How Spain’s direct central midfielders unlocked Germany – they are the team to beat


Under Luis de la Fuente, Spain are a different beast.

The nation that came to dominate international football 15 years ago with its commitment to slow, methodical possession football has not entirely changed its identity. This is, after all, a side that plays 4-3-3, uses a high defensive line, has good ball-playing centre-backs and a sturdy holding midfielder who is good at distributing the ball.

But they nevertheless possess a different mentality: a determination to get the ball forward quicker, to attack with genuine width, to use a proper centre-forward. The attackers received rave reviews in the group stage. The 2-1 extra-time victory in the quarter-final over Germany, a meeting between the tournament’s best two sides, was all about the central midfielders.

Inside the first minute, Spain had a decent chance. This came after Nico Williams, who had produced the individual performance of the group stage in the 1-0 victory over Italy, moved inside from the left and played the ball into the feet of centre-forward Alvaro Morata. With his back to goal, Morata looked up to find both central midfielders, Pedri and Fabian Ruiz, running forward to support him. Morata had two options. He laid the ball back to Pedri, whose low shot was saved.

That set the tone. Those players were used as No 8s in Spain’s 4-3-3. In the classic Spain side that won this tournament in 2012 and the World Cup two years before, the equivalents would be Xavi and Xabi Alonso. Technically, they played in a 4-2-3-1, with Xavi as the No 10, and Alonso as more of a holding midfielder. But the point stands: they wouldn’t be breaking forward to the edge of the box to have a crack at goal inside the first minute. Their approach would have been sitting deep, guarding against counter-attacks and using the ball carefully.

Pedri, sadly, limped off shortly after being clattered by Toni Kroos. But this worked nicely for Spain. His replacement was Dani Olmo, who was magnificent in the final group game, a 1-0 victory over Albania with a heavily rotated side. Considering that performance and Olmo’s versatility, he was probably Spain’s first reserve if Morata or either of the wingers got injured too. But by coming on as a No 8, Spain were even more forward-thinking.

The pattern from the first minute continued — whenever one of Spain’s wingers dribbled forward, Olmo and Ruiz would be moving towards the box. Here, with Lamine Yamal on the ball, and Morata having peeled to the left, Olmo briefly becomes the centre-forward, breaking into the box, while Ruiz was free for a cut-back, and had a decent shot from the D.

But it was Olmo who carried Spain’s charge. And despite the fact he was a central midfielder on paper, he played more like a No 10 — and, at times, a second striker. On three occasions, he ran in behind and forced Germany into desperate challenges to stop him.

Here, Morata had drifted right and Olmo saw an opportunity to break into space. Morata played the ball inside to him, Olmo’s speed meant he got to the ball before Antonio Rudiger, and the centre-back was forced into a cynical challenge to bring him down. Rudiger was booked, putting him out of a potential semi-final.

Here’s a similar incident. Olmo collected a loose ball inside the centre circle, played it right to Morata and then charged in behind. This time, it was Jonathan Tah who sprinted across to make a clumsy last-man challenge, just about winning the ball.

Notably, Olmo was constantly trying to receive the ball from the goalkeeper. Spain are renowned for playing out from the back. But here, Unai Simon went route one, with Olmo just unable to bring the ball down — he would have been through on goal.

Here’s Olmo acting as a target man — another long Simon pass prompts his knockdown towards Williams, although the ball ran out of play.

And here’s the third example of a desperate challenge on Olmo. Another Simon long ball, this time to Morata, is flicked on towards Olmo. Running towards goal, he is hauled back by Kroos.

The positivity of the central midfielders played a major role in the two goals, too.

Here’s Olmo’s opener. When Morata came deep to link play and feed Yamal, previous Spain sides might have found themselves without anyone in the No 9 position. But this Spain do things differently, and with Olmo towards the far side, Ruiz was up alongside Morata, occupying Germany holding midfielder Robert Andrich as Yamal dribbles down the right — note his head turned towards Ruiz, watching him closely.

But it was a one-two combo. With Andrich focused on Ruiz, the other central midfielder, Olmo, can make a run across the face of them, meeting Yamal’s ball inside and guiding the ball home.

After Florian Wirtz’s goal forced extra time, Spain won it late on — again because of their positivity.

When Olmo collected the ball on the left flank, he had left-back Marc Cucurella running inside into the channel, and Ferran Torres sprinting inside from the opposite flank. More importantly, he had three different targets between the width of the posts — three substitutes. Joselu was in the middle, Mikel Oyarzabal at the far post, and Mikel Merino — playing the Ruiz role — going to the near post. They are basically overloading Germany four-against-three in the danger zone, and Olmo’s cross dipped perfectly for Merino to nod home.

De la Fuente has selection decisions to make before the semi-final against France, with right-back Dani Carvajal and centre-back Robin Le Normand suspended.

The coach has tried to keep a settled XI, with the exception of his rotation against Albania when Spain were through. Pedri’s injury may force him into another change. But neither of Spain’s two goalscorers, Olmo or Merino, started this quarter-final. Spain have depth, they have tactical options, and they have goals from midfield. After overcoming the hosts, they are surely the team to beat.

(Top photo: Olmo and Rodri celebrate their last-gasp win over Germany. Clive Mason/Getty Images)

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