DOHA: Spain arrived in Qatar with grand dreams of winning a second World Cup, fully convinced in their style of play, but departed early Wednesday, ruminating on an identity crisis.
La Roja last lifted a major trophy a decade ago at Euro 2012, while they have not won a single knockout game at the World Cup since triumphing in South Africa in 2010.
Luis Enrique’s side huffed and puffed but could not blow Morocco’s sturdy house down in the last 16 on Tuesday, falling 3-0 on penalties after 120 goalless minutes.
The north African side made history by reaching the quarter-finals for the first time, while Spain gazed forlornly back at theirs and must now wonder if it is time to move on.
They attempted over 1,000 passes against Morocco but ended up with nothing to show for it, forcing Yassine Bounou into only one save before the shootout.
There he made two more and Spain were eliminated in the last 16 again, just as they were in Russia four years ago.
“We dominated the game but we lacked a goal,” lamented Luis Enrique.
“We could have been more effective in the final third, but I am more than satisfied with what my players did.
“They represented perfectly what my idea of football is.”
When Xavi and Andres Iniesta ruled the world, opponents were largely still too naive to know to stop them, and they had too much quality to be fended off for long.
Now only truly elite club sides like Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City can succeed by dominating the ball entirely – with perhaps the world’s best striker, Erling Haaland, as the spearhead.
Against Morocco, Luis Enrique left his top scorer Alvaro Morata on the bench, opting instead for Marco Asensio, whom he trusts more not to lose the ball.
The coach buys “the complete pack” when it comes to possession football, for better or for worse.
That means there is no Plan B, with Nico Williams’s pace and directness on the right flank as much of a nod as Luis Enrique will give to other ideas.
Players he left at home like strikers Iago Aspas and Borja Iglesias might have been able to offer more of a challenge to Morocco’s excellent rearguard.
An element of Spain’s plan may be borne of necessity.
As good as midfielders Pedri and Gavi are, they still lack a decisive, regular match-winner.
In the absence of a Kylian Mbappe, a Lionel Messi, a Neymar, or even a Harry Kane, the coach might believe ball domination and associative play is his team’s best weapon, even if it misfired in the desert.
Luis Enrique showed at Barcelona that when he had two of those forwards, plus Uruguay’s Luis Suarez, he was willing to play in a different way, relinquishing control and allowing the forwards to wreak havoc as his side rolled with the punches.
“We had agreed not to take possession – not out of fear,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui, looking back at his side’s victory.
Instead he made sure his midfield trio cut passing lines and left Spain with soft domination, which rarely resulted in danger for his side.
The coach’s contract expires in the coming weeks and he will discuss his future with Spanish FA president Luis Rubiales next week.
Whether the 52-year-old stays or leaves will be an indication of Spain’s path ahead.
If Luis Enrique is still the coach for Euro 2024, expect him to double down on his strategy, while hoping players like Ansu Fati can step up to become the decisive weapon in the final third the team is lacking.
Should he depart, Spain might start looking at other strategies, at least against opponents savvy enough to keep from being enveloped by La Roja’s passing web.