How Spain have evolved under Luis de la Fuente – through crossing

One of the wonders of the human brain is how it translates words into experiences, sounds and images.

The notion, which is called semantic processing, is how our brain understands what we read by searching for associated words, sounds or images in our memory.

Try reading the following words: Spain national football team.

Normally, the first things that will come to mind are Spain’s style of play, with intricate passing combinations and ball circulation, and their triumphs between 2008 and 2012 when they won two European Championships and the World Cup.

Since that period, Spain have mainly played with wide forwards who like to drift inside and receive the ball between the lines or attack vacant spaces in the opponent’s defence.

The two typical options on the wings in the four years between 2008 and 2012 were Andres Iniesta and David Silva, who regularly drifted inside, wanted the ball to their feet, dribbled in small spaces, and found off-ball runners with inch-perfect passes.

In the 2010 World Cup, Iniesta played on the left and right flanks, depending on who occupied the other wing from a selection of Silva, Pedro, David Villa and Jesus Navas.

Andres Iniesta

Andres Iniesta shone from the wings as Spain won the 2010 World Cup (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Villa was a centre-forward who could play out wide, as he later illustrated under Pep Guardiola at Barcelona. From that position, he mainly thrived on off-ball runs behind the defence and smart movement in the penalty area. Villa could dribble past an opponent with a quick change of feet in small distances, but he didn’t have the ability of Pedro or Navas to take on a full-back down the touchline.

Four years after winning the World Cup in South Africa, Spain went out of the group stage in the 2014 World Cup. Their two losses against the Netherlands and Chile, which confirmed their elimination, featured Iniesta, Pedro and Silva as the wide players. Then, in the following international tournament, Euro 2016, Spain fielded Silva on one wing and the dribble-heavy Nolito on the other.

When Spain didn’t play with wide players stretching the opposition’s defensive line, the width came from their full-backs’ overlapping runs: namely, Jordi Alba down the left wing.

That trend continued in the 2018 World Cup, where Isco and Silva started wide but roamed inside to help Spain play through the opponents. Three years later, a mixture of Gerard Moreno, Ferran Torres, Dani Olmo, Mikel Oyarzabal and Pablo Sarabia occupied the flanks for Luis Enrique’s team in Euro 2020. They boasted a centre-forward, a wide player whose biggest asset is his off-ball runs, two technical players who like to drift inside, and Sarabia as their best one-versus-one duelist.

The most recent World Cup in Qatar saw Luis Enrique continue with the idea of not fielding a one-versus-one specialist in the wide areas as Olmo and Torres started in the wide roles for Spain. However, Nico Williams played against Japan in the last group game and came on in the 75th minute against Morocco in the round of 16 with Spain needing a goal.

After the World Cup, Luis de la Fuente took charge of the national team and has overseen a shift towards a more aggressive approach in the wide areas.

In the lead-up to Euro 2024, Spain were still looking to dominate possession in a 4-3-3 shape on the ball with a focus on combinations down the flanks between the winger, the full-back and the No 8. There was an emphasis on playing more crosses into the penalty area, which tallied well with De la Fuente’s choices for the striker position: Alvaro Morata and Joselu.

Since the beginning of this season, the Spain head coach has been slowly integrating Williams and Lamine Yamal into the starting line-up. The duo’s presence on the left and right wings is a turning point in terms of the profiles of Spain’s wide forwards in the last 16 years when Spain played with a maximum of one winger who can run at the opponent and dribble past him.

Williams and Yamal have been electric in this summer’s European Championship, twisting full-backs’ ankles and putting them on roller-blade trips down the wings.

Their incredible dribbling ability in one-versus-one situations is one of Spain’s main attacking threats in the final third and to maximise the damage, it is complemented with the right movement in the penalty area.

Under De la Fuente, Spain have focused on putting crosses into the box and the movement of the players attacking those crosses provides multiple options for Williams and Yamal after they dribble past their opponent — Spain’s 16.3 open-play crosses per 90 minutes at Euro 2024 is their highest rate in major tournaments since 2010.

Spain’s 1-0 victory against Italy in the group stage was a masterclass in penalty-box movement from Morata, Pedri and Yamal, who stretched the back four as they dispersed to provide Williams with multiple crossing options.

Spain’s goal came from Morata attacking the near post with Pedri in the cutback zone and Yamal adjusting his position at the back post just in case the cross made its way to him.

Spain Italy 15

Here, Morata’s clever positioning means he can flick the ball across goal and a slight touch from Gianluigi Donnarumma arcs the ball towards a backpedalling Riccardo Calafiori, who puts it into his own net.

Spain Italy 16

Spain Italy 17

When the ball is out wide, Spain’s centre-forward attacks the near post as the other players occupy different zones inside the penalty area.

In another example, from the 2-0 victory against Scotland last October, Oihan Sancet makes a run into the penalty area when Navas is readying to play the cross. Meanwhile, Morata is near the edge of the penalty area…

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… and he moves inside when Spain’s right-back fakes the cross and dribbles to play another one. Morata smartly positions himself on the blind side of Jack Hendry…

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… which allows him to sneak past the Scotland defender and attack Navas’ cross at the near post to score Spain’s first goal.

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Spain crossing 13

Sancet’s run from midfield on that goal is another trademark move by Spain, where one of the central midfielders makes a run to offer a different target than the centre-forward.

In this example, against Northern Ireland last month, Fabian Ruiz is positioned by the edge of the penalty area while Yamal is tormenting Spain’s opponents out wide. When the Barcelona winger dribbles inside the pitch…

Spain crossing 2

… Fabian makes a run into the penalty area and Yamal finds him with an inswinging cross, allowing the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder to put the ball into the back of the net.

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Spain crossing 4

Fabian’s goal from a Yamal cross against Northern Ireland is identical to the one he scored against Georgia last Sunday, albeit the latter came after a set piece.

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Spain crossing 6

Spain’s biggest attacking strength in Euro 2024 is how they have complemented the technical ability of their wingers, Williams and Yamal, in one-versus-one situations with exquisite movement by their team-mates in the penalty area. It means that after Williams or Yamal dribble past the full-back, they have multiple crossing options to aim for.

“The idea was to play with the depth we had, with wingers, crosses, look for shots, chances to break into space,” said De la Fuente after the 2-0 victory against Scotland last October. “That is what we had been working on during the week and I am sure this is the path and we will polish these details and perform better.”

Spain have been associated with creative midfielders playing in wide areas and drifting inside for many years, but Williams and Yamal present an evolution and accordingly, the team is adapting its attacking strategy while maintaining the same principles.

Our minds will still connect the words ‘Spain national football team’ with a certain style of play, but new memories are being added.

In the next couple of years, our brains might well translate those words into different meanings.



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