive lines as the game approached the half-time.
The Faroes’ response
The second half started with the Faroe Islands coming out aggressive and trying to threaten the three times European champions. For the first 15 minutes, the Faroes used high press and looked more tenacious in general that resulted in Spain slightly struggling to keep control of the game. A more aggressive approach from the Faroes showcased in numbers as well. The Nordic minnows enjoyed the highest percentage of ball possession in the first 15 minutes of the second half (33%), coupled with the best ratio for attacks per minute (0.47). A high press strategy also reflected in ball recoveries. The Faroes on average performed 0.20 ball recoveries per minute in the first quarter of an hour.
However, the Faroes took risks by committing more players forward that allowed Spain to exploit spaces in transition a few times.
Up until 70th minute, the Faroe Islands tried to stay in a game and threaten Spain from time to time. Sadly for the Faroes, all their hopes for a comeback were diminished in the 71st minute.
As it was noticeable on numerous occasions during the game, the Faroe Islands were very compact without the ball, defending in a narrow shape. However, Spain’s attacking players were able to receive the ball in between the lines way too easily. The Faroes’ midfield unit was unable to position themselves properly to cover shadow Spain’s attacking players that would have enabled them to block the passing lanes. Marco Asensio had plenty of time and space to control the ball, turn and pick out Gaya who made a brilliant run on the left that resulted in scoring his first ever goal for Spain.
After the fourth goal, Spain continued to dominate ball possession without really threatening the opposition’s goal. On the contrary, the Faroe Islands players started to fatigue and retrieved themselves to a low block.
The three times European champions took an early lead that allowed them to take control of the game. It was no surprise that Spain were going to dominate ball possession; however, for the majority of the first half, it did not feel like Spain were at their best. The compact and narrow defending by the Faroes forced Spain to spread the play from wing to wing hoping to stretch the pitch and disrupt the opposition’s defensive shape. Navas and Gaya’s goals came as a mixture of brilliant build-up play combined with poor defending from the Faroes. The first and the third goal for Spain did not come after constant pressure, however, the overall difference in quality was evident and Spain were too much for the Faroes’ to handle.
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