Spain hosted Malta at the Estadio Ramón de Carranza for the round-9 match of UEFA Euro 2020 Qualifiers. In reality, this match was just a formality for both sides, as Spain had officially topped the group, while Malta were stuck in the bottom. Once again, Spain showed total dominance, especially in the second half, to thrash Malta 7-0.
Spain started this match in a 4-3-3. Their back four consisted of Juan Bernat, Sergio Ramos, Raúl Albiol and Jesús Navas. The midfield trio were Rodri Hernández, Santi Cazorla and Thiago Alcántara. At the front, in-form centre-forward Álvaro Morata was flanked by Pablo Sarabia and Gerard Moreno.
Malta used a 5-4-1. The midfield four were Joseph Mbong, Rowen Muscat, Dunstan Vella and Brandon Paiber. Kyrian Nwoko was the lone striker.
Spain in possession
Spain used a 4-3-3 in possession. In the midfield, Rodri was the lone pivot behind box-to-box midfielders Thiago and Cazorla. The wingers, Sarabia and Gerard played differently: Sarabia would hug the touchline and try to combine with Bernat to get crosses in, while Gerard was an inside forward, who moved centrally and operated between the lines, leaving the right flank for former winger Navas. A wonderfully technical and creative player, Gerard would link up with the midfield and try to create chances for the other teammates.
Being the inferior side, Malta used the defensive 5-4-1 formation with the aim of limiting central penetration. Nwoko’s main job was to mark Rodri. The midfield four would try to stay together, trying to cover Spain’s central passing lanes. Each of them would look for chances to step out of the line and press the designated opponent when he got the ball, for example, the winger would close down the opponent’s nearby full-back.
In the build-up, Rodri often dropped deep to form a temporary back three, inviting Nwoko to follow him high up the pitch. The centre-backs could spread wide, allowing the pacey offensive full-backs to venture high up the pitch. Thiago and Cazorla would roam to find pockets of space between the opponent’s system, trying to make themselves a good option to penetrate Malta’s defence.
Ramos often moved very high up the pitch to support ball circulation. The image below is his heatmap that night:
Gerard’s half-space positioning meant that Spain attacked more on the left than on the right. Their left side wing duo of Bernat and Sarabia registered 231 touches combined, while Navas and Gerard’s combined figure was only 172.
One way of attacking for Spain was to combine on the left wing, dragging the whole Malta shape to that side and switched play towards Navas on the right, who positioned himself more like an offensive winger than a full-back. Sometimes, Spain would do the opposite, i.e. overloading the right side and then launching a long ball towards the left. In the below example, the whole of Malta’s shape was shifted to Spain’s right side. The ambipedal Cazorla quickly turned towards his left foot and launched a long through ball on to the path of Bernat, whose movement was not tracked. The left-back then successfully sent a cross in.
On that side, having a left-back and a left-winger meant Malta could create a 2 v 1 against Navas. In reality, left-back Jurgen Pisani often moved inward to track Gerard’s movement, meaning Mbong was often left in a 1 v 1 with Navas. In the first half, the one time Pisani focused on Navas, he failed to track Gerard’s half-space movement which resulted in Gerard creating a big chance for Spain.
Cazorla had very aggressive movements. He could move towards the left half-space, trying to combine with Bernat and Sarabia so that one of them could send a cross in.
His half-space positioning also helped Spain attack through such areas. The connection between Malta’s sided centre-backs and their nearby full-backs are often bad, partly because the full-backs often had to follow Spanish wingers’ flexible dropping movements. This meant Spain could exploit the half-space gaps between these defenders. In the below example, Sarabia’s dropping movement attracted Malta’s right-back higher up. Cazorla instantly sent a through ball down the half-space towards the run of Sarabia. Gerard almost scored from the resulting cross.
