Leaky at both ends: How Stats Zone saw Spain 1-0 Czech Republic
Like Poland’s grind past Northern Ireland and Germany’s outpacing of Ukraine, Spain’s 1-0 triumph over Czech Republic was a solid rather than spectacular start from a team who will be asked tougher questions soon enough.
Dropping Iker Casillas, Vicente del Bosque backed David de Gea, but might as well have picked David Haye for all the difference it made: the Manchester United keeper wasn’t called into serious action before the dying seconds.
Before then, this was a long haul of Spanish possession and Czech resilience. Pavel Vrba’s formation may have theoretically been 4-2-3-1 but right-winger Gebre Selassie is actually a full-back; left-winger Ladislav Krejci dug back and produced at least one vital tackle.
Meanwhile, virtual and actual No.10 Tomas Rosicky – who had only played 20 minutes for Arsenal all season – contributed 88 minutes of more graft than craft. And if lumbering targetman Tomas Necid was ever less than 30 yards away from his nearest colleague, it was usually because he’d dropped back to defend too.
None of which traditionally troubles Spain, who will pass and probe until something happens. By the 18th minute they’d piled up 127 completed passes to the Czechs’ 37.
As the half wore on the Czechs steadily ceded ground, eventually settling on circling the wagons around 12 yards from Petr Cech’s goalmouth. Spain tried to tempt them out a bit by shooting from downtown: Nolito had a go from 30 yards and was glared at by team-mates, then Sergio Ramos tried from 35 and fell on his bum.
In between those chumps, main man Andres Iniesta also shot from a goodly way out – although in his case he’d seen Cech off his line. As it turned out, by the hour mark Iniesta had shot from outside the box more in this game than he had in the whole La Liga season. And by half-time Spain had shot nine times, but only three were on target.
No press, no pressure
In last night’s game, Ukraine had enjoyed a brief but illuminating period of pressure by engaging the high press. The Czechs didn’t. But they did get some chances on the break and from set-pieces, as – like the German defence last night – the Spanish backline proved itself not entirely comfortable under pressure. At one point, they required a rather acrobatic clearance from Cesc Fabregas, under his own crossbar – pretty much as Jerome Boateng had had to save Germany last night.
Del Bosque brought on beefy thirtysomething Aritz Aduriz for Alvaro Morata, who had linked up well but appeared to have an aversion to remaining in front of goal. Spain now had the option of tossing in the high ball – but as you might expect, Route One wasn’t the recommended route on Spain’s sat-nav. Instead, they passed to the final 30, created and crossed, perhaps lacking the killer instinct: in the second half they only managed two attempts on target, the same as the penned-in Czechs.
Then with four minutes left and Spain about to take yet another corner, the Czechs opted to make a substitution, taking off the tall Selassie for Josef Sural, who then found himself marking Aduriz.
The corner was cleared but within a minute, and arguably before the Czechs had reorganised, Iniesta found himself with time at the left-hand corner of the box to switch to his right foot and float a cross which was gleefully nodded in by Gerard Pique.
And that was effectively that. The Spanish had completed 619 passes, shading past the Germans’ 597 last night as the tournament’s highest total so far, although you’d expect that.
Like Germany, Spain have no frontman with whom they feel completely comfortable; they have an abundance of runners between the lines; they had first-game opponents who provided stolid resistance but little threat; and they looked somewhat suspect at the back. It may be that we have already seen the champions, but if so, we may be in for an interesting championship.