At times, Cazorla would try to make runs into the box, exploiting the gaps in the opponent’s defensive line. That was evident in the second goal. Spain got the ball back in the middle of the field, Navas dribbled up with his devastating pace and found Gerard, who laid the ball off towards Cazorla’s run into the gap between Malta defenders. Cazorla calmly scored with a left-footed finish.
However, most of their big chances in the first hour came from corners, as Malta were very poor at defending them. The corner-taker often sent the ball towards a teammate at the near post, who would try to do a flick-on header towards the six-yard box for a teammate to score. This happened in Spain’s first and third goals.
In the following example, after his near-post flick-on header was clear, Rodri headed the ball from the near post towards Gerard, who headed the ball to Morata, who then scored easily. It was poor of Malta to not win any of these headers.
Spain out of possession
It was hard to say anything about Malta’s possession play given they only had 16% possession and zero shots in the first half. They most closely resembled a 3-4-3 in possession. One central midfielder – often Vella, would drop a little bit deeper to form a 3-1 with the centre-backs to better ball circulation. They tried to play short passes, but couldn’t weather Spain’s high press, and most of the time launched long balls forward but with no success as Spain’s centre-backs and pivot, Rodri, were very dominant in the air and were also effective at pressing and tackling to win second balls.
Spain used a 4-3-3 out of possession. During Malta’s rare short build-ups, Morata would mostly stay in the middle, the wingers would stay between Malta’s full-backs and sided centre-backs, looking to aggressively press either of them depending on who received the ball. Cazorla and Thiago would follow the visitor’s double pivot. Malta’s poor on-the-ball quality made it impossible for them to get through Spain’s heavy pressing everywhere on the pitch.
Spain tried to press (and counterpress) with great intensity. They would try to position themselves to block the ball carrier’s nearby passing lanes and then rush towards him from all sides. The likes of Rodri and Thiago were great at anticipating the opponent’s passes.
Paco Alcácer replaced Cazorla in the 53rd minute, pushing Sarabia to the middle. Spain thus played with a 4-2-3-1 in the second half with Alcácer as a left-winger. This change of formation meant Spain would have one more man who made runs after runs into the box.
Just after the hour mark, Pau Torres replaced Sergio Ramos, who gave the captain’s armband to Albiol before leaving the pitch. Villarreal’s young talent scored in his national team debut from a corner just one minute later. His goal from right in front of the goal line was the result of Alcácer’s brilliant flick-on header.
The home side would go on to make it 4-0 just seconds later when Rodri’s brilliant defensive awareness helped them win the ball back and then score from a lightning counter. Here, Vella’s body orientation indicated a pass towards Mbong. Rodri anticipated this quickly and rushed at him, and after getting the ball, Mbong was forced to pass back but the ball deflected off Rodri towards Sarabia. A 4 v 2 was created, and some one-twos between Sarabia and Gerard saw Spain score their fourth goal of the night.
Gerard’s great pace, dribbling and vision would saw him create 5 big chances and 3 assists in this match. He would have scored more than one goal in this match had it not been for an inexplicable offside decision from the referee. It was a true man-of-the-match performance from the in-form Villarreal striker, who has scored 8 goals in La Liga this season.
Like Pau, Dinamo Zagreb’s Dani Olmo also scored on his debut. After coming on for Morata, he kept positioning himself on the last defender’s shoulder and wait for a chance to exploit the gaps in behind. He quickly got his goal just three minutes later with such a run.
Spain would eventually score two more goals to end the match 7-0. It was notable that even after scoring a bunch of goals, they maintained their intensity and hunger. Their press throughout the whole 90 minutes meant Malta could hardly get through the halfway line.
In the end, this was not much of a surprise. Our analysis showed that Spain was in total control of the match, and Malta was basically too weak to show any resistance. They managed to hold the scoreline in the first hour, but were completely torn apart after the third goal. For Spain, this was a stellar performance from Rodri, Thiago, and Gerard. Spain will certainly be one of the favourites of next year’s European Championship.
